LGBTQ Scientists


If you work in a science related field, you have undoubtedly heard of the push for “stem.” STEM is an acronym for “science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.” Higher education institutions across the United States are trying to bolster their STEM programs and attract more students to these programs. This commentary is not about STEM though… it is about the LGBTQ people who work in STEM professions.

I am an emerging scientist in the nursing discipline. As an out gay man, I have not experienced much discrimination from colleagues, administration, or students. This can probably be chalked up to the fact that gay men are universally accepted in the nursing profession. However, this is not the case for many other STEM professions, such as chemistry, physics, engineering, computer technology, and mathematics.

I know of a few “closeted” scientists in academia who are afraid to disclose their sexual orientation to their colleagues. Although I have never questioned their fears, I imagine they fear the progression of their career. Much of a scientist’s career depends on the judgment of their peers (publications, grants, and promotions). If a scientist works in a climate that is not accepting of LGBTQ people, they may risk promotions and career progression if they are open.

My claim that LGBTQ scientists may be afraid to be open is more than anecdotal. Dr. Erin Cech, assistant professor of sociology at Rice University, authored a paper titled, “Navigating the heteronormativity of engineering: The experiences of lesbian, gay, and bisexual students.” She interviewed 17 engineering students and found that engineering is a heteronormative climate, requiring students to “cover” their sexual orientation. This requires tremendous emotional work on the part of the student, resulting in isolation, lying, and hiding. Although the interviews were conducted with students, it gives insight into the environment for the working scientists as well.

The issue of unwelcoming STEM environments is so pervasive that there is an actual guide on how to support LGBT physicists and astronomers in academia. The issue has even garnered the attention of Nature. They recently published an edition on diversity in science and the highlight news feature was specific to LGBT scientists. Other commentaries on this issue can be found here, here, and here.

Thankfully, a few great organizations are bringing awareness of LGBT people to the STEM professions. Two of the prominent organizations are oSTEM (Out in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, Inc.) and NOGLSTP (National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professions, Inc.). I think it is especially important to make STEM students aware of these organizations.

The purpose of this blog was to bring more attention to this issue. I urge you to click on the links that I provided and read up on this topic. Also, if you work for an academic institution that offers STEM degrees, please urge your institution to consider creating an oSTEM or NOGLSTP chapter (or at least advertise the organizations to students and faculty members).

I end with a video of a lecture by Professor David K. Smith about LGBT scientists, “Not all scientists wear white coats (some wear purple shoes).”

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