Out in the sciences: ‘Without limits and without fear’

Andrew Wolff, a PhD student in biology at Carnegie Mellon, studies cellular regeneration. “The thing with science, at least in my eyes,” he says, “is that you can’t just do it from a cold, hard’s very tied to your own personal beliefs.” (credit: Lisa Qian/Photo Editor) Andrew Wolff, a PhD student in biology at Carnegie Mellon, studies cellular regeneration. “The thing with science, at least in my eyes,” he says, “is that you can’t just do it from a cold, hard’s very tied to your own personal beliefs.” (credit: Lisa Qian/Photo Editor) “I’m socialized female, I’m read female most of the time, and that really affects my experience in STEM,” says Sarah Frisco, a PhD student in materials science who researches lithium batteries. “What’s most important to me is getting my science done.” (credit: Lisa Qian/Photo Editor) “I’m socialized female, I’m read female most of the time, and that really affects my experience in STEM,” says Sarah Frisco, a PhD student in materials science who researches lithium batteries. “What’s most important to me is getting my science done.” (credit: Lisa Qian/Photo Editor)

“The thing with science is that you can’t just do it from a cold, hard perspective,” says Andrew Wolff, a biology PhD student in the Mellon College of Science. “It’s very tied to your own personal beliefs.”

Objectivity — the removal of all personal bias from an experimental setting — is central to scientific research. Practically, however, experiments are designed by humans, algorithms are written by humans, and journal articles are edited and approved by humans. A researcher’s perspective inevitably influences their work.

Unfortunately, in STEM, all perspectives are not always equal.

We’ve long been culturally aware of the challenges that women face in scientific research, and there’s a general understanding of the prejudice people of color face in STEM fields. The experiences of LGBTQ+ people in science are much less well known, for various reasons: While the numbers of other underrepresented groups in STEM are increasing, queer researchers have always been present, as long as they managed to hide their identity. There has also been significantly less research into LGBTQ+ experiences in STEM.

However, as academic research and cultural awareness have caught up over the past ten years or so, LGBTQ+ scientists have rapidly become more visible.

Organizations advocating for LGBTQ+ scientific researchers have existed for decades — NOGLSTP, for example — but thanks to technology and heightened societal awareness, LGBTQ+ scientists are networking more than ever before. oSTEM (Out in STEM), a chapter-based professional organization for LGBTQ+ researchers founded in 2009, now has chapters at over 75 universities. The Queer in STEM Project has tackled the lack of quantitative data on the LGBTQ+ STEM experience by surveying queer researchers about their experiences, in the U.S. and worldwide.

The internet has provided space not just for advocacy, but community. “With the rise of social media, and especially Twitter, as a field for academics, it’s a lot easier to maintain connections with other queer civil engineers, follow each other, and talk,” says Daniel Gingerich, a postdoctoral researcher in Carnegie Mellon’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Many research fields and institutions now have online “Out Lists” that serve as a kind of directory that LGBTQ+ academics can use to connect or seek out mentorship.

Increasing LGBTQ+ visibility is incredibly important for future scientists: The National School Climate Survey conducted by GLSEN (an organization that advocates for LGBTQ+ issues in K-12 education) found in 2013 that high schoolers whose science classes positively addressed LGBTQ+ topics were twice as likely to enter STEM majors in college — but in 2015, only 3 percent of the 10,000 high school students surveyed had seen positive representation of LGBTQ-related topics in science class.

Visibility — and awareness — is equally important for those already working in STEM, who often experience homophobia and transphobia that comes from a place of ignorance. “As a PhD I had several conflate my sexuality with pedophilia and insinuate that I would have difficulty finding a job because I was a kind of sexual deviant,” explains Chase Mendenhall, Assistant Curator of Birds, Ecology, and Conservation at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

Sarah Frisco, a PhD student in materials science, says of their experiences in chemistry research, “There were a lot of ‘bro-y’ guys making rape jokes, and I was like, this is not where I’m gonna discuss queer identity...In the place where I worked after [undergrad], I was the only person who could be read female in the whole company, and it was the same situation. Rape jokes, fat jokes, gay jokes, all of it.”

Much of the discrimination and discomfort LGBTQ+ researchers face can be ascribed to the hypermasculine climate in many scientific fields. A 2013 study found that LGBTQ+ scientists were more likely to be open about their identities when they worked in fields with more women, such as biology. “In Yellowstone, where I did a lot of work, wolves and bears were for the macho mountain men, while birds and butterflies were for women and others,” explains Mendenhall. “I have always depended on women to help me navigate hostile environments of toxic masculinity — especially in the field where safety is a concern.”

In highly masculine environments, it’s easy to be ostracized even when there’s no active prejudice at work. “It was difficult for me to socialize because it was just a bunch of straight guys,” explains a PhD student in computer science who asked to remain anonymous. “Like they would talk about girls, they would talk about cricket…You feel like you’re missing out on opportunities because you’re not able to socialize with them the way they’re able to do it with each other; you’re not able to connect with them. I just never felt like I was a part of the group.”

However, it isn’t really the presence of straight men that causes LGBTQ+ researchers to feel excluded. A study published in March of this year found that gay and bisexual men who begin their academic careers in STEM fields are less likely to persist in STEM than heterosexual men, but lesbians and bisexual women are more likely to continue in STEM than straight women. Many researchers believe this shows that it’s not necessarily just women being devalued in STEM, but femininity — or anyone perceived as feminine.

Most LGBTQ+ scientists are very conscious of animosity toward traditional femininity — especially trans researchers, who usually have a heightened awareness of gender presentation. Many nonbinary scientists feel an obligation to externally present or identify as more feminine, to push back against the male-dominated environment. “I’ve met a lot of younger women who aren’t sure whether or not to be in STEM, and they’re like, ‘but I see you’re doing it’,” says Frisco. “I want to inspire you, but what you’re seeing isn’t necessarily what I am…When trying to make my own decisions about gender, it’s very hard to do that individually.”

