Confetti swirled around me as I thumbed the edges of the bright pink button. “We come out every day,” it read. Round and glossy, it was the San Francisco Chronicle’s cheeky nod to the city's annual LGBTQ+ Pride parade.
As a science journalist, I tell stories and unravel mysteries about our planet and its processes. I reveal truths. But some truths—personal ones—are more difficult to grapple with.
I had just moved to San Francisco after graduating college, and I wanted to attend a Pride event for the first time. I didn't know anyone else in the city who openly identified as queer, and was not yet out to my coworkers. So I went alone. I've often felt isolated in my bisexuality—tucked in the space between two communities—not quite gay and not quite straight. I've struggled with these feelings since I began college in 2010.
In this sense, I know I’m not alone. I am incredibly fortunate to have always lived, worked and studied in communities that were safe and supportive. But so many of my peers in STEM’s LGBTQ+ community are not as lucky.
Several recent studies have highlighted the struggles of sexual and gender minorities in STEM. The findings are discouraging: LGBTQ+ students and professionals are dropping out of the sciences. More than 40 percent of LGBTQ+-identified people working in STEM fields are not out to their colleagues. Many of those who are have reported feeling unsafe or unwelcome in the workplace.
To learn more about this, I spoke with Joey Nelson, an environmental scientist and Thinking Matters Fellow at Stanford University, about his work with the Queer in STEM project. First pioneered by Jeremy Yoder and Allison Matthies (of California State University Northridge and California State University Los Angeles, respectively), the Queer in STEM Project has conducted two nationwide surveys in order to document the experiences of LGBTQ+-identified people in STEM. Findings from the first survey were published in 2016; Nelson and Daniel Cruz-Ramirez de Arellano, of the University of South Florida, are currently analyzing results from the second.
During our conversation, I was struck by something Nelson said: “We find our community when our community is visible.” I often wonder if having an early mentor who was also bisexual would have helped me learn to embrace my identity sooner. I admire Nelson because he’s aiming to become the mentor he never had. Our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, below.
Jennifer Leman: Have you always been interested in STEM? Were you a nerdy kid?
Joey Nelson: Absolutely. I was a math nerd when I was little—and I say "nerd" with a lot of love and pride. Growing up in North Carolina as a non-passing gay boy, science served as a haven for me.
I demonstrated aptitude for science, and had great teachers, professors and counselors who encouraged me to pursue it. I wound up majoring in mathematics and environmental science, so I could think about biology, physics, chemistry and math together as it related to the natural world.
JL: Tell me about the goal of the Queer in STEM project.
JN: The goal of the Queer in STEM project is to gain a qualitative and quantitative understanding of the experiences of sexual and gender minorities in STEM fields. Are they out? Are they succeeding in their careers? What kind of barriers do they face? What does a welcoming climate look like? What does an unwelcoming climate look like?
Importantly, we encouraged straight, cisgender respondents too, so that we could compare their experiences and emotions to a sexual and gender minority group in the STEM field.
JL: What are some of the challenges that folks within the LGBTQ+ community face?
JN: There’s not just one experience between all LGBTQ+ scientists. There are different experiences in the LGBTQ+ groups, and we’re finding that gender minorities are encountering a harder time compared to sexual minorities.
We asked about tangible experiences that can represent an overarching unwelcoming climate. We asked the frequency that people experienced being misgendered; having their sexual orientation presumed in the workplace; people using, misusing or disregarding someone's pronouns; and people using anti-LGBTQ+ epithets or derogatory comments.
JL: How do these experiences affect LGBTQ+ folks in the STEM field?
JN: The direct negation of information as you've communicated it, of someone imposing an identity on you naturally leads to difficult feelings or emotions, like the contemplation of “Do I correct them?” and “What does this mean?”
Those thoughts take time and energy away from one's job, and not because the queer community is more emotional or less able to stay on task. It's the cumulative effect of little things—which are not as direct and apparent as someone denying a promotion based on sexuality or gender identity. Those occurrences do happen in the world and have more direct, actionable legal ramifications, but it's also in more subtle ways that take time and energy away from [LGBTQ+ folks].
