Charlie Semmens is a Naval Engineer and shipyard worker who identifies as Queer. Charlie manages the survey and structural repairs of a T23 Frigate warship, this is unique work that services the UK Navy in Devonport, Plymouth. Charlie featured on our Instagram for our ‘Pride in STEM’ post on International Day of LGBTQIA+ in STEM. Follow us on Instagram and check it out @stemuntapped
Being Queer is inevitably about questions. There’s always so much uncertainty about it, in society, in work, with family, in yourself.
I always knew what I wanted to do in life, I just didn’t know how to get there. I grew up in a very conservative, middle-class area. My parents were supportive in their own way and I had a workshop of colourful plastic work tools as a kid. I managed to find my first job in a garage, but wanting to crawl around filthy engines was something they hoped I would grow out of in favour of a proper, safe, high earning career. University was the only way to do that, or so I was told. It’s not like there were any apprenticeships in the area I could take advantage of; seven years, three cities and four (very late) diagnoses later, I landed a Graduate job at a big shipyard in Devon close to uni.
I finally had my giant engines, my filthy overalls, my loud humour, and my eccentric colleagues. I had my project and I ran it as well as I could. And I was paid for it!
All I have ever wanted was to live on Scrapheap Challenge, or MythBusters. I like to pull things apart. I need to be working with my hands. This relates to being Queer (I think it’s a great umbrella term) because I approach social queues the same way I and my fellow engineers tackle a technical problem. Poke it, research the hell out of it, joke about it.
I am ‘out’ at work only because I very obviously don’t look ‘straight’. I fit a stereotype; the haircut, the piercings and tattoos, the plaid shirts with hoods, the boots. This doesn’t bother me. What I keep quiet are the nuances, the ‘labels’ that some hate, some love. Everyone understands Queer or Gay and thus I’m labelled a Lesbian, incorrect, but close enough. That’s easy enough for most people to place.
At the end of the day, it’s a shipyard. You have to have a thick skin when it comes to comments and jokes, but for the most part everyone means well, I give as good as I get and we have a great time. Luckily I knew this going in and it’s what I want; I’m just as bad most of the time. Oddly enough, I fit in here. I love my boys. But the language still needs to catch up, and honestly, it changes so fast even I’m still learning. They’re afraid of being yelled at for something they don’t know or can’t understand. It could be the thousandth time you’ve explained it today but it might be the first time they’ve heard of it.
If I’m out and vocal, about a lot of things, people ask me questions, sometimes insensitive ones because they don’t know any better. If they’ve asked me, then one day they’ll meet someone and it won’t be so scary or strange, because they’ve known me. They know about stress, anxiety, depression, they’re used to dealing with it amongst themselves, maybe not in the best ways, but again they mean well. Things like Dyslexia, ADHD, what they would know as Autism by nature if not by name, they all work with people like that, they get it (engineering and construction have extremely high rates of these traits). In all the shipyards, foundries, workshops, garages I’ve been in over the south, they’re much of the same. They’re used to people getting fed up and finding an excuse to get on the ship and run around because we just can’t sit still and stare at a screen for that long, this is normal here. I just came in from the wrong direction (as a graduate and a salaried engineer running down to the shop floor rather than as an apprentice climbing up to the office). If you have the (even fake) confidence to just be you and let the haters hate from behind their screens I’ve found a whole lot of people who are very happy to have a ‘Dockyard Unicorn’ on the team.
On the corporate side, sometimes it feels like they don’t try. They run the training, they have the policies, they have the posters, but the attitude is… lacking. It’s not something they have ever experienced, and everyone has their prejudices sure, their own worldview and it can be hard to see outside of that worldview. If they are in the majority of every demographic, then seeing how someone is different sometimes just doesn’t compute. We only constitute an extra problem to be overcome, yet another variable they now have to account for, a flag to wave for one month a year. Here’s your unique provision from a catalogue provided by Occupational Health and we shouldn’t hear about it again right? I’ve had a few bad experiences with managers either ignoring my warnings, my advice that they asked for, or straight up using it against me to bolster their ammunition when I did something (rightly or wrongly) they didn’t like (on account of being a terrible bully overall). Oddly enough they have more trouble coming to terms with the idea that I, a somewhat (apparently) intelligent, educated, woman, doesn’t want to become a project manager, to stay in dirty overalls. “What do you need to go home on time for, you don’t have a family.” I didn’t fit that particular stereotype. To each their own. So I don’t like my managers to know, but my crew and I are all on the same side, and they’ve been the most supportive.
You don’t have to be ‘out’ if it doesn’t mean that much to you, but sometimes you like to celebrate it, ‘loud and proud’, like me. About being LGBTQIA+ or Queer, about being Neurodivergent, about mental health, about our goals.
It can be very strange going from college or Uni, a place where you might have been able to really express yourself, to collectively vomit rainbows and glitter everywhere for the first time, to then be shoved into a little grey box called ‘professionalism’. The assumptions are the hardest part, having to fight against them when you dont fit the stereotype, the social norms, to speak out against prejudice and intolerance not just for yourself but your fellow Communities. How hard do you fight for people to treat you the way you want? My way was to find a place where people are treated the way I want to be treated and I hide amongst the shipwrights, welders, and pipefitters. I doubt my project manager ever really knows where I am.
These are my ‘labels’, sometimes they help, sometimes they don’t, for better or worse they are a part of who I am and how I live.
I am an Engineer
I am a Longbowman
I have Dyslexia
I have Anxiety
I have ADHD
I have Depression
I am Gender Nonbinary
I am Asexual
I am Charlie