We’re Here, We’re Queer, and We Have a Place in Science

By Dr. Lauren Esposito

Photo provided courtesy of Dr. Lauren Espostio

I grew up in a science family. My parents are both biologists, my grandfather was an engineering professor, my younger sister is a biologist, and three of my five nieces and nephews are biology majors in college. It almost seems like I was predestined to grow up and become a biologist too, and I think anyone who knew me as a (hard-headed and inquisitive) child would agree. I’ve never questioned whether I belong in science, but even now — living in what I would call the gayest city on Earth — I’m the only queer PI (primary investigator) in my otherwise fairly queer institution. I feel incredibly lucky that I can’t be fired for my sexual orientation where I work, that I have a supportive family, and that my colleagues and institution recognize the importance of diversity in STEM. But it’s undeniably lonely being #QueerInSTEM sometimes. Visibility is important for mental health, for standing up to injustices, and for mentoring current colleagues and future scientists.

This month, National Pride Month, myself and a small handful of friends and colleagues launched 500 Queer Scientists (@500queersci on Twitter and @500queerscientists on Instagram) — a visibility campaign for LGBTQ+ people and their allies that’s intended to shine a light on the incredible individuals working in STEM and STEM-supporting jobs. Built on individual, self-submitted stories that raise the visibility of queer scientists, the movement has three primary goals: to ensure that the next STEM generation has LGBTQ+ role models; to help the current generation recognize they’re not alone; and to create a database that helps to facilitate better diversity among speakers and panelists.

500 Queer Scientists logo

What a lack of diversity means for STEM and LGBTQ+ scientists

A lot of people may think, “hey, that sounds like a great campaign for LGBTQ+ people,” but it’s actually just as important for science itself. Why? Because as my co-organizer Laurel Allen told 500 Women Scientists, it’s to everyone’s benefit to have science done by the most diverse possible range of people, with the most diverse possible range of perspectives and approaches. Let’s look at the numbers: More than 40% of LGBTQ+ people working in STEM fields self-report that they are not “out” to their colleagues. That’s a huge number of people hiding a significant portion of their lives from people they work alongside every day. Just think about it: How many times do you mention your partner/spouse/significant other/kids/etc. in a week? Now imagine never being able to casually mention them in a work setting. That takes a huge toll on mental health, and on productivity.

There are a few obvious reasons for why this percentage might be so high, starting with the fact that in 28 states it’s still legal for employers to discriminate against someone for their sexual or gender identity — meaning that in 2018, STEM workers in more than half of our country can actually be fired if someone finds out they’re gay. Add to that some of the major issues reported by LGBTQ+ STEM faculty at universities, which include a heterosexist climate that reinforces gender-role stereotypes in work environments; a culture that requires, or at least strongly encourages, people to remain closeted at work; and a general lack of awareness about LGBTQ+ issues among STEM professionals, all of which adds up icy or uncomfortable climates, and the experience of feeling excluded by colleagues.

Additionally, the “leaky pipeline” experienced by other minority groups in STEM is experienced by LGBTQ+ students as well. For example, a recent study found that undergraduate sexual minority students were 8% less likely to be retained in STEM compared to switching into a non-STEM program, yet more likely to have worked in a lab than their heterosexual counterparts — an experience typically associated with retention in STEM the pipeline. And worst yet, transgender, genderqueer, and gender-non-conforming undergraduate and graduate students report the highest levels of on-campus sexual assault and misconduct.

Increasing visibility and inclusivity

Those were some of the facts that drove us to start 500QS, and the response so far has been tremendously positive. In the just over a week since our June 4 launch, we’ve gathered more than 500 stories of LGBTQ+ STEM heros, from 20+ countries, representing a hugely diverse range of STEM fields: astroparticle physics, neuroscience, molecular genetics, computational biology, organometallic chemistry, extragalactic astronomy, mathematics, conservation biology, forensic anthropology, glaciology, paleoceanography, biomedical engineering, just to name a few. Even more important has been the impact of the campaign on the community itself! People who didn’t know any other LGBTQ+ colleagues are making new connections in their field (or even at their own institutions), we’re seeing non-stop tweets, posts, and DMs from people expressing how happy they are to see this many LGBTQ+ scientists, and just browsing our Twitter list of contributors is making them feel stronger and more supported.

Photo courtesy of 500 Queer Scientists

People have shared posts about finding the strength to come out after reading other 500QS participants’ stories; faculty members have shared emails from other faculty congratulating them and offering support. I find myself on the edge of tears in my office multiple times a day as I read the messages and bios that have coming pouring in, not because the stories are sad or talk about hardships (though many don’t shy away from that), but because they also celebrate successes, progress, people who made a difference in their lives and careers. I think this campaign is really help the community to see itself more clearly — to recognize that we’ve made and are making immense contributions to science. We’ve propelled science forward from the shadows, and persisted in the face of persecution — scientific and otherwise — for centuries, and now we’re ready to rise up and be seen for our accomplishments.

What you can do

If you’re asking yourself how you can help increase visibility or be a supporter, you’ve come to the right place! To pull from Laurel’s 500 Women Scientists interview again:

“In terms of how allies can help, it can be easy — even when you want to offer support — to let concerns about doing it wrong keep you quiet. There’s a lot of important but confusing language in this space; we’re talking about issues (gender-identity, sexual preference) that are inherently private and not something anyone should owe anyone else information about; and there’s a huge range of positions on advocacy, language, priorities, and approach within the LBGTQ+ community itself (including not wanting to talk about it at all). Even asking questions can feel scary — and rude! But just being honest about that uncertainty is a good place to start. In the workplace, things like ‘I want to be sure I’m supporting an inclusive workplace, is there anything I can do or do differently?’ or ‘I want to be sure I’m being respectful, please feel free to correct my pronouns or language’ are probably going to go over okay, and I think reaching out by email is totally fine if that feels more organic (and is maybe best if you don’t know the person well, since it gives them more options for how and when to respond). For online support — and it’s so helpful to add your voice in the social sphere! — we’ve put together a small toolkit that includes suggestions for allies who might not know where to start.”

In closing, I want to also note that there are great professional organizations, like the National Organization for Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals and oSTEM, that hold symposia for LGBTQ+ STEM students and professionals, and workshops for organizations who are trying to develop best practices. If you are a LGBTQ+ person who is working in STEM or any STEM supporting field, add your story! If you aren’t ready to publicly participate, or aren’t living or working in a place where you can be visible safely, then know that you are not alone. The 500 Queer Scientists community will still be here to help you remember that support is out there, and that you’re part of a big, vibrant, smart-as-hell community.

Dr. Lauren Esposito 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. Previously, as a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellow through the University of California at Berkeley, Lauren travelled extensively in the Caribbean region studying the biogeography of arachnids in one of the greatest biodiversity hotspots in the world. She got her start in the world of science research while an undergraduate at the University of Texas at El Paso, and went on to complete her MS and PhD at the American Museum of Natural History in collaboration with the City University of New York, focusing on the medically important North American scorpion genus Centruroides. A passionate educator, Lauren has organized education programs on the importance of conserving biodiversity in local communities throughout the Americas, has worked in digital science curriculum development, and has taught courses on a range of topics for elementary through graduate students. She currently leads field-based education programs for undergraduate students in Baja California, Mexico, and teaches a conservation biology summer intensive at Columbia University. When she’s not sailing around the Caribbean islands or trekking through forests of the Darien Gap, Lauren can be found basking in the San Francisco fog.