This Pride, How are LGBTQ+ Scientists Faring?

June 1, 2023 | 7:50 am
at a rally or protest, two people are foregrounded, facing away from the camera. One holds a sign painted with trans pride colors reading, "Protect trans kids."Oriel Frankie Ashcroft/Pexels
Jacob Carter
Research Director

Over 600 pieces of legislation that target people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, transgender, and others not representing as heterosexual (LGBTQ+) have been introduced across the United States this year—more than double than in 2022. Many of these pieces of legislation have been introduced specifically to target transgender individuals: from their ability to participate as athletes to receiving healthcare. It is yet another era in which decisionmakers have decided to politicize the lives of the LGBTQ+ community for votes by revving up hate and homophobia.  

I cannot emphasize enough how dangerous it is for LGBTQ+ folks in this country right now. While politicians may be gaining votes by demonizing “woke” culture, the hate being drummed up is putting LGBTQ+ lives on the line. In a 2022 poll from the Trevor project, 85% of transgender and nonbinary youth said that recent debates around anti-trans bills have negatively impacted their mental health. The Trevor Project’s 2022 National Survey on LGBTQ Mental Health found that 1 in 5 transgender individuals had attempted suicide—and this number is even higher for Black-identifying transgender youth. Some states, such as Florida, are considered so dangerous for LGBTQ+ folks right now that the Human Rights Campaign, and other civil rights organizations, have issued travel advisories.  

Imagine trying to focus on work 

If you don’t identify as LGBTQ+, imagine hearing or reading about these debates—about your humanity, your right to express who you are, your right to access healthcare and services like everyone else, and even your motivations for parenting, teaching, or spending time with the kids in your life—happening every day. Imagine the mental toll it takes on someone who identifies as LGBTQ+. Now, imagine trying to focus on work, or your research for that matter. It becomes difficult to focus on anything, especially something as complex as scientific research.  

I, a white cis gay man, am actually writing this blog right now in Florida in a small local coffee shop in Fort Myers. I specifically chose a table far away from everyone where I could sit with my laptop screen hidden from other patrons. I am nervous that someone might see what I’m writing and could threaten me, could throw me out of this coffee shop, or could even hurt me. And if someone did choose to do any of these things to me in Florida, the state would likely protect and even support my hypothetical harasser. If I’m scared, imagine what life is like for people living at the intersection of Blackness, queerness, and perceived gender identity. This is not okay–I don’t even want to be writing about this terrible news in the first place, but here we are.  

Being LGBTQ+ in science is tough 

Working in STEM, completing your academic requirements, conducting high-stakes research, and maintaining your scientific credentials can be a stressful journey. Being bombarded with headlines that your human rights are being infringed on can make this kind of day-to-day work even more stressful. Studies have shown that these additional emotional hardships can make it more difficult to succeed as an LGBTQ+ person in a scientific discipline. But there are often other stressors at play that can make becoming a scientist as a LGBTQ+ person a challenge.  

LGBTQ+ scientists are 30% more likely to face discrimination, harassment, and micro-aggressions compared with their non-LGBTQ+ peers, according to a study published in Science that surveyed over 25,000 workers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). This is not surprising to me as I have experienced such challenges myself as a gay scientist. For example, as a Ph.D. student, I was pressured to not bring my partner to a holiday party once because the faculty member hosting was afraid of having to talk about gay people with their children. So, my partner and I decided to stay at home.  

These challenges lead to less retention of LGBTQ+ folks in STEM. One study estimates that LGBTQ+ individuals are 10% less likely than their straight peers to stay in STEM. But, as I have written before, there is a paucity of data on LGBTQ+ representation in STEM. Advocates including myself have been calling for the National Science Foundation (NSF) to include a question about sexual orientation in its surveys for years now. In 2018, we were excited by the announcement that NSF would pilot such questions in its 2021 National Survey of College Graduates, but the agency has failed to live up to this timeline. In January of this year, an open letter was launched to ask the NSF director to PLEASE add a question about sexual orientation to its surveys.  

Without this nationally collected data, we will not be able to fully understand how representative LGBTQ+ people are in STEM, and without this understanding we will not be able to effectively remedy any challenges LGBTQ+ folks in STEM face through the creation, for example, of grant funding specific for LGBTQ+ scientists and their research. This is hugely problematic because representation and diversity matter. As I have written before, more diverse institutions make better and more effective decisions.  

So, as you see, in addition to the lack of data on representation, lack of supporting programs, harassment, discrimination, micro-aggressions, and other challenges – LGBTQ+ scientists are also now facing a record number of legislative attacks. There have been so many LGBTQ+ scientists who have changed the course of history: Florence Nightingale, Alan Turing, Sally Ride, and Alan Hart to name a few. Who are we driving out of STEM now because of hate?  

We’ve been here before  

The LGBTQ+ community is no stranger to fighting for our rights. Indeed, Pride began as a protest to the Stonewall riots, led mostly by Black and queer pioneers such as Marsha Johnson. We have fought for marriage equality, LGBTQ+ healthcare, the right to be a parent and adopt, safety from hate crimes, the right to a workplace without discrimination, and so much more.  

Science is on our side, as scientific evidence supports the continued fight to maintain many of the rights we’ve secured. When “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed in 2011, some decisionmakers said that the repeal would hurt group cohesion and effectiveness in the military. Science showed that’s not true. When LGBTQ+ people were told that our sexual orientation was a choice, science also showed that isn’t true, and that no health professional (or anyone else) should ever try to change someone’s orientation. Decisionmakers across the country are now ignoring the wealth of scientific research on the benefits of gender-affirming healthcare for kids. 

Our community has made so much progress and achieved so much with the help and support of allies, and the support of science. This year’s Pride reminds us that our fight is not over, but I hope that it also reminds us that we are a strong community who will continue to be seen and fight to be heard. Let’s remember the famous words of Marsha P. Johnson this pride as we continue our fight, ““No pride for some of us without liberation for all of us.”