So how LGBTQ-friendly is science anyway?

Before going to grad school, I had heard about the dismal representation of LGBTQ faculty in STEM: science faculty are overwhelmingly straight, white, cisgender, men. Women are underrepresented; lesbian, gay, and bisexual people are underrepresented; and transgender people are really underrepresented. Which is pretty similar to most fields.

And I had gone to an incredibly LGBTQ friendly undergraduate institution, so I expected to be thoroughly disappointed in graduate school. Sure, I was applying to schools in liberal cities (San Francisco, Seattle, Madison, Minneapolis), but I knew it would be nothing like my undergrad (and especially not like my friend group in undergrad, which was majority LGBTQ).

And I have to say, I was actually pleasantly surprised to find out how many grad students I know who are LGBTQ. Maybe there’s some confirmation bias, but I feel like I know a fairly large number of grad students (including several people in my program and in labs I rotated in; people I see fairly often).

But I can’t name a single LGBTQ faculty member at UW-Madison. Which is not at all to say there are none. In my program (Cellular and Molecular Biology), there are almost 200 faculty trainers, so I would be incredibly surprised if none of them were LGBTQ. And part of this is that being LGBTQ is largely invisible. Other than a few cultural cues (which some people adopt and others don’t; and which tend not to be 100% exclusive to LGBTQ people anyway) or someone saying they’re LGBTQ, there is absolutely no way to know. As Dr. Jane Rigby (a gay astrophysicist at NASA) points out in this article about LGBTQ representation in science presentations “while a student attending a talk on Queer theory will suspect the speaker is queer, the same is not true of a student attending a great talk on AGN [Active Galactic Nuclei] by a queer scientist.”

This article “Why is Science so Straight?” delves a bit more into this topic of LGBTQ invisibility. And while the author Dr. Manil Suri’s experience was that personal lives were rarely talked about, I’ve found that less true of my graduate experience. And this may be another reason that I know many LGBTQ grad students and no LGBTQ faculty: I don’t talk about personal lives as much with faculty.

And I think times are definitely changing. Certainly LGBTQ youths’ experiences today are drastically different than youths’ 20, 30, 50 years ago.

Today there’s also institutional support and organizational support that just didn’t exist, even 15 years ago. For instance, Out in STEM is a relatively young national organization that is rapidly spreading to Universities across the country. There are now scholarships such as the Out to Innovate Scholarship for LGBTQ undergrad and grad students in STEM. And at least at UW-Madison, there are also purely social groups for LGBTQ grad students to connect.

And while things are definitely better than they used to be, are better than in many other fields, and are better than I had expected, there’s definitely still tons of room for improvement, especially in terms of making science welcoming to transgender researchers.


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