Science pride: 5 ways to support the LGBTQIA+ community in STEM

Matthew Greseth, Ph.D.
June 17, 2021
A diverse community of modern gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer people hugging and supporting each other.
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Quick. What’s the first image that pops into your head when you hear the word scientist? For most of the general public, the quintessential picture of a scientist is an old, white, heteronormative man wearing a white lab coat. Growing up, I had this same vision. Fortunately, this generic image is changing to showcase the diverse community in STEM that enables the U.S. to be the world’s scientific leader.

But according to recent research, that change is happening entirely too slowly. In 2016, the Queer in STEM study showed that less than 60% of queer scientists are out to their peers at work. Another study showed that 70% of LGBTQIA+ professionals reported feeling uncomfortable and discriminated against. And those statistics aren’t limited to professional STEM careers. A 2018 study in Science Advances showed that LGBTQIA+ students were 7% less likely to continue an undergraduate STEM program compared to their non-LGBTQIA+ peers, drastically limiting the pools of LGBTQIA+ scientists at the earliest stages of their career.

"Feeling uncomfortable when you listen to people with different experiences than you is not only okay, it’s good."

-- Matthew Greseth

As scientists, we often say “Let the data speak for themselves.” That merit-based approach fails to account for the pressures faced by marginalized people both in the workplace and at home – being made to feel lesser hampers job satisfaction, productivity and career advancement. As we learned in The Rainbow Ceiling, the ivory tower of academia has many flaws.

These flaws significantly impact LGBTQIA+ scientists. “Unless you’re bringing your full self to your professional life, you’re not at your peak,” said Alex Bond, Ph.D., conservation biologist and senior curator at the U.K. Natural History Museum in an interview for Optics and Photonics News.

As friends and colleagues, how can we relieve some of that pressure and be more inclusive?

1) Take ownership of your language

Sexual orientation and gender identity are not inappropriate topics to discuss in the workplace. Orientations and identities are not inherently political, nor are they inherently in disagreement with religion as a whole. They are simply identities – salient features of personhood that exist both within and outside of the workplace. 

That said, for some, talking about sexual orientation and gender identity can be uncomfortable. But rarely does personal growth occur in a space that feels comfortable. Feeling uncomfortable when you listen to people with different experiences than you is not only okay, it’s good. You’re taking a step towards learning and growth. This growth will never happen though, if conversations surrounding LGBTQIA+ identities are taboo in your workplace.

"If you’re unsure of someone’s pronouns, simply ask. If you make an earnest mistake, apologize."

-- Matthew Greseth

To discuss LGTBQIA+ identities properly, though, requires that you invest time and effort into learning proper vocabulary. Applying this newly acquired knowledge is a small, yet powerful step towards demonstrating your allyship. This can be done in three basic steps:

Learn the letters. Each letter in the LGBTQIA+ acronym represents a group that has fought ruthlessly to be seen, heard and valued. When you abbreviate the acronym, give up after LGBT (e.g. saying “LGBT… whatever”), or misstate the acronym, you take away visibility from a group who likely fought and died for recognition. The Safe Zone Project provides a helpful glossary of terms.

Use proper pronouns and gender identities. Misgendering LGBTQIA+ individuals, especially those among the trans and non-binary communities, conveys that they are not welcome, that they are not seen, and that this space is not for them. Often this mistake is made by assuming one’s gender identity. A quick and easy fix is to post or say your own pronouns when you communicate with others. Attach them to your email signature or zoom username. Include them on nametags at conferences. And most importantly, pay attention when others have posted their own pronouns, and use them. If you’re unsure of someone’s pronouns, simply ask. If you make an earnest mistake, apologize.

Celebrate, don’t tolerate. Pernicious phrases like “We are accepting of LGBTQIA+ people” or “We are very tolerant of LGBTQIA+ people” probably mean well, but actually come off as rather offensive. The words accept and tolerate strongly imply the existence of a power structure, wherein the speaker (presumably straight) maintains the ability to accept or tolerate and the reader (presumably LGBTIQA+) is left at the will of the speaker. Humans do not have the power to accept or tolerate the personhood of another. Replacing LGTBQIA+ with another racial, religious or ethnic group would raise sharp eyebrows. Using the word celebrate in the above phrases more closely aligns with the speaker’s intention – to welcome LGBTQIA+ people into a space.

“Being queer in STEM is a constant process of coming out, and it can be exhausting,” said Lauren Esposito, Ph.D., assistant curator and Schlinger Chair of Arachnology at the California Academy of Sciences, and founder of 500 Queer Scientists in an interview for them. Changing your language can help alleviate this exhaustion and may even make LGBTQIA+ comfortable enough to be their full selves in the workplace.

2) Take ownership of your actions (be a role model)

Supporting LGBTQIA+ scientists is not just about what you say, but it is also about what you are seen doing. Observing people’s behavior is often more powerful than words, and this can be both positive and negative.

