Inclusion and diversity in STEM, LGBTQ+
Feature | Clarissa Torio and Kyla Carmea Javier
Struggle is not new to the field of science — the work involved to finish studies, defend theses, and anything else to obtain a degree and employment needs to be accompanied with unending determination and confidence. More than that, scientists have to fight for recognition and visibility, which poses a heavier task for minorities and those restricted by gender barriers.
As a way to uplift the LGBTQ+ community in the sciences, UP Diliman graduate Jason Tan Liwag has been moved to establish Queer Scientists PH which he now manages with two of his friends, Jay Sebastian Fidelino and Rey Audie Escosio. Through this platform, the landscape of science is being modified for it to be more inclusive of minorities and the marginalized.
Finding a place in science and the society
How often do we see queer characters in the cartoons we watch as kids? Do you even remember how your mother told your little sister that she will soon find his prince charming when she grows up? What if she prefers someone of her own gender? These alone are manifestations of how underrepresented the LGBTQ+ community is. Growing up, we were exposed to media and platforms that restricted gender identity to only two options, male and female, other than that is frowned upon and unusual. Pronouns have also been reserved to he/she, and are often based on the biological sex of the individual.
Underrepresentation is also a problem in the field of science. As Liwag mentions, he grew up watching cartoons and shows where scientists are styled as white men working in laboratories. “Queer scientists are kind of in this space of triple marginalization: you’re Filipino, you’re a scientist, and you also belong to the LGBTQIA+ community,” he added.
These ideas are more than just opinions: discrimination towards the LGBTQ+ Community has been backed by researches which expose the harsh reality they face in our society and the scientific field. Citing Langin (2018), Liwag mentioned that “Undergraduate students belonging to sexual minorities experience marginalization but with differing retention rates,” which reveals that LGBQ men have higher dropout rates compared to LGBQ women.
Aside from academic spaces, workspaces also lack in queer visibility that contribute to the lack of representation. The objectivity and neutrality of science tends to antagonize and steer conversation away from personal matters and non-work-related discussions. In line with this, Liwag also cited Partridge, et al (2014), regarding their US study which found out that the majority of higher positions in the sciences are dominated by white males.
This, however, did not restrict Liwag from pursuing a career in molecular endocrinology and science communication, and they also took it as a motivation to fight for visibility and recognition for the LGBTQ+ in the sciences.
A vision for visibility
Liwag was both inspired by Regina Cabato’s “5 Filipino LGBTQ scientists and inventors you should know about,” and The 500 Queer Scientists Campaign. These initiatives are challenging the usual portrayal of scientists in the media, offering a wider spectrum of people hailing from the LGBTQ+ community.
“I remember seeing so many scientists who submitted their stories and thought, ‘Where was this all along? Why don’t we have this?’,” he mentioned, remembering his entry that was also featured in the 500 Queer Scientists Campaign.
From then on, Liwag, along with Fedelino and Ecosio, was certain of their initiative to start a visibility platform that aims to recognize Queer scientists in the country, and most importantly, to serve as “a space to change whatever landscape hinders the future scientists.” Unlike other campaigns with the same visibility advocacy, what Liwag had in mind was to also include politics and struggle in their features, deviating from the usual “tendency to glamorize science.”
Behind the scenes, they faced challenges in running the platform and getting queer scientists to be featured. One of which is because “Some people aren’t out to their families, [and] others are also trying to figure things out about themselves,” which is why they chose to avoid publicity in the meantime. Another problem is that many scientists feel that they are not equipped enough to share their stories — prompting the founders to open the platform for interviews instead of just self-submitting entries, as more people are more comfortable and confident to share their experience in that approach.
Surprisingly, it was also a challenge to represent the entire LGBTQ+ community as much as possible, in the best way they can. “I know so many cisgender gay men who would be willing to share their stories, but what about the other letters in the LGBTQIA+ community?” he asked. The team wishes to feature scientists from every part of the spectrum, as “they have their own perspectives, political hangups, etc.” In such a way, they can successfully represent the diversity of the lifestyles and principles of people included in the community.
“Extra-curricular pursuits such as joining rallies, participating in workshops, or ‘having a life outside of work’ are things that ruin the guise of the ‘dedicated scientist’ and are often seen as indicators of a lack of commitment,” Jason said. Despite numerous studies showing that LGBTQ+ individuals are at a higher risk of suicide and mental health problems, there is no legislation for their protection.
“Only recently enacted, the Mental Health Act in 2018 provides limited healthcare. The more we talk about these issues, the more we also empower our community to engage in the harder discussions towards better solutions.” Liwag shared.
Taking the difficult step forward
Since Queer Scientists PH is a new initiative, Liwag recognizes the difficulties in making the project possible, given that they do not have an audience nor a track record. Liwag mentioned three barriers from making the project possible: time, expertise, and representation.
“Scientists in the Philippines are notoriously overworked, so we don’t know if people are available to actually contribute,” Liwag said, lamenting over the difficulty of finding scientists and volunteers willing to work with them on their passion project since there are no monetary incentives to gain from it. However, Liwag hopes that someday this project would represent something greater than the three of them.
“Workshops that discuss SOGIE and the like aren’t required yet in institutions, and I think that’s something we would all benefit from: this institutionalized understanding of sexual orientation and gender identity expression,” Liwag shared.
In the future, Queer Scientists PH hopes to expand in other platforms such as Facebook, Medium, and maybe their own website, but right now, building an audience and telling valuable stories are the priority.
“It’ll survive across platforms if it’s a good story,” Liwag said.
Science and society have not always been kind to the LGBTQ+ community. There is strong opposition to the legislations that aim to protect the rights of queer individuals. In Liwag’s eyes, science has been used as a weapon of misinformation against the queer community. “[Science] has been used to invalidate the lives of trans men and women. It has been used to discriminate against individuals with HIV/AIDS. There are so many ways that science has failed the community.” Liwag said.
With the conviction as Queer Scientists PH’s founder and director, Liwag declared, “It’s time we break that wheel.”