Coming out in STEM can be extremely challenging. Oftentimes, STEM fields enact a “check your identity at the door” policy in an effort to promote “objectivity”. However, at the same time, colleagues and mentors make assumptions about gender and sexual identity that can drastically impact workplace satisfaction and perceived acceptance for LGBTQ individuals. Below is a story documenting how assumptions about one’s sexual identity can negatively impact feelings of acceptance followed by a summary of the current evidence for why LGBTQ representation, visibility and inclusion are important tenets to uphold in our labs, academic departments, and society at large.
by JK Bines
It was a seemingly innocuous comment, its intent doubtlessly benign, even if the esteemed professor, with his severe bespectacled face and venerable gray beard, was utterly oblivious to the truth of it. But I was not. Inwardly, I recoiled.
It was around 7PM on a summer evening, and I, an eager-as-a-puppy sophomore at the time, was doing research in the laboratory of a renowned theoretical biophysicist. I had been sitting at my desk for hours, poring over the simulation data while the clinical fluorescent lights overhead illuminated my struggles with an unforgiving glare. My back abutted the hard plane of the chair as my eyes fixated on the computer screen, fingers composing random snatches of code as if plucked from some algorithmic ether. Suddenly, I felt a hand touch my shoulder. The professor chuckled. “You’re here pretty late again. You know, when you get married, your wife is going to want you home at a decent hour.”
Frozen. Completely caught off guard. A brief awkward silence followed by me laughing, not knowing how else to react. But internally, I was cringing, and not just because his joke was sexist. You see, I’m a gay guy. The type of future he was suggesting – the one relentlessly foisted upon me by parents and friends, movies and song lyrics – was for me not some blissful vision, but a sentence to a lifetime of loneliness and deceit. It was a destiny from which I was desperately seeking to escape.
Of course, I was overreacting. Of course, I was being overly sensitive. Of course, he didn’t mean to cause offense by such a remark. Indeed, if anything, he was trying to obliquely compliment me. But if you’ve spent much of your life learning how to censor yourself, hiding away something that – while yes, not comprising the entirety of your identity – still undoubtedly shapes how you perceive and respond to people at a fundamental level, even the small things can add up. It quickly becomes exhausting.
A brief thought experiment: Imagine most people in the world have standard color vision except when looking at other people, in which case colors are swapped. However, you were not born with this condition. Hence, when the art teacher asks you to draw a self-portrait, and you use brown because you happen to have darker skin, the teacher scolds you for not using gray. So, from then on, you use gray to avoid being criticized. When a friend asks you to describe your significant other and you say they have blue eyes, your friend looks at you warily, as if re-evaluating the worth of your friendship. Subsequently, you find ways of avoiding the mention of color when discussing your partner or use only vague, generic words. Or, when an acquaintance asks you to point out the host at the party, and you say it’s the woman with blond hair, everyone else in the group laughs at you because, obviously, the woman has purple hair. Thereafter, you fake the colors you see to avoid being ridiculed. So, to minimize the chance of embarrassment, rejection, or even violence, you either learn to avoid using color to describe people’s physical appearance or you learn to lie about what you see. Living in this perpetual fear of slipping up inevitably takes a toll on your physical and mental resources.
I want to make clear that I do not attribute my professor’s comment to malice, but rather to a set of assumptions embedded within science, and society at large, about who a scientist is. Adopting this broader perspective is necessary. Although the individual data points of our stories are important in their own right, taken together, they often reveal larger patterns in the abstract – as any good scientist would attest. So, in the spirit of scientific inquiry, where does such an analysis lead? Simply put, addressing LGBTQ visibility in STEM is a critical issue not only for the LGBTQ community, but also for the advancement of science as a whole. Three lines of reasoning support this hypothesis.
First, greater visibility would reduce the stigma of being out in the lab, enabling LGBTQ people to devote their energy to doing science, rather than expending it in an attempt to blend in. There is often a tacit don’t-ask-don’t-tell ban around discussing one’s sexual orientation or gender identity – unless it conforms to the heterosexual, cisgender norm. According to survey studies by researchers Allison Mattheis and Jeremy Yoder of UCLA and the University of Minnesota, approximately 43% of the LGBTQ workers in STEM professions remain closeted. And while it is not uncommon to hear straight colleagues talk about opposite sex partners, when an LGBTQ person speaks about a partner of the same sex, they are sometimes considered to be flaunting their sexual orientation. Some people even find such conversations personally offensive or religiously objectionable, placing LGBTQ scientists in a bind – they can either keep quiet about their identity or risk being labeled as disruptive. Normalizing these kinds of discussions would go a long way toward reducing the risk of the latter.
Second, greater numbers of out LGBTQ people in STEM would lead to attracting more students who would otherwise choose to pursue alternative careers. A recent study in the March 2018 issue of the journal Science Advances found that LGBTQ students were 7% less likely to persist in STEM-related fields, despite greater likelihood of participating in undergraduate research. One explanation for this apparent paradox is that these students are interested in STEM, but once in the lab, find that STEM fields are not as hospitable to LGBTQ individuals as other fields. Whatever the case, it is clear that STEM fields are losing out on gifted students who might otherwise make significant contributions to science.
Third, enhanced diversity has been shown to lead to benefits in problem solving in general. It might be expected that intellectual diversity would lead to increased productivity, but what of demographic identifiers such as sexual orientation and gender identity? The October 1, 2014 issue of the popular science magazine Scientific Americanfeatured an article entitled “How Diversity Makes Us Smarter” that summarized the work of various social scientists investigating this subject. Their research shows that demographically diverse groups perform better at solving complex problems. Interacting with other people from diverse backgrounds prompts individuals to more carefully anticipate and consider counterarguments and objections, leading group members to adopt a wider perspective. This phenomenon even occurs when the participants are assigned tasks not directly related to identity.
LGBTQ inclusion in STEM is thus an issue that affects not only the LGBTQ community, but also the wider state of science. By providing a more welcoming environment, we can make LGBTQ persons currently in STEM feel more comfortable opening up to their colleagues, diminish the cognitive load that LGTBQ persons must bear, attract talented LGBTQ youth to science, and reap the intellectual rewards associated with diversity. Therefore, to realize the creative synergies that ‘stem’ from diversity, we must begin by crashing through the lab closet.
The 19th century queer poet Walt Whitman once wrote a work entitled “Kosmos,” a poem about the all-encompassing nature of the universe. His words could well be applied to the ideals of inclusion in STEM to which we aspire today.
Who includes diversity and is Nature,
Who is the amplitude of the earth, and the coarseness and sexuality of the earth, and the great charity of the earth and the equilibrium also…
Who, constructing the house of himself or herself, not for a day but for all time, sees races, eras, dates, generations,
The past, the future, dwelling there, like space, inseparable together.
— Walt Whitman