“I’m living a double life.”
That’s what Sandra (a pseudonym), a transgender woman and professor of chemistry, told researchers when she was asked to describe how she navigates her personal and professional identity. “Many of my colleagues have never even seen me presenting as a woman,” she added.
Sandra is one of 55 STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) workers—including faculty members, students, and staff—who were interviewed for a study about what it’s like to identify as LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) in STEM. Since the study was published last month in the Journal of Homosexuality, the authors have received a slew of responses along the lines of, “Thank you for doing the work, because now I know I’m not alone,” says Allison Mattheis, an associate professor of education at California State University (CSU) in Los Angeles and the lead author of the study.
This Pride Month, Science Careers spoke with Mattheis and her co-authors—Daniel Cruz-Ramírez de Arellano, a senior instructor of chemistry at the University of South Florida in Tampa, and Jeremy Yoder, an assistant professor of biology at CSU in Northridge—about their study and what can be done to better support LGBTQ workers in STEM. This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: What challenges do LGBTQ people in STEM face?
Daniel Cruz-Ramírez de Arellano: In the STEM workplace, there has been this expectation that you should not bring in aspects of your personal life—that it has to be exclusively about the work and about the project you’re working on and nothing else. It’s exhausting for some people to have to separate their work and personal identities in such a way. What we found with our interviews is that if people could bring their whole selves to the workplace, without any sort of reservation, not only were they happier, but they did better work.
Jeremy Yoder: To highlight one example, one gay male astrophysicist said that the reason he was not particularly open about his gay identity at work was because everybody was trying to give the impression that they didn’t have a life outside of work; they thought that talking about their personal life would make them seem less competitive for postdocs and faculty positions. So that sort of work culture effectively put him in the closet, even if he wasn’t explicitly concealing anything.
Cruz-Ramírez de Arellano: We also had participants saying, “If I’m the best in my field, it won’t matter that I’m also gay.” It feels like you have to be the absolute best to counteract the fact that you’re gay. That resonated with me because I went through a stage like that.
Allison Mattheis: Support from departments and advisers is also a major factor. For example, I interviewed two trans students in math who had completely opposite experiences. When one student started to transition, they emailed their adviser and the next week, when they showed up on campus, everyone was using the correct pronouns; there were gender inclusive bathrooms on the same floor. So, the burden wasn’t on the trans person to figure everything out themselves.
But, for the other person it was a struggle. They had to go around and explain their identity to every single person as they started to transition. They didn’t have any senior faculty stand up for them. They once told an adviser that, when teaching in a lecture hall with 500 students, they were laughed at after someone misgendered them. Their adviser gave them a response along the lines of, “I’m here to talk about math. And maybe you’re just not cut out for this because you’re not able to focus on math”—just really cruel things.
That to me was a real example of how someone can be encouraged if they’re provided with some basic support and advocacy—and how hopeless people can feel if they don’t get that because it’s so exhausting trying to get a Ph.D. while also defending your identity for years.
Q: You’re all faculty members who identify as LGBTQ. Is it important for you to be “out” at work and with your students?
Cruz-Ramírez de Arellano: Yes. I’ve decided that being visible is really important to me, particularly after analyzing all of the interview data. So many people said that they’d never seen an out person in their field who was in a more senior position than them.
When I teach, I come out in the first 15 minutes of my first class. I have this slide where I speak about things that I like, for example video games or TV shows. And then I also have a picture of my boyfriend and me, and I say, “This is my boyfriend. His name’s Aaron. We’ve been together for 2 years. And now let’s talk about the syllabus.” I don’t linger on it; I don't spend 20 minutes talking about how gay I am and how many drag queens I know. But I make it a point to come out explicitly because I might very well be the first gay scientist a lot of my students get to know.
Yoder: I don’t explicitly come out in class. But I have tried to be really deliberate about making sure I introduce myself with my pronouns, which is something that I should be doing regardless of my sexual orientation and gender identity. It signals that I’m someone who is thinking about diversity in the classroom.
I also sometimes wear things that signal my identity. Today, for example, I’m wearing a shirt I got at yesterday’s Pride run. And for years, I wore one of those little silicone rainbow wristbands everywhere, which is not the same as coming out exactly, but it is a signal that registers to people who are looking for it, which is almost as good.
Mattheis: I generally do come out to all my students at the beginning of class, but I have a really different context than Daniel and Jeremy. I teach graduate students who are already working in education or who want to work in education, so they generally are already aware of diversity issues. But because I work at a campus that’s 90% students of color, I always feel like my racial identity is one that I need to address first. If I don’t make it clear that I’m aware of the fact that I’m a white woman and that that really impacts my experience, I’m not going to be able to be a mentor to my queer students—who are mostly people of color—because their race is such a salient part of their identity and something that impacts them every day walking down the street.
Q: How can faculty members become effective allies, even if they’re not LGBTQ themselves?
Yoder: A really straightforward option that’s available on many, many campuses is “Safe Zone” training. That’s something that faculty can take themselves. If they want to go the extra mile, they might also consider making sure that it’s available and encouraged for all members of the lab. For instance, they could tell postdocs and graduate students that they can do the training on the clock—that it’s important for the work in the lab.
Cruz-Ramírez de Arellano: Afterward, you get a little Safe Zone sticker that you can put on your office door, which communicates to the campus community that you have gone through the training and that you are an ally. You can also put diversity statements on your website and in your syllabi, and list your pronouns in your email signature. That makes people feel like they are being included and addressed.
Mattheis: I think it’s also important for professors to model that they are humans. There’s this extreme perfectionism that’s prevalent in STEM, and it’s really hard for young folks. Sharing things that you’ve struggled with or messed up with—those are the things that make students think professors are accessible. And once you’re accessible about some aspect of your identity, students will come with questions about a lot of other things.
The other thing I would say is, don’t just say, “Oh, I found a queer student; let me point them to the one queer person I know across campus.” That’s really awkward. The student needs to have an advocate who also is aligned with their other interests. It’s important to demonstrate that you can be an ally to students who don’t share the same identities as you and that you’re willing to learn from them.