San Diego Pride is this week. We asked: Why are LGBTQ+ people the “invisible minority” in STEM?

| Written by Miles Martin
Group photo of Institute staff in front of the Pride flag

Conversations around diversity and inclusion are abundant in academic institutions, but one group in particular—the LGBTQ+ community—is frequently left out of those conversations. 

June is LGBT+ Pride month, but San Diego has made it a local tradition to continue the celebration into July, when the city hosts its annual Pride Festival. This year's San Diego Pride Festival will be held July 15-16. Pride celebrations around the world give people and institutions alike the opportunity to reflect on the unique struggles of the LGBTQ+ community and consider how we can support these individuals to the benefit of all.

Luca Caputo, Ph.D.
Luca Caputo, Ph.D.

To learn more about the struggles of LGBTQ+ people in the scientific community, we spoke to Sanford Burnham Prebys postdoctoral associate Luca Caputo, Ph.D. Caputo is the cofounder of Queer Science Society San Diego, whose mission is to raise awareness of the concerns of queer scholars in STEM. They are a frequent speaker on LGBTQ+ issues in STEM, most recently at the Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park, where they are included in their New Science exhibition. Caputo is also involved in DEI initiatives here at the Institute, where they helped spearhead our first-ever Pride flag raising last year. 

Why is LGBTQ+ considered the “invisible minority” in STEM? 

The reason why the LGBTQ+ community is an invisible minority is not because there are no queer scientists or STEM professionals. Rather, it’s because there’s a huge lack of data about queer representation in the scientific community. This community has historically not asked for this data, so queer people are not represented in reports and statistics about minority representation. This is not just a data problem—it can prevent LGBTQ+ people from feeling like they belong in STEM. 

Have you personally experienced this?

The lack of representation of queer scientists during my earlier studies had me questioning my belonging in STEM and academia, and the lack of data and discourse around these issues only made it worse. I was lucky and privileged to later encounter great mentors who made me feel welcome and appreciated for everything I am, not only for my pipetting skills. However, not everybody is so lucky.

What needs to happen to correct this problem?

Institutions that track demographic data for scientists and STEM students need to be more inclusive in their methods. This is slowly starting to change—one great example is that the National Science Foundation is finally including questions on sexuality, orientation and gender identity in its Survey of Earned Doctorates, but this is just one small step forward. 

There are still major societal problems affecting queer people in academia, such as unfair U.S. immigration laws that don’t acknowledge same-sex partnerships as marriages for visa purposes. These laws keep talent away from the U.S. or pose an unfair economic burden to same-sex couples, as they will need to travel abroad and navigate complex legislation to get married and be recognized. 

In the meantime, what can non-queer allies do to support the LGBTQ+ community in STEM?

One important thing is being responsive and listening to what members of the community have to say. An easy example is to normalize and respect the sharing of pronouns in email signatures and in Zoom meetings. This will help create a welcoming atmosphere and an environment that will allow LGBTQ+ individuals to safely come out and be confident and comfortable. 

On a more institutional level, many steps can be taken to make workplaces more welcoming, such as having all-gender-inclusive restrooms and honoring Pride months with concrete gestures, like holding Pride events. It’s also important not to wait for members of the LGBTQ+ community to ask for these gestures. These are all approaches that can be translated to being allies to any underrepresented group in STEM, not just the LGBTQ+ community.

How does being more inclusive benefit the scientific community as a whole?

It benefits the community in so many ways. For example, the amount of talent in the scientific community will increase exponentially. Having different point of views will increase our ability to find new cures for diseases and solutions to other real-world problems. Additionally, we have an ethical obligation to make the community inclusive and representative of the whole population, because most basic research is paid for by the entire public via taxes and charitable donations. Finally, increasing inclusivity will also improve the relationship between the scientific community and the general population, as marginalized communities will be able to see their needs and perspectives represented.

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