I grew up in one of the only Democrat-voting counties in Texas, along the border of Mexico. The majority of people who live in the city are Hispanic, and Catholic culture runs deep for those people who practice religion and those who don’t alike. My family wasn’t much for religion, but one summer my grandmother sent me to Vacation Bible School, as it’s called in Texas. I fit in perfectly because on the first day I declared to the rest of the kids that I was a boy. I guess I knew from the ripe old age of six that being a girl who was a tomboy wasn’t going to make me any friends in West Texas, and it was easier to fit in pretending to be something I wasn’t, which in this case was a boy.
In the years since, I’ve never tried to fit in as a boy but am still often mistaken for one when I visit home. The lesson I learned that summer, however, must have stuck with me because as I started my career in science I often adjusted my language in talking about my life in order to fit in. I didn’t mention my girlfriend to most colleagues in conversation, and remember once acting confused when a professor asked me about my son, just so that I could avoid the lengthy discussion of my personal life that always follows that revelation. In hindsight, most of those people have no problem with LGBTQ people on a personal level, and almost certainly not on a professional one, so I’ve often wondered why I feel so alone on this scientific journey.
But over the last few years, I have read articles discussing the experience of being LGBTQ(AI)+ in STEM, and came to realize I wasn’t alone. In fact, many LGBTQ+ people working in academia and STEM professions report that they have experienced an ‘icy environment’ that makes it uncomfortable to be ‘out.’ There are statistics to back up the feelings I’d been having during my early career:
- 40% of LGBTQ+ people working in STEM fields report that they are not out to their colleagues.
- In 28 states it’s legal for employers to discriminate against someone for their sexual or gender identity.
- Out STEM faculty at universities are 7.2 times more likely to experience exclusionary behavior by colleagues than those who are not out.
- 60% of LGBTQ students report incidences of sexual misconduct and harassment on college campuses.
- Transgender, genderqueer, and gender-non-conforming undergraduate and graduate students report the highest levels of on-campus sexual assault and misconduct of any demographic.
- Undergraduate sexual minority students were 8% less likely to be retained in STEM compared to switching into a non-STEM program, but more likely to have worked in a lab than their heterosexual counterparts; an experience typically associated with retention in STEM the pipeline.
While it certainly does not make me happy to read these statistics, it confirmed that there is a larger problem. The lack of visibility of LGBTQ+ people in academia leads to a feeling of isolation, which can make one wonder, “Is it just me?” Some scientific societies have begun tackling this issue head on. For example, a 2016 report by the American Physical Society found that the major issues faced by sexual minority physicists are a heterosexist climate that reinforces stereotypical gender roles in work environments, a culture that requires, or at least strongly encourages, LGBTQ people to remain closeted at work, and a general lack of awareness about LGBTQ issues among STEM professionals. While there is not an easy ‘fix’ for any of these issues, the clear articulation of the problem is the first step in figuring out the path forward.
Getting away from the thought of “Is it just me?” is why visibility is so important. Visibility forges connections and builds a sense of community that breaks through the icy silence experienced by queer and trans people in STEM careers. 500 Queer Scientists is an online visibility campaign for LGBTQAI+ people and their allies working in STEM and STEM-supporting jobs. The campaign is fueled by individual, self-submitted bios and stories intended to boost the recognition and awareness of queer scientists. Launched in early June, the campaign has already accumulated over 500 stories of incredible people in fields ranging from quantum physics to conservation biology, undergraduate students just starting out to deans and directors of research institutes. Scrolling through the Twitter feed with the hashtag #500QueerScientists, there are endless tweets and comments extolling the importance of the campaign and how uplifting it has been on an individual level. Collectively, we have found each other. What comes next is up to the LGBTQAI+ STEM community, but judging from the suggestions for 500 Queer Scientists 2.0, the single most important thing is connection. Individually, queer people working in STEM have been powerful forces of scientific progress and discovery. I am holding my breath to see what we will become together.
If you would like to be inspired by stories of LGBTQAI+ scientists, you can read them on our website 500queerscientists.com, on Twitter @500QueerSci, or on Instagram @500QueerScientists. You can also submit your story on our website!
Dr. Lauren Esposito (@CAS_Arachnology) is the Assistant Curator and Schlinger Chair of Arachnology at the California Academy of Sciences. She is also the co-founder/director of a science, education, and conservation non-profit called Islands & Seas, and the co-creator of 500 Queer Scientists. Lauren’s current research investigates the patterns and processes of evolution in spiders, scorpions, and their venoms.
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