For queer people, coming out is an ongoing process. It's an activity in life that will always require time and energy taken away from something else. I wouldn't have it any other way, personally. At this point, I've done that work and love being a gay man in the world.
The paucity of mentors with a shared identity is really striking for sexual and gender minorities in STEM. That champion system to help you navigate a space as a certain identity is not widely available to members of this community in STEM fields.
JL: Did you have a mentor or someone that you looked up to?
JN: I didn’t have an openly queer mentor in STEM. I can't speculate as to what my life would be like had I had those opportunities at an earlier age.
I didn’t see that until connecting with the Out in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (OSTEM) community, which brought together faculty and technical professionals who were out. For a long time, I thought to myself “Okay, I don't have this, but I want people to have it.”
To me, visibility is huge. I am out. I have been out for a long time, and I am not just in my personal life, but in a professional setting. I introduce myself with pronouns when I give talks at conferences. It is very important to me because I have the security and the support in my life to be out without a significant detriment—no more than the average threat of physical violence as an outwardly-presenting gay man.
Because I have that privilege and ability, I feel it is my responsibility to be out in front of others. I encourage others who have that level of security to be out where they can, so they can be someone another person can find.
JL: What has it been like to mentor the next generation of underrepresented scientists?
JN: It's been one of the most rewarding things I've ever had the privilege of doing. Hands down.
I think: “Who was me yesterday? What do I wish I had known? What did I need then that perhaps I didn't have?” Sometimes, it's things like reading a cover letter or developing a mentorship relationship, or helping someone understand what questions to ask in an interview.
What's really been neat is having a gender expression that moves between masculine and feminine as a gay man, and having that presentation occur in the workplace as well as in my personal life. I've gotten to share that experience particularly with folks in the queer community whose gender expression is not of a binary, and have had amazing conversations about what it means to be a cisgender gay man who, for example, wears colorful bobby pins to a work interview.
That is a radical act of defiance in some cases.
JL: Looking forward, how can we build a welcoming environment for LGBTQ+ folks in the STEM community?
JN: We actually see a relationship between safety and outness. Certainly, one can't do their job if they're living in fear. The safer the environment was, the higher the proportion of respondents in our pool were out. That’s a testament to how important the welcoming nature of a workplace is.
As a grad student, my lab group was the most important community. The department could have been homophobic, but really what mattered most was if my lab group [was].
Non-discrimination policies are seminal, necessary work, but it's also about shifting culture—away from a gender binary, away from a heteronormative framework—moving that scale from detached tolerance to aware acceptance, and ultimately, hopefully to celebration of the diversity that different perspectives bring.
We're finding that a majority of STEM people are not out in the workplace. So, living as though there is always someone from the LGBTQ+ community present can be a helpful mindset for [allies], so they think critically about how to be inclusive at all times.
JL: What resources are available for LGBTQ+ folks in the STEM field?
JN: Along with OSTEM, there's also National Organization for Gay and Lesbian Science Technical Professionals (NOGLSTP). Many companies also have employee resource groups.
When researching a company, you're not just doing homework on what they pay. What are their partner and health benefits? Do they have gender affirmation surgery coverage? Larger groups like the Human Rights Campaign have lawyers specialized in LGBTQ+ issues; talking to them about how to sort through that information is helpful.
JL: Why are studies like this important?
JN: It's been well documented that diversity means better science. This work is better understanding how we can support a component of diversity that is critical to the advancement of science in America. From that nationalistic perspective, I think it's critical for the advancement of science and contributing to diversity.
For me, personally, this is another step toward creating communities people can live in, work in and someday be celebrated in. For some, that means making a workplace safe. For some, it looks like having the company go to the town pride [parade]. For other companies, it means installing a gender-neutral bathroom.
It's all those different things that are required so that people feel comfortable and celebrated in their identity, and that the community they live and work with can see [their identity] as additive, valuable and constructive to the sciences.