Everyone who’s part of a group historically excluded from STEM research experiences marginalization differently, and many people experience it on several fronts. One of the earlier large-scale surveys of queer researchers — the American Physical Society’s 2016 LGBT+ Climate in Physics Report — found that among LGBTQ+ physicists (particularly among trans researchers), people of color and women were the most likely to experience compounded prejudice and harassment. LGBTQ+ researchers who aren’t U.S. citizens also have more considerations to balance, trying to stay safe and in good legal standing in both the U.S. and their countries of origin, while still affirming their identity.

The frequency of overlapping marginalized identities also has a positive side: when one group fights prejudice, other groups usually stand to benefit as well.

Vivian Miranda, a postdoctoral researcher in the University of Arizona’s Department of Astronomy, recounts one of her first academic presentations after coming out as a trans woman. When she asked her cis colleagues for advice on professional attire, she “was shocked that even the most well-known women in my field feared using dresses while presenting a seminar” in order to be taken more seriously. “I decided to retribute...I picked my best dress, and I presented wearing it — I could see my colleagues were cheering for me. I had just broken a new barrier [for] all of us.”

In her previous position at the University of Pennsylvania, Miranda encountered one of the most common obstacles for trans researchers: the university refused to update her name on her university ID card or in the HR system. Diana Parno, a professor in Carnegie Mellon’s physics department, is a straight, cisgender woman who changed her name when she married and had the exact same problem as Miranda. “It’s been more than ten years and my whole scientific reputation has been built with my new name, but I have still had to have some extremely frustrating arguments with IT departments to get a professional username change — and with one, I’ve given up. How much worse it would be if the old name brought up symptoms of gender dysphoria!”

Parno, a particle physicist who studies neutrinos, was a lead writer for the second edition of the Best Practices Guide for LGBTQ+ Inclusivity in Physics and Astronomy, published in April. The document gives guidelines for ensuring the research environment is safe, welcoming, and accessible to LGBTQ+ physicists at many levels of academia, from the classroom to the department to the institution. (The guidelines are not necessarily specific to the field of physics).

“Little things are important for two reasons,” explains Parno. “First, though they may not seem big on a grand policy scale, they can be very significant to the individuals experiencing them. Second, little things add up to really shape the overall climate.”

Wolff, an officer for ALLIES Grad, has seen how traditional biological terminology can ‘other’ LGBTQ+ scientists, particularly when talking about gender. “People that talk about mutations, or mutants — along the lines of like, sex determination — they usually refer to it in a negative context." He believes that open discussions on how words can be used differently can make a research environment much more inclusive.

Even in physics, hypothetically much more removed from human affairs, language makes a difference. “There are two research communities in particle physics whose traditional acronyms included the slur f**,” says Parno. “It was a coincidence that the slurs were there, but that didn’t make it any less of an ugly surprise for many scientists when they came across it. After years of pushback, in the last year both communities are moving away from these acronyms.”

Explicit acknowledgement of LGBTQ+ researchers in university policy still isn’t the standard. Often, departments that are hiring ask women and racial and ethnic minorities to apply, but don’t explicitly encourage LGBTQ+ applicants. While this omission is likely because the research on LGBTQ+ exclusion in STEM is much more recent and not as well known, it can leave academic job seekers wondering whether they’re heading into a homophobic or transphobic environment.

Many queer researchers express frustration at the lack of awareness of how being LGBTQ+ can impact a research career, even in the most welcoming settings. “As a queer person, you have to deal with a lot more things,” explains the computer science researcher. “It’s not just the fact that you’re working on difficult [research]... Your personal life is going to occupy some amount of your time and energy, and that is going to eat away from the time and energy you can give to your work.” While anyone can have personal difficulties, LGBTQ+ scientists frequently encounter obstacles that might not even occur to those outside the queer community.

After giving a talk, Miranda describes being asked if she knew a certain male PhD student, and realizing that the person was referring to her, pre-transition. “I had to explain that I was that student! No problem in the end — the person was quite sweet and thoughtful — but it reminded me that my career would be broken in half permanently. All the friendly interactions that I had in the past and that was important to project my name in the field will not be automatically translated to my new identity.”

However, most agree that visibility within the STEM community is increasing — and science itself is becoming more inclusive.

Mendenhall explains, “During my PhD I was fortunate enough to work and teach with Stanford professor Joan Roughgarden,” a trans biologist who challenged traditional ideas of sex and gender in nature. “Her research and teaching pioneered a new narrative of inclusive evolutionary biology...Roughgarden argues that sex evolved to generate diversity and diversity is beneficial and critical for the process of natural selection.”

In the same way, Mendenhall argues, diversity is critical for the advancement of science — a view increasingly common among researchers. “Science advances fastest when scientists are free to apply their intelligence and imagination to the exploration of the universe without limits and without fear,” reads the physics inclusivity guide.

Retaining scientists from diverse backgrounds will take some big changes, and a lot of small ones, says Parno. “Pushing for more inclusive and welcoming study groups. Allowing academic travel by train or car, where possible, even if it takes longer, because encounters with the TSA are so fraught for many trans people. Facilitating author name changes on previously published papers.”

Inclusive policies in the academic environment are crucial, but they can’t be effective unless they’re supported by the culture. “Students have a huge impact on the social environment,” says Parno. “My advice is to be openly inclusive and thoughtful — if you are concerned about making sure the environment is a good one for your LGBTQ peers, you are on the right path. Don’t assume that your male labmate is looking for a girlfriend, or your female study partner a boyfriend.

“Welcome people who aren’t like you into your study group; you may make new friends.”

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