How to Support LGBT Scientists After Orlando

June 16, 2016 | 11:49 am
Michael Halpern
Former Contributor

There are plenty of parallels between the Orlando killing and other mass shootings. But this one is different in one important way. The murderer chose his target because it was a sanctuary where LGBT people gathered.

The tragedy has highlighted the vulnerability of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people all over. In many places, LGBT people still are not safe. Gestures of love are points of tension. A lingering hug or kiss can land you in the hospital or worse. Most LGBT folks know someone who has been physically attacked for perceived sexuality or gender identity, if it hasn’t happened to us personally.

People leaves candles and remembrances in Dupont Circle in Washington, DC. Photo: Michael Halpern

People leaves candles and remembrances in Dupont Circle in Washington, DC. Photo: (c) Michael Halpern

Over the past several days, I’ve struggled to come to terms with the killing and with what this means for me and other LGBT people at UCS and in the science community. We can continue to advocate for a lifting of the unconscionable 20-year ban on gun violence-related research, for example. We can continue to champion efforts to push back on misinformation about sexual orientation and gender identity that some use to justify attacks.

Ultimately, though, the tragedy presents an opportunity to talk about how we prevent future violence against LGBT people and lessen the pervasive and ceaseless climate of fear. This means exploring ways to create safer and more inclusive communities and workplaces so we can fully contribute to society and the generation of knowledge.

LGBT activists have been enormously successful in establishing equal rights with regard to marriage, hospital visitation, and some corporate employee benefits. This is something to recognize and celebrate. But it’s not nearly enough. We are protected from hate crimes in only fifteen states. Only 18 states prohibit housing discrimination. In 28 states, you can be fired for being gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Universal federal protections are weak or non-existent.

Most of those killed last Saturday night were Latino/a. “Latino/a LGBTs are a minority within a minority, doubly disadvantaged and especially vulnerable,” wrote American University law professor Tony Varona. “For LGBT people of color, and Latinos/as especially, gay bars and nightclubs…have figured prominently as safe havens, as spaces for creative expression, and as refuges from a hostile world.”

The lack of safe space extends into science. Several scientific societies make space at their annual meetings for LGBT members to connect. Some universities speak out against divisive state legislation that will make their employees less safe.

But it’s grossly insufficient, and LGBT scientists are left on the margins. A recent, incredibly insightful American Physical Society study found that many LGBT physicists feel isolated, excluded, and coerced into hiding their identity. More than a third are considering leaving their current school or workplace.

One finds similar challenges in other sciences. A study in Engineering Studies that looked at the experiences of lesbian, gay, and bisexual students at a major research university found the following:

“Pervasive prejudicial cultural norms and perceptions of competence particular to the engineering profession can limit these students’ opportunities to succeed, relative to their heterosexual peers…LGB students navigate a chilly and heteronormative engineering climate by ‘passing’ as heterosexual, ‘covering’ or downplaying cultural characteristics associated with LGB identities, and garnering expertise to make themselves indispensable to others. These additional work burdens are often accompanied by academic and social isolation, making engineering school a hostile place for many LGB identifying students.”

The young gay scientist Jake Andraka couldn’t find a single gay scientist besides Alan Turing, who isn’t exactly in a position to be his mentor. He thought he was the only one.

Protected by a heavy police presence, participants gather for the the 2016 Kiev Pride Parade. Photo: (c) Mason Ingram

Protected by a heavy police presence, participants gather for the 2016 Kiev Pride Parade. Photo: (c) Mason Ingram

And elsewhere, things can be profoundly worse. Last weekend, a friend witnessed a Gay Pride march in Ukraine. There were 6,000 police to protect the 1,500 brave demonstrators. Participants were picked up and dropped off at dispersed locations throughout Kiev to protect them. I can only imagine the conditions for LGBT Ukranian scientists.

These are the conditions we need to ameliorate. One of the most impactful ways to honor the dead is to redouble efforts to be kind and inclusive. So here are a few suggestions on how to be more supportive of LGBT scientists after Orlando, both within your organization and more publicly:

Make your institution welcoming. Use inclusive language, make time for diversity training, create safe spaces, make non-discrimination explicit in hiring, and provide equal benefits for all. See this guide for more discussion of creating a welcoming culture.

Identify mentors and connect them with early career scientists. All of us are more likely to thrive with mentors who understand who we are and are able to help us negotiate unique challenges.

Tell stories of successful LGBT people in your field. Similarly, LGBT scientists will feel more welcome if they see others who have been successful before them. Champion the stories of experts who happen to be LGBT.

Be explicit when bad things happen. The Orlando shooter targeted a gay nightclub frequented by people of color. This wasn’t an attack on a nightclub. It was an attack on a gay nightclub. Yes, this particular mass shooting made all of us less safe, but LGBT people, especially LGBT people of color, are profoundly more impacted by it. Recognize this distinction if there are attacks of any magnitude at your institution.

Create space to talk about challenges. At UCS, we gave staff the opportunity to come together in a discussion group to talk about the impact of the Orlando attacks. Many institutions have ways for staff to publicly identify as allies for those who are unsure.

Show up in LGBT spaces. Last Saturday, the Nature Conservancy marched in the DC Pride parade. So did a number of university associations and government agencies. This was noticed.

Push scientific societies to be more active in protecting LGBT scientists at home and abroad. The APS report was enormously helpful, and the society seems committed to following up on its recommendations. What is your society doing?

This is just a partial list, so feel free to share other ways to create inclusive spaces in the comments.