On being LGBTQ+ in science – yes it matters, and here’s why

Six scientists share their challenges and breakthroughs at ‘An Evening with 500 Queer Scientists, Elsevier and Cell’

John Pham on 500QS Panel
Dr. John Pham, Editor-in-Chief of Cell, speaks at ‘An Evening with 500 Queer Scientists, Elsevier and Cell.’ (Photos by Alison Bert)

For Gregory Youdan Jr, being a dancer in the LGBT community was no big deal. “I didn’t really feel like I needed to push the gayness forward because that’s already represented in the arts,” he said, to a round of laughter. “So I moved into science, and suddenly there were no LGBT people around me.”

Gregory, a PhD student and lecturer in kinesiology at Columbia University Teachers College, shared his experience as moderator of An Evening with 500 Queer Scientists, Elsevier and Cell. The event brought together six scientists to share their experiences, insights and advice in the informal setting of a New York City pub at the culmination of World Pride Month.

With heart and humor, they talked about navigating the daunting terrain of being different, and how they found their calling despite – or because of – the challenges. They stressed the importance of letting people choose their own pronouns – he, she or they. Of making sure young people saw others like them in the world of science. And of being mentors to those who were beginning this journey or grappling with new challenges that are bound to surface along the way.

Dr. Ruthie Birger talks with Dr. Alex Moore during the networking session. At left, Dr. Leah Reilly talks with Dr. Edgardo Sanabria-Valentin.

Their backgrounds are strikingly different, as are their views on just how vocal they should be in professional settings. Some admitted they didn’t have it all figured out yet – and that it’s OK, even good, to show the world that struggle.

”I don’t think it should be a process we hide,” said Dr. Alex Moore, an NSF Postdoctoral Fellow and ecosystem ecologist. While Alex has long been vocal about being “queer,” there’s another part of her identity she’s less sure about.

“I’m also really struggling with gender right now, which is why I haven’t really addressed it in a very direct sense,” Alex said. “That’s something where I’m not really sure where I land. I think all of these things are really nuanced and complicated, and I feel most authentic in acknowledging that that’s the challenge that I’m still sort of struggling through, and making sure that it’s not a hidden process.”

Dr. Leah Reilly, a softspoken veterinarian in Brooklyn who identifies as “queer, non-binary and trans,” received a round of applause after introducing themself with a hint of reticence.

“I needed 10 years in New York City to get the confidence to picture myself interacting with clients every day – like, a new person every half hour having to take me seriously,” Leah said. “So I’m not inclined to do things like this, but I really value this project.”

The project Leah was referring to was 500 Queer Scientists – a new “visibility campaign for LGBTQ+ people and their allies working in STEM.” Elsevier Pride, which has chapters around the world, partnered with them to organize this event with additional support from Elsevier’s parent company, RELX.

“As a leader in the STEM industry, I think it’s important for Elsevier to partner with groups like 500 Queer Scientists to ensure that the future of science is as diverse and inclusive as possible,” said David Parsons, Senior Customer Marketing Manager at Elsevier and co-founder and co-chair of the New York chapter of Elsevier Pride. “Encouraging a sense of community – no matter how small or large the event – is key to building a sense of belonging among researchers who may otherwise be marginalized or invisible within their fields.”

Here are some of the issues they discussed.

“Normalizing a queer identity”

Ruthie Birger

For Dr. Ruthie Birger, a postdoctoral researcher in infectious disease modeling at the Yale School of Public Health, being open about her queer identity is a way to show people that queerness is more common than they make think. And her humor was not lost on this audience:

I identify as queer, but for me that means I date all genders. … I think in the general vein of having more of a work-life balance in science, which is super important, normalizing a queer identify (is crucial). For me, I like to think of it as leaving every space queerer than I found it – so just getting in there, being super loud about being queer and maybe making it so that someone else is able to be super loud about being queer and then passing that on. And then maybe the whole world will be queer in the end.

Finding your own style in the LGBTQ space

Leah Reilly

While Ruthie likes to be “super loud about being queer,” that wouldn’t feel natural to Leah.

“My first reaction is embarrassment usually when people want to talk to me about their private lives at work,” she said. “I internalized (transphobia) for a long time and felt like it wasn’t appropriate to talk about for work. But I am trying to be more open and make an effort because I do work with a lot of very young people.”

