Community and visibility are needed for everyone LGBTQ+ in STEM

By Bini Charingbold (she/her)

Warning: this article contains instances of homophobic violence.

You may have seen a recently published paper that examined inequalities faced by those within the LGBTQ+ STEM community, which comes to the conclusion that those who are openly LGBTQ+ are at a disadvantage in STEM compared to those who are not. Whilst it looks within the United States, I believe the problem is prevalent globally.

Within the UK, a study from June 2019 from the Institute of Physics, Royal Astronomical Society and the Royal Society of Chemistry showed that members of the LGBTQ+ community are uncomfortable at work or experience some form of harassment (Figures 1 and 2). Over half of trans scientists had considered leaving the workplace because of the work climate and/or discrimination, and 20% had frequently considered leaving their workplace. As a chemist, I myself was saddened to see that chemistry had more instances of exclusionary behaviour compared to other fields.

I am not showing you these facts to shock or scare you. I find it disheartening but also know if we are fully informed, we will make leaps forward. There are already groups and networks dedicated to all aspects of LGBTQ+ STEM life, but there is always work to be done.

Visibility

A big part of growing a community within STEM is showing people that we exist. Visibility is encouraging for anyone who isn’t comfortable being openly LGBTQ+ (whether because it’s unsafe, or they haven’t fully come to terms with their sexuality etc.). There are challenges faced with being openly LGBTQ+, as I’ve shown above. For one, society assumes everyone to be cisgender and heterosexual unless told otherwise – we have to start the conversation to discuss sexuality openly, which might not be right for everyone. A survey from the American Physical Society found that 30% of participants felt there was pressure to stay closeted, with 40% thinking their workplace expects them not to act ‘too gay’. People would be happier in an environment that allows them to be who they are, so this tension creates a problem not only for individuals but I believe for the whole STEM community. It has been shown that a more diverse group of thinkers offer more creative solutions to problems and therefore would produce better research, so why is there still such a problem? 

STEM is also a global field, and collaboration with others is common practice. Whilst the pandemic might have slowed it down, international conferences and talks are something that are part of being a researcher and will be again in the future. To be open and proud of your sexuality is to put yourself at a disadvantage. For example, say you were doing work that involved collaborating in Malaysia for a couple months. Malaysia currently imposes prison sentences for those involved in same-sex relationships, the prime minister openly stated Malaysia ‘cannot accept same-sex marriage’ and as recently as 2018 two lesbian women were caned. It’s also a country where 45% of people agree that non-heterosexual orientations should be criminalised. I would not feel comfortable if it were me heading over there (thankfully this is not a case of personal experience), but other people don’t get to avoid this obstacle so easily.

Community

Now, I am accentuating the negative to make a clear and obvious point: we are a long way off from equality in general, let alone for those who work in STEM, but it’s not all bad news. January showcased a good start to 2021 worldwide, with newly inaugurated President Biden’s appointment of Dr Rachel Levine as assistant health secretary to Wiley’s recent change to their author name change policy. Small things also make a big difference: displaying pronouns (on emails, on websites, or when you’re writing a blog post) creates a more welcoming atmosphere, and events and gatherings allow people all over to come together. This year was the first time I’d ever attended the LGBTQ+STEMinar, which was an amazing place for people to meet and discuss their work together, and I’ve got a couple of similar events in the diary for 2021! Organisations like Pride in STEM, 500 Queer Scientists, oSTEM, The STEM Village, and LGBTQ+ STEM all seek to increase visibility, introduce people to LGBTQ+ scientists and showcase their work, as well as highlighting struggles people are facing.

All of this is fantastic and I know there’s plenty to look forward to but I have one suggestion; go bigger. One thing I found surprising in the IOP, RAS and RSC survey was that 40% of teachers and 40% of those who worked outside academia were unaware that these networks existed. As the pandemic forces us all inside, we need a community more than ever, and it’s sad to think about those who don’t know where to start. Surely, more can be done to reach those people who would no doubt benefit from the one thing we all want: an accepting community of likeminded people.

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