One of the strongest ways to show your support is to be inclusive by including. As a leader in science, one can take notice of issues facing LGBTQIA+ scientists and talk about them, even if it feels uncomfortable. One can highlight the accomplishments of LGBTQIA+ scientists. And certainly, one can invite LGBTQIA+ speakers to present to your labs and departmental seminars to increase visibility.

Small gestures like displaying LGBTQIA+ ally stickers and including pronouns in emails are easy steps to show that you recognize and appreciate your LGBTQIA+ colleagues. The dedicated learner may even consider consuming LGBTQIA+ media (Netflix, Hulu and HBO have entire sections for this) so that you can be more conscientious and thoughtful about humor or pop-culture references without excluding LGBTQIA+ individuals or laughing at their expense.

Being a role model can help younger scientists, and even our peers, feel welcome. Scientists at all career levels can benefit from mentorship. If you see something, say something – stand up for your LGBTQIA+ colleagues in and out of the lab. Given such high rates of LGBTQIA+ discrimination in STEM, it is critical that LGBTQIA+ people are not left to fend for themselves. If you are uncomfortable saying something to an aggressor in the moment, you can file a report with the Department of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (, or complete the anonymous, online Prohibited Conduct Response Form.

Professors, people in power, and even graduate students need to do the work to support their LGBTQIA+ and minority students by reaching out after stressful events. In general, “it’s about being friendly, being welcoming. It’s about listening with interest to someone else’s experiences without dismissing or judging them,” said Tom Welton, Ph.D., a sustainable chemist at Imperial College London and president of the Royal Society of Chemistry, U.K. in an interview for Nature.

3) Expand the LGBTQIA+ support network

As mentioned above, including LGBTQIA+ individuals is an important way to show your support. But if that inclusion doesn’t come with real, oftentimes financial support, that inclusion may come across as hollow, as if we’re just using their identity to check diversity boxes.

"For most of us, the prospect of transforming our community is daunting, and effecting change on the national level is almost unimaginable. But the LGBTQIA+ community doesn’t have time to wait for change. They demand action now."

-- Matthew Greseth

In large part, the disparities faced by LGBTQIA+ scientists are systemic and propagated by those in power. For the reader who occupies leadership, or otherwise powerful positions, consider showing your allyship via the following:

       - Hire more diverse, LGBTQIA+ trainees. Advertise for available positions through LGBTQIA+ specific avenues such as undergraduate & graduate LGBTQIA+ groups, the 500 Queer Scientists Job Board, or otherwise including inclusive LGBTQIA+ language in your job advertisements.

       - Provide benefit packages that include same-sex partners and trans-inclusive health insurance coverage that otherwise may not be covered by the university.

       - Require gender and sexual diversity training. MUSC regularly holds Safe Zone training.

       - Provide support for LGBTQIA+ graduate students, staff and faculty (see below).

For the reader who may not have the power to hire, the above points (taking ownership of language and behavior) are highly useful in demonstrating your allyship. Consider advocating within local student groups or to your mentors for improved LGBTQIA+ resources, visibility and hiring on campus.

4) Resources for the LGBTQIA+ STEM community

Beyond the personal actions outlined above, participating in local LGBTQIA+ positive groups is a great way to show your allyship. MUSC has taken a big step forward in supporting the LGBTQIA+ community by naming Chase Glenn to be the first-ever Director of LGBTQ+ Health Services and Enterprise Resources. As a transgender man, he is a strong representative of the LGBTQIA+ community in leadership and will strive to develop and implement policy, programs and services that support MUSC’s LGBTQIA+ community.

There are several wonderful local communities and groups that focus on LGBTQIA+ equality that include:

Student Alliance For Equality: MUSC’s Student Alliance For Equality (formerly the Gay Straight Alliance) is an organization for students of all orientations and provides community, support, and advocacy for anyone who may feel at risk.

We Are Family: As a southern, grassroots non-profit organization, We Are Family strives to provide affirming spaces for LGBTQIA+ youth through direct support, leadership development and community engagement.

Closet Case: Run by We Are Family, Closet Case is an LGBTQIA+ -focused thrift store in North Charleston that aims to provide affordable clothing to housing-insecure youth. Note: GSA is running a clothing drive for this organization this month – consider donating!

Charleston Pride: Charleston Pride promotes the visibility of the LGBTQIA+ community by hosting events throughout the year.

Alliance For Full Acceptance: The Alliance For Full Acceptance is a Charleston-based organization that has be fighting for LGBTQIA+ equality for more than 20 years. They root out ignorance and hatred and replace them with knowledge and empathy.

