It’s okay to be who you are.
Friday, June 5th, 2019 was the 2nd International LGBT STEM Day*, an observance designed to celebrate the contributions that LGBTQ+ people have made in STEM, and raise awareness of the issues that LGBTQ+ scientists still face in their daily life. While not always visible, LGBTQ+ scientists have existed throughout history, from the inventor of the computer Alan Turing, to astronaut Sally Ride. While significant progress has been made towards equality, significant barriers remain.
To conclude pride month and celebrate the second annual LGBT STEM Day, we spoke with LGBTQ+ scientists to highlight the personal experiences of LGBTQ+ people in STEM, put a spotlight on the issues that scientists still face today, and share resources for the benefit of the LGBTQ+ community and allies.
This information was gathered through social media, e-mails, phone interviews, and in-person conversations with scientists from a variety of career stages and professional areas with diverse experiences to share. While many experiences are shared across the LGBTQ+ community, it is important to acknowledge that not one person’s experience is all-encompassing, and that the acronym “LGBTQ+” purposefully encompasses a large and diverse group of identities.
How do you see the LGBTQ+ community and the STEM community come together?
Visibility contributes significantly to how STEM can become a safer, more inclusive space. However, it looks different depending on the context. Initially, it can mean having more LGBTQ+ science icons, but it is also seeing other LGBTQ+ scientists in your lab, classroom, or workplace. Even if you don’t identify as being apart of the LGBTQ+ community, including your pronouns on email signatures and saying your pronouns when you introduce yourself creates a space for LGBTQ+ people to enter the conversation with a lesser chance of being misidentified (Murphree). Visibility can also include having LGBTQ+ groups or clubs at your institution. Creating spaces for people to feel free to be who they are is really powerful. Academic institutions generally have a more robust tool kit for supporting further education and support for LGBTQ+ students.
Some other ways people have combined their LGBTQ+ and STEM identities are grassroots efforts, for example, Barthelemy has worked to influence policy changes through forming groups of passionate LGBTQ+ scientists wanting to help make a change.
What can institutions do to foster a climate of inclusivity?
There were two themes with the responses we received for this answer. Institutions can 1) offer training and resources for how to foster an inclusive environment, and 2) displaying better support for their students and employees.
Training for employees and supporting staff to learn about their implicit biases, inclusive language, and methods for creating a more supportive environment for those around them. This training shows that individuals have been equipped with tools for inclusivity. Even if there are no verbal interactions, seeing stickers or signs that the area you’re in is a Safe Zone can be really beneficial.
Supporting students and/or employees might seem pretty obvious, but comprehensive efforts to support students and employees means that these people will support the institution and organization (Roti Roti). Examples of this are: adding statements of diversity and inclusion; considering Best Practice documents for creating inclusive spaces; encouraging friendly discussions on a continual basis; showing dedication to anti-discrimination policies even after the hiring process; and providing resources for continued education.
“A climate of inclusivity can only be achieved when those who exclude, harass, and assault are held fully accountable. Women, LGBT people, disabled people, people of color, and especially those whose identities intersect are made more vulnerable by institutions that passively or actively allow misconduct to continue.”- Marinelli
“Encourage individuals to get Safe Zone training (available on many university campuses) and be visible allies by putting up a rainbow flag sticker or other indication of support for the LGBT+ community.”- Plisch
From your perspective, what are the biggest challenges LGBTQ+ scientists face?
In STEM, “there tends to be a bias against discussing issues in the personal domain, including things that can affect the participation of individuals in the discipline. This disproportionately affects those in marginalized groups, which experience exclusionary behavior more frequently, and impedes efforts to advance inclusion. As physicists, we need to remember that people do physics, and the well-being of all physicists is paramount to advancing knowledge in the discipline,” said Plisch.
There is a lack of representation that is required to ensure that marginalized populations in STEM are well supported and, creating a more diverse community of scientists (Murphree).
This would mean that LGBTQ+ people would not have to “come out” in every interaction they have in their professional community, an act which is exhausting and risky when in new settings (Barthelemy).
And discrimination on the basis of orientation or gender identity is not protected against in many states across the country (Marinelli).
What resources have been the most beneficial for you that we can share with others?