Throughout the evening, it became apparent that Leah has come a long way already – by being part of 500 Queer Scientists and sharing at this event:

I really appreciate this project because I feel like the oldest young queer person, and I do not remember any realistic or positive representations in American popular culture at all of trans people, especially trans-masculine people, and I don’t know what was worse: the depictions that existed of trans-feminine people or the total lack of transmasculine people. But I felt like as a nerdy, introverted, non-artistic person, I had a choice: to either have a career or be what I was openly because I could not picture being a professional and having a career and looking gender nonconforming or “unprofessional.” That (last) term is so coersive and racist and classist and messed up in so many ways, but the particular way that it impressed me was that I was always miserable in business casual, like cardigans and eating fat-free yogurt in a cubicle at a pharmaceutical company in New Jersey, and I ended up moving to New York to go to grad school in biology. …

Coming out can help you in ways you never imagined

Edgardo Sanabria Valentin

Dr. Edgardo Sanabria-Valentin grew up feeling different from his peers – a situation he can now make light of as Associate Director of the Program for Research Initiatives in Science and Math (PRISM) at John Jay College of the City University of New York (CUNY):

I come from a very Catholic background in Puerto Rico, so I went to Catholic school, and — let’s just say that no matter what, I can activate gaydars within 50 feet. So there was no way I could ever pass (as straight).

In Catholic School and high school, no one wanted to be friends with the gay kid, so I ended up having no friends. And looking back, I think that empowered me to be the geek that I was destined to be. Because I didn’t have that many friends, I was able to study whatever I wanted and read as much as I wanted, and 20 years later, now I’m here.

It took me a while to figure it out, but it deeply impacted my career in that sense.

Coming out was difficult for Dr. John Pham, Editor-in-Chief of the journal Cell, but he said going through that process helped him personally and professionally:

I would say that when I came out, decades ago now, it was a very different world. I grew up a shy person who didn’t share my feelings very much. Coming out and being comfortable with the radical sharing of my personal life, that changed me; that process made me a more empathetic person, it made me better able to form relationships with people. Because a lot of forming strong relationships is being vulnerable and sharing yourself, and I feel like that whole process just made me much better at that.

And I think that that also made me a better scientist and leader now because you have to form collaborations, you have to understand other people’s perspectives and share, and as strange as it seems, this difficult thing of coming out and being more open has actually made me much better at what I do.

Now John advocates for all kinds of diversity in science:

Why do we need diversity in science?

John Pham

In his role as Editor-in-Chief, John works with his colleagues to encourage all forms of diversity on editorial boards, conferences at the workplace. It’s a mission he’s passionate about:

The world is filled with talent that we do not know. That talent has to recognize itself and then have opportunities to fulfill the potential that it has.

There are many kids out there who could become great scientists, but they don’t even know that this is something that they could do. Because they’re not part of a community that has schools that are teaching kids science and letting them know what a scientist is and what a scientist does. And so exposing those people to science, and then providing an infrastructure that keeps them in the system instead of pushing them out, is important.

Imagine if we didn’t have some of the great scientists in the world because they weren’t encouraged to pursue science. We all care about diversity because it matters that the talent out there reaches its potential, and once that potential is reached, then we have the possibility to change the world.

When identities collide

Gregory Youdan Jr.

As moderator, Gregory said he relates to the phenomenon of intersectionality – where one deals with more than one marginalized identity.

“I grew up gay in a small town in Rochester, but my family’s from the Dominican Republic,” he said. “I felt like I kept having to fight to be Latino, because visually, I don’t look Latino.”

His other identity was being gay. In his case, he embraced those identities and “pushed them forward.”

For Edgardo, the journey has meant integrating his various identities:

I feel like we want to make sure we’re active in the different aspects of our lives and for a while, I tried to keep them separate: I was Puerto Rican, I was gay, I was a scientist. And not until recently I was trying to see how they combined. How they interact and how they actually help each other. So during my training, I was never very conscious of that and now I am, and I am discovering what it means to be that many different facets.

John Pham, whose parents and older siblings were Vietnamese refugees, said he feels a responsibility to represent his communities.

