Empowering LGBT Scientists

LGBT people in science, technology, engineering and mathematics find community in their disciplines, even if they lack visibility.

by Ian Coley

Northwestern University chemistry professor Owen Priest (right) is one of many LGBT individuals working in the sciences—but some professionals say they simply don’t see the need for an active LGBT STEM community.
Owen Priest has been in and out of the closet throughout his professional career. His first job out of college was teaching high school chemistry at an all-male boarding school, living in an apartment attached to the dormitory. There, he kept his sexual orientation quiet. “I thought it was probably best if I kept it a secret that a young, single gay guy was a dorm parent,” Priest says.

But while completing his Ph.D. in organic chemistry at the University of Minnesota, he was out to both his lab and his advisor. He’s now one of the most visible gay professors at Northwestern University, but when he was still searching for an assistant professorship, he had to confront the reality of his field and act accordingly.

“Chemistry is dominated by white, heterosexual men, and I can look that part,” he says. “I took out all my earrings,” – he regularly wears four – “interviewed and got the job.”

But when he found out his department chair was homophobic, Priest made a conscious choice for the rest of his career. “If people don’t want to hire me because they’re uncomfortable with me being gay, I’d rather they don’t.”

The STEM landscape—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—varies considerably in its support of LGBT individuals like Priest, and even professional organizations dedicated to LGBT in STEM advocacy are staffed by volunteers. Though some scientists say they have trouble prioritizing anything outside of their careers—or even identifying a need for LGBT representation in these fields—those who do advocate for a more inclusive STEM environment are making a difference at the national level.

BASIC MENTORSHIP

Charles Rubert, a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for BioNanotechnology in Medicine (IBNAM), came to the same conclusion as Priest 13 years later. After being closeted for much of his time in graduate school at Purdue University, he applied to IBNAM with no attempt to hide that he is gay. “If a lab isn’t fine with that, I’m going to another lab,” he says.

Rubert says he found the support to come out and stay out through a close group of friends and with professional resources. At a meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS), he attended an LGBT-focused seminar led by James Nowick, a gay chemist at the University of California, Irvine. “I saw this professor who was very proud to be out, and he was successful,” Rubert says. “If he can make it, I can make it.”

Nowick’s seminar arose in part from the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals (NOGLSTP), a blanket organization across all STEM fields. Four years ago, NOGLSTP and a group of interested members of the ACS began developing an LGBT subdivision within the ACS.

Priest was one of the founding members of this subdivision, and three years later is its chair. He says he particularly appreciates the need for mentorship within the gay chemical community because it reflects his own experiences. Early in his teaching career, he re-closeted himself because he did not see a welcoming environment. “There were no out faculty that I could look to as a role model and say, ‘Oh, it’s okay,’” he says.

But at his first assistant professorship at Grinnell College some years later, the situation was drastically different. The department chair there at the time was gay and, through his support, Priest came out to the student body. “Everybody knew Professor Priest lived just off-campus and had a male partner,” Priest says. At Northwestern, he has a similar reputation. “I’ve been out since the day I got here.”

CREATING COMMUNITY

Priest found an opportunity for mentorship purely by chance, but Rubert’s introduction into the LGBT STEM community was much more deliberate. Since its inception, NOGLSTP has worked to create long-needed mentoring relationships like Rubert’s within its membership, and to be a resource to LGBT STEM individuals and organizations at large.

Sacha Patera earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry and structural biology from Brandeis University, but she has held a corporate relations position at Northwestern for the last three years. Prior to that, she served as the assistant director of the Interdepartmental Biological Sciences (IBIS) Program and as a bench scientist and assistant professor. Though she no longer works strictly within STEM, it remains a strong part of her identity.

“I feel an obligation to take on a mentorship role,” says Patera, herself a lesbian. “If there’s a need from the LGBT community for a mentor, I’m happy to participate.”

Patera was connected to her current mentee, who identifies as a queer female, through the Point Foundation, a general LGBT academic empowerment organization. She says the Point Foundation, seeking to match mentors and mentees by discipline, reached out to her because of her membership in NOGLSTP.