While there are plenty of difficulties faced by LGBTQ+ scientists, there is also a growing number of resources out there for LGBTQ+ scientists, and those who want to be a better ally in the community.
We can make a greater impact when we stand together, which is why groups like oSTEM and NOGLSTP, professional societies specifically for LGBTQ+ people exist. These organizations have scholarships, conferences, and professional development opportunities specifically for people in the LGBTQ community. Connecting with other LGBTQ+ scientists can be very helpful, whether it’s through LGBT-specific organizations, or through events like APS’s LGBTQ discussions and receptions at the March and April Meetings.
Even social media platforms like Twitter or Instagram can be a great way to connect with other LGBTQ+ scientists. Hashtags like #LGBTSTEM, #QueerInSTEM, or #BiInSci and are a great way to get to know other LGBTQ+ across the globe. There are also so many accounts to follow, like @Also_AScientist, @outforundergrad, @HouseofSTEM @LGBT_Physics, @LGBTSTEM, @500QueerSci, @TigersInSTEM, and more that discuss these issues. Join the Conversation.
By educating yourself about issues in the LGBTQ+ community, you can be a better ally towards your peers. There are lots of ways that you can show your support. Get certified for Safe Zone training. Show that you are mindful of LGBTQ+ spaces through “safe zone” stickers. Include your pronouns when introducing yourself and in your emails. Ask other people’s pronouns.
We are really grateful to the generous scientists that contributed their thoughts, opinions, stories, and advice for this article. STEM is meant to help advance our society, but we have to recognize the scientists behind this progress as well. If you would like to share thoughts, questions, and feedback, please email [email protected].
*This article was intended to be published on July 5; however, the APS office was closed and we wanted to do our due diligence before publishing to allow our contributors the time for their approval. Additionally, while LGBT STEM Day serves as an important observance, we’d like to continue this conversation beyond the annual celebration.
Background on contributors:
- Ramón Barthelemy is an assistant professor at the University of Utah in Physics Education Research. He got his Ph.D. from Western Michigan, was a Fulbright Scholar in Finland and a AAAS fellow sponsored by APS before working in the private sector, and continually working on supporting spaces of inclusion for LGBTQ+ students.
- Mariarosa Marinelli is an undergraduate student studying physics at Virginia Commonwealth University. She researches galaxy evolution using spectroscopic data from the MaNGA Survey, and is also an educator at the Science Museum of Virginia’s Planetarium, delivering live astronomy shows to museum visitors.
- Anna Murphree is a rising junior at Rhodes College in Memphis, TN earning a BS in Physics researching the spectroscopy of active galactic nuclei in Dr. Rupke’s Group and at her REU at the University of Wyoming this summer, looking to pursue a PhD in astrophysics.
- Monica Plisch is the Director of the Education and Diversity Department at the American Physical Society. Having gotten her Ph.D. from Cornel, she has served in many roles working to advance physics towards being a more diverse and inclusive community.
- Annelise Roti Roti recently transferred out of graduate studies at Lehigh University and is currently a Project Development Intern with APS’s STEP UP project. They intend to pursue doctoral studies at the University of Maryland in the near future and maintain significant involvement in community social justice efforts.
500 Queer Scientists: an organization promoting LGBTQ+ visibility in STEM
oSTEM (Out in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics): A professional society focused on LGBTQ people in the STEM community
The Trevor Project: A nonprofit organization dedicated to crisis management and suicide prevention for LGBTQ people under the age of 25
LGBT Physicists: a network of physicists committed to a discrimination-free environment
APS LGBT Programs: A collection of reports and resources for promoting inclusivity in physics
Pronoun dressing room
Practice with Pronouns
Coming out in Chem Class via C&En Mag
“Now I know I’m not Alone” Study Highlights Challenges LGBT Workers in STEM Face via ScienceMag
The LGBTQ Experience in Schools: 50 Years After Stonewall via neaToday (CW: mentions of suicide, self-harm)
Is Physics Open and Accepting for LGBT People? via APS News
Make Your Physics Lounge a Safe Space via SPS National
LGBT Physicists: The Interviews via Physics Today
Out in Physics via Symmetry
LGBT+ Inclusivity in Physics and Astronomy: A Best Practices Guide via Arxiv