It’s my responsibility to set a good example and be as visible as I can so that these kids that were like me can see that they could be someone like me. I don’t think there are lots of Vietnamese kids aspiring to be scientists.

For Ruthie, “the intersectionality comes from being a woman and science and being queer in science.”

I think by trying to put forward my queer visibility by doing things like being on the women in science panels at meetings, has been important to me, and it’s been important to be vocal and loud about it in places our identity can end up being subsumed.

But there’s another role she’s exploring as well:

I have had a lot of privilege in my education and my upbringing and being white, and one of the things I’ve tried to learn about is to understand … ways that I can be quieter and listen to other voices and also uplift voices that are not heard as much.  I don’t think I’m great at that, but I try to figure out where that fits in. And I always have this idea of kind of punching up whenever there’s someone who has more privilege; I try to think about where I can challenge those things, and I have a feeling that’s all over science.

For Alex, grappling with multiple identities is also a reality and one she speaks about readily, often with humor.

I’m very clearly a black person – I don’t hide that. But I’m also queer, I grew up lower middle class, my family is the non-scary kind of Baptist. So all of those things are part of my foundation.

But when I walk into a room, all you see is that I am black. So that is something I’m very aware of. And most of my life has kind of been about code-switching in space to make sure I can be successful because that’s the leading identity. But it’s been really important for me to also push forward the rest of my identities because they’re not seen. And I think that intersectionality can be really challenging both in the workspace and also in the queer community.

And yes, I try to push forth all the parts of myself that you don’t readily see, making sure those can be seen by people who can relate, (including people) you don’t realize can relate.

As someone who is a teacher and not only a scientist, you can practice your science in the field – just you and the crabs, they’re not going to really care (ecologist, sorry!) – but in teaching and when I communicate with people, it’s really important to make sure those parts come forward. I lead with those parts, and it doesn’t really matter to me if it creates discomfort because I think you learn from your discomfort, so that’s always been really important to me.

I don’t know if I serve as an example of how you do things or how you are successful – I just happen to be successful in certain spaces, but I think a lot of that has to do with me trying to lead with my most authentic self and whether you take that or leave that is totally up to you.

What’s your hope for the future?

Alex Moore

While Alex says she’s glad to be vocal about being queer, she paused when asked about her hope for the future:

I’m a skeptic, so being hopeful is not a go-to for me. But I think in terms of the amount of energy and emotional labor and work it takes to be a black person in space and then to be a queer person in space and then to be a poor person in space and then to be a gender confused person in space – I think my hope for the future is that that’s no longer work.

My hope is that those are identities I can bring into the space and (people would) say, ‘Yeah cool, those are what you are,’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, cool, that’s what I am,’ and then we’re done. And not because it’s something I don’t think is important. I just don’t think it’s something I should be focusing on in what I do.

What other participants said

Jessica Ogunnorin, an IT technician and entrepreneur from Baltimore, talks with moderator Gregory Youdan Jr.Jessica Ogunnorin travelled all the way from Baltimore on crutches to attend the event, having broken her leg on the basketball court. The IT technician and entrepreneur said her community is often misunderstood.

“As a member of the LGBTQ+ community, It’s important to show that we have potential and we’re capable of helping the world become a better place,” she said. “I think it’s really important to be at events like this to showcase our talent, to showcase our devotion and to showcase our skill and passion for what we do.”

She believes the ability to “express yourself freely” is crucial as crucial to science as it is to the arts:

I believe that only when you’re able to express yourself freely, you’re able to achieve the highest level of creativity. When you’re fully expressing yourself, then you don’t see any limits – you don’t think about stereotypes of societal standards or opinions, you just express yourself and then – boom! – the highest level of creativity is there.

And being a scientist is being creative, so you should have the right to express yourself freely.

Brett Edward Stout, an entrepreneur and member of the LGBTQ+ community, attended the event with a friend from Elsevier.

Brett Edward Stout, who is designing a data product to help people take care of their saltwater aquariums, came with a friend from Elsevier. He said it’s important for all companies to “take a moment to recognize who is actually participating.”

The moment that you can overcome the idea that you are somehow not supposed to belong in an organization is the moment that you’re able to fully participate. Because otherwise a part of you is always consumed with the conformity or the desire to suppress part of yourself in order to participate in the group. If that’s no longer part of the equation, you can fully participate.

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