Most mentors through the Point Foundation meet in person with their mentees, Patera says, but she doesn’t have the option. Instead, they keep in touch primarily by email. “I would really enjoy it if we were in the same geographic area,” she says, “but I think they just didn’t have a lot of mentors who are in the sciences.”

Jose Juncosa, a gay postdoctoral researcher in the Silverman Group at Northwestern, says he sees the value in creating mentorships for LGBT people in STEM fields. Like Rubert, Juncosa attended Purdue and was similarly hesitant to come out. But in his third year of graduate school, enough was enough. “I was thinking, ‘Why am I still beating myself up over this? I’m just going to put it out there,’” he says.

He says he, too, would like to mentor younger LGBT individuals coming up in STEM.

“I don’t want them to have any missed opportunities,” he says. “I try to encourage minority people that might feel that they wouldn’t be as accepted.”

BEYOND MENTORING

It was more difficult for Jonathan Dell to get even marginally involved with a broader LGBT community. A gay mechanical engineer, Dell works for an aerospace firm in Chicago.

“I worked at a large company and I didn’t know any other gays and lesbians in engineering. Surely there must be other people out there,” he says. He located NOGLSTP through Internet research and started emailing NOGLSTP board members to get involved.

In 2012, Dell helped recruit college students over Facebook for NOGLSTP’s biennial Out to Innovate conference. Out to Innovate brings together LGBT individuals interested in STEM fields, from high school students to professors emeriti. Dell relished the opportunity to interact socially and professionally in the context of the conference. “It’s neat to meet those people and hear how being gay or lesbian has affected their approach to STEM,” he says.

But not every LGBT person in STEM is drawn to broad conferences and concerted mentoring. A gay professor of mathematics at Northwestern, who preferred to remain nameless, says he does not feel kinship with the larger STEM community. “Pure mathematicians tend to affiliate with mathematicians,” he says. “They largely are going to feel it’s sort of irrelevant to them.”

In his experience, coming out is no longer a problem in a university setting, even one as traditionally male and heterosexual as STEM. “The most important role of an advisor is to professionalize someone,” he says. “Sexual orientation absolutely doesn’t come up.”

Further, he says he doubts his place in the conversation.

“I’m actually unsure to what extent it’s appropriate to talk with an undergraduate as a faculty member here about sexual orientation,” he says. “I’m here to teach mathematics.”

SOME UNITY IN STEM

Though each discipline within STEM approaches LGBT visibility through a unique lens, each has a common element: at the beginning of their career, a young scientist must focus on their profession, leaving little time for any other affiliations. Rubert tried to stay involved at his local chapter of NOGLSTP but found that graduate school was too taxing. “I had to be in the lab and had no time for extracurricular activities,” he says.

Juncosa said that for NOGLSTP to be effective, the organization would need to expand its membership. “They need to get people more interested in forming chapters and making meetings,” he says.

Dell said that moving Out to Innovate to an annual conference would be greatly beneficial to the larger NOGLSTP community—but it requires human capital. “It takes someone willing to a) have that time commitment and b) to promote the group or the cause,” he says.

This clashes with a second firmly-held belief of some LGBT people in STEM: that one’s career always comes first.

“You identify yourself as a scientist. That’s your identity. The sexuality component is secondary,” Patera says. Likewise, Juncosa says the majority of his professional decisions are driven by his research, not his desire for a gay community in his workplace.

As a result, STEM professionals like Rubert must be careful in how they approach the intersections of their identities and their work. Still, he’s among a small yet devoted group of professionals looking to change the game for future scientists, engineers and others who may find themselves in a similar situation.

“I’m not in a position of power right now, but when I’m a professor, I can do something about it,” he says.

Fortunately for those members of NOGLSTP not yet advanced in their careers, professors like Priest are willing to take the little afforded them and go the extra mile to establish a strong base within their field. To improve the culture for LGBT scientists and engineers, Priest says, those who are active in the community today must pass on their experience and passion to a new, more dedicated generation of STEM professionals: “People who have the time, who have the energy, who have the willingness.”

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© 2012 Medill Equal Media Project
Medill School of Journalism | Northwestern University
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