As we all know, science doesn’t happen in a vacuum and is shaped by societal influences. Unfortunately, the burden of inclusion and representation falls overwhelmingly to LGBTQIA+ individuals. To that end, here is a list of organizations that focus specifically on issues faced by LGBTQIA+ individuals in STEM:

oSTEM: Out in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (oSTEM) is a professional association for LGBTQIA+ individuals in STEM that empowers LGBTQIA+ people to succeed personally, academically and professionally. Twitter: @OUTinSTEM

Pride in STEM: Pride in STEM is run by LGBTQIA+ scientists and engineers who want to show that STEM is for everyone and challenge the general public’s, as well as the science community’s, perception of what a scientist should be like. Twitter: @PrideinSTEM

500 Queer Scientists: As a visibility campaign, 500 Queer Scientists seeks to ensure that the next generation of scientists has LGBTQIA+ role models and creates opportunities for community connections. Twitter: @500QueerSci

Out to Innovate: Formerly the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals, Out to Innovate is an organization that empowers LGBTQIA+ individuals and allies by providing education, advocacy, professional development, networking and peer support. Twitter: @STEMforEquality

A more complete list of local and national organizations that support LGBTQIA+ individuals can be found at the Alliance For Full Acceptance resource hub.

The Graduate Student Association (GSA) and Student Government Association (SGA) host monthly meetings and provide a plethora of service events and seminars with various topics each month. Look for these events in the CGS Newsletter and MUSC Student Broadcast.

5) Advocate for legislation that supports LGBTQIA+ equality

Public support for LGBTQIA+ people has increased over the past several decades. For instance, support for same-sex marriage rose from 11.6% in 1988 to 68% in 2018. This growing support for LGBTQIA+ individuals has led to the passage of marriage equality and anti-discrimination laws that protect employees from being fired from their jobs based on their sexual orientation. 

"But one of the hardest struggles at the moment is achieving object permanence."

-- Matthew Greseth

But there is still work to do. It is still legal in 20 states to be denied housing or the ability to adopt a child based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Surprisingly, 17 states’ hate crime laws do not protect LGBTQIA+ citizens.

The Human Rights Council lobbies members of Congress on critical issues that would impact the LGBTQIA+ community. They have organized a list of federal legislation to support. Here are a few examples that would provide protections for the LGBTQIA+ community in the U.S. and around the world:

Equality Act: The Equality Act would amend existing civil rights laws to explicitly include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected characteristics – providing LGBTQIA+ protections in housing, credit and education.

Prohibition of Medicaid Funding for Conversion Therapy Act: The Prohibition of Medicaid Funding for Conversion Therapy Act would prohibit Medicaid funds from being used to pay for conversion therapy, thereby preventing taxpayer dollars from being used for these harmful and discredited practices.

GLOBE Act: The GLOBE Act would build a framework into U.S. diplomacy to protect LGBTQIA+ human rights worldwide, create a Special Envoy to the Secretary of State on LGBTQIA+ human rights issues, and authorize sanctions against individuals who commit anti-LGBTQIA+ human rights violations abroad.

While the national conversation inches towards more inclusivity, there has been a dramatic backlash to that progress at the state level over the past few years. More than 100 bills have been introduced in state legislatures across the country that impact LGBTQIA+ individuals.

In South Carolina, several bills have left committees in either the House or the Senate that seek to codify discrimination against LGBTQIA+ individuals into law. These bills center around: prohibiting healthcare for transgender youth (H4047); excluding transgender youth from athletics (S531); allowing the healthcare industry to define certain terms, thereby authorizing medical practitioners, healthcare institutions and healthcare payers to refuse healthcare services that violate their consciences (H3518); and allowing adoption or foster care agencies to provide or decline services in a manner consistent with their religious beliefs, free from governmental sanctions (H3878).

On a positive front, the state house is working on legislation that would establish pay equity, preventing employers from paying employees less based on race, religion, sex, gender identity and sexual orientation, age or disability (H3183).

Implementing these big changes takes hard work, determination and perseverance. For most of us, the prospect of transforming our community is daunting, and effecting change on the national level is almost unimaginable. But the LGBTQIA+ community doesn’t have time to wait for change. They demand action now.

To facilitate change and reduce the anxiety of implementing such massive shifts in the law, South Carolina Equality, brings the voices of LGBTQIA+ people and allies to the seats of power in SC. They are a civic-minded organization that seeks to advance civil rights and social justice for full, lived LGBTQIA+ equality.

One of the most important things you can do as an ally is to vote for legislation that supports LGBTQIA+ individuals. The Human Rights Campaign maintains a convenient Congressional Scorecard to assess how legislatively supportive a candidate is toward LGBTQIA+ rights. On a scale of 0 (least support) to 100 (most support), both elected senators in South Carolina scored a 0. Only 1 of 7 Representatives scored higher than a 0 (James Clyburn, 100).

Taking ownership of our language and actions, expanding our support networks and pushing for inclusive legislation are great ways to support our LGBTQIA+ colleagues. But one of the hardest struggles at the moment is achieving object permanence. For some LGBTQIA+ people, they sit in endless meetings, working groups and task forces that talk about these issues. But as soon as a non-LGBTQIA+ -identifying individual leaves the room, those issues leave their mind and those earlier conversations don’t register.

Let’s make these changes permanent.

*Thank you to Daniel McCalley for help writing this story.