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Visibility matters: A conversation with the co-founder of 500 Queer Scientists

As one of just a handful of scorpion researchers worldwide, Lauren Esposito is no stranger to feeling like a rarity in academia. But it was her experiences as a queer researcher that made her feel isolated at work. She’s not alone. Studies of sexual minority scientists have found that researchers at all levels—from undergraduate students to faculty members—report feeling excluded, intimidated, or harassed. These experiences exact a heavy toll: A 2014 survey found that nearly 70% of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) faculty members who were “out” felt uncomfortable in their workplaces and were more likely to be discriminated against by colleagues. Another study found that among undergraduates, sexual minority students were more likely to have worked in labs but less likely to remain in STEM disciplines.

One way to help turn the tide, Esposito says, is by increasing visibility. Earlier this month, Esposito, an entomology curator at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, teamed up with science illustrator and co-worker Sean Edgerton and other colleagues to start 500 Queer Scientists. Science Careers spoke with Esposito about her inspiration, the initiative, and the issues the group hopes to address in the future. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: How did you get the idea to start 500 Queer Scientists?

A: In March, I worked with 500 Women Scientists to organize a panel of women speakers and an evening session at NightLife, a weekly [California Academy of Sciences] event for people 21 and older. That NightLife was one of the highest attended of the whole year. The fact that it attracted that many people was really inspirational to me.

That group started from a group of women coming together around an issue that they felt like they needed to speak out about, and it evolved in a community driven way. It’s really raised the visibility of women in positive ways in the STEM community. And I thought to myself, “What if there was something like this for queer scientists?”

There are other queer scientists and technologists, but they weren’t visible—just like I imagine I haven't particularly been visible in the past.

Q: Why is visibility important?

A: It's hard to see yourself in a career where you don't see other people who are like you. I’ve been out for quite a long time now, since I was an undergraduate. But as a queer scientist, I felt isolated, and that stems from a culture in academia that promotes a straight environment, so to speak. It makes it—not necessarily impossible but uncomfortable to come out.

But it’s really taxing to not speak up. Think of the average nonqueer person working in science and the number of times they mention their partner or children in conversation, talking to colleagues or students or whomever. Then think about someone who’s not out and the mental impact of not being able to ever talk about those aspects of your life, having to change the conversation, or change the language that you're using, to make it vague what kind of person your partner is or whether or not you have children because you don't want to enter the long, drawn-out conversation about how you have children.

My support system to cope with it has been the queer community that I belong to outside of my professional life. But by and large, they don’t understand the things that I might complain about in academia. And academia doesn't understand the struggles I face being queer. It’s hard to ever have a conversation with other people who get it. And in part, the difficulty is that most queer people in STEM just aren’t visible. That's why I came up with this campaign to increase visibility—both for myself and for other people experiencing the same things.

Q: How has the community grown since the launch of the website?

A: We had collected 50 bios for the website prior to the launch to kick things off. One week after the launch we had 250, and now we’re at about 550. We have one or two submissions almost every hour. At the moment they’re all in English, and I'd love to change that in the future.

Q: Are there any particular stories that stand out to you?

A: One that came through recently that I thought was really fantastic was a dean from the University of Washington. I think it’s great to have somebody in such a high position in their institution come out on a huge, highly visible scale. That’s setting a good example for the community, and also as a role model for anybody at their institution.

Q: For individuals, it may feel easier or safer to keep their head down and not speak up. But it helps the community to have role models who create visibility and raise issues into public discussion. How do you see this initiative helping with that conflict?

A: There’s a conflict for many people. It’s a conflict for people that are working in the 28 states or the countries where being gay is not protected by law. Your employer can actually fire you for being gay.

We've had people write in to us and say, “I'm not in a place where I can be out yet, but [500 Queer Scientists] has really helped me,” and other people who have written in and said, “I came out because of this.” I think that the campaign has been hugely uplifting for the community as a whole, whether that’s people who have come out because they’re in a place where they’re able to do that safely or whether it’s people who are scrolling through the stories of other queer scientists and finding a sense of community or empowerment from realizing that they’re definitely not alone. Many people have been really great about including their contact information via personal websites or social media handles, so that creates an avenue for people who may not be able to come out to contact them and find a community and still remain in a space that’s safe for them professionally and personally.

Q: Has anyone reported a negative response after their bio was published?

A: No, but I have had a couple of people write in and ask that their bio be taken down for personal reasons. We’re very respectful of such requests. One person asked that we remove their last name because the person wasn’t out to all of their extended family yet and they didn’t want them to come across it in a Google search. But they still wanted to stay up on the site and be visible.

Q: What are your plans for the initiative?

A: We’re turning an eye towards what the community wants out of this campaign. We have a survey up on our website where people can leave comments or vote for things that have been suggested already. Right now, the biggest thing that’s resonating is building community. People want to grow communities in their scientific societies. Many people have also said that they’d be interested in mentorship, connecting with mentors or with mentees. Another possibility is partnering with other organizations that have been established for a long time, such as NOGLSTP, which is the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals.

There are also very few studies on LGBTQ people working in academia or LGBTQ students in universities. Jeremy Yoder and colleagues ran a survey, and they’ve now run a second version to collect data about the experiences of people who are LGBTQ and working in STEM disciplines. I think our initiative could provide additional support for studies like that that are trying to gather this kind of quantitative data.

Q: Have you been surprised by the community response in any way?

A: The most surprising thing to me was how focused everybody has been on celebrating accomplishments. It could have easily gone in the direction of people talking about all the tribulations and trials that they’ve gone through as a queer scientist. I think that there’s space for that conversation to happen, and it will be really positive to have that conversation and try to figure out, as a community, what we can do to prevent those sorts of issues for future generations. But at the moment, what people are most excited about is celebrating all the accomplishments and all of the contributions that they've made. That’s been pretty surprising, but also incredibly inspirational.

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