Pride in Science

Image credit: Joint Base Langley-Eustis,Va, CC0 1.0

Scientists face many challenges during their professional lives, but one prevalent problem that doesn’t get the attention that it deserves is that of the LGBTQIA+ (hereafter “queer”) community and the lack of inclusiveness in science. In honor of Pride Month, I wanted to take the time to highlight some of the challenges facing queer scientists and what we can do as a society to better ourselves.

Out in Science

In case you don’t know, “coming out” is when a member of the queer community publicly states that they are queer. This could be an in-person conversation with their family/loved ones, or it could be a social media post. Coming out in science and/or being public about your sexuality in the academic workplace is definitely worth talking about, because it can (and does) impact the lives of queer scientists.

Footnote: I am a member of the queer community, but I am also a white, straight-presenting male, and as such have been fortunate enough to have never been the direct target of bigotry or homophobia in my professional life. While I may not have the same experiences or hardships that other queer scientists have had, I still think that it is important to speak up about these issues. See the end of the article for an expansion on this.

Being a Queer Scientist

On the surface, being queer is no different than being part of any other minority group in science. Queer scientists are underrepresented, sure, but like other scientists that belong to an underrepresented minority group there are protections in place to help ensure that queer scientists have the same opportunities that their heterosexual colleagues do, right? Unfortunately that is not the case.

In 1980 the NSF (National Science Foundation) was charged with ensuring that minority groups were given participation in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields, and that the NSF did what it could to counter biases that would hinder this participation. To understand which groups are underrepresented the NSF collects data on the national level, and this data is then used to inform how universities and funding agencies make their policies. Despite collecting data on ethnicity, sex, education, and disability the NSF still does not collect data on sexual orientation or gender identity. Because of this lack of data, queer scientists are not considered a minority group and policies do not exist to protect them or ensure equal opportunities for them. This may sound surprising, but keep in mind that up until a week ago (June 15th) an employer could legally fire an employee because they were queer here in the United States. 

The Risks

As if it weren’t enough to possibly lose out on career opportunities due to sexual orientation, some queer scientists stand to lose much more. As mentioned before, I am a white male, and most people tend to assume that I am heterosexual, so I have been fortunate enough to have not been the target of homophobia or violence during the course of my academic career, but that is not the case for everyone. 

While not all scientists engage in field work, plenty of us do. Field work entails long hours away from the university and can often be done alone. Because of this, queer scientists may be vulnerable to risks that their heterosexual colleagues aren’t. To put this into perspective, I have done a lot of work in rural Arkansas and Oklahoma here in the United States, and if there is one thing that this area is known for it is the ignorant, problematic, and sometimes hateful views of the people that live here. Queer students working in locations like this may not feel safe doing field work alone, and that barrier can limit their areas of interest, career opportunities, or even cause them to forgo science altogether.

Beyond feeling unsafe when alone, there are also risks when working with other people. Not all queer scientists are out, and working with others mean that a queer scientist’s identity could be brought up in a situation where they would rather it stay private. As an example, there was a recent story of a queer scientist working with their supervisor while doing fieldwork in a country where it is illegal to be homosexual, and that professor outed the queer student. Thankfully nothing came of it, but it is situations like that that make the life of a queer scientist much more difficult than that of their heterosexual colleagues.

What’s Next?

First and foremost, we need better policies and procedures in place at both the national and local level to ensure that queer scientists are properly protected and given equal opportunity in science. This includes the NSF collecting data on sexual orientation and gender identity, but it also involves universities and professional societies taking the time to identity and combat the problems and barriers facing queer scientists. 

On a more personal level, all of us (myself included) can be better about recognizing our own biases and respecting people that may be different than us. This can be as simple as normalizing queer relationships and non-binary pronouns, which I am happy to say that the Ecological Society of America has been doing. At both the 2018 and 2019 national meeting there were stickers one could place on name cards which informed others of your preferred pronoun. Not everyone used them, nor was it included as a part of registration, but it is a step in the right direction.

Recognizing bias also involves taking time to learn more about the issues and struggles that queer scientists face. I am not a spokesperson for the queer community, nor am I an expert in all of the issues that queer people face, but if you have questions about your own biases or being more inclusive, please feel free to contact me, either via email or my Twitter profile, both of which you can find on my website

You may not be a member of the queer community, but you can be an ally and speak up for those of us who are a part of it. Until that happens, queer scientists will continue to be underrepresented and discriminated against.

*Full disclosure: I am a cis male, meaning that I was assigned the male gender at birth and I identify as male. I am straight-presenting, which means that a stranger on the street is more than likely going to assume that I am a heterosexual man. Because I am cis and straight presenting but still a part of the queer community, my lack of workplace discrimination directly reflects the difference in treatment to that of some of my more queer presenting colleagues who have faced these issues throughout their careers.

Adam Hasik an evolutionary ecologist interested in the ecological and evolutionary dynamics of host-parasite interactions. You can read more about his research and the rest of the Ecology for the Masses writers here, see more of his work at Ecology for the Masses here, or follow him on Twitter @HasikAdam


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