Making the undergraduate biology classroom inclusive of LGBTQ+ students

This is the fourth and final essay in a series of blog posts to be released this quarter by the ASCB LGBTQ+ committee under the theme of “Building a Welcoming Community for LGBTQ+ Scientists.” As this is posted many of us will be starting to teach undergraduate classes – Our ultimate source of scientists. In this post, Dr. Sara Brownwell shares some thoughts on the importance of LGBTQ+ representation in the classroom,  an area that she has actively researched.

It is the committee’s hope that this post, along with the preceding four essays following this theme, have provided you with new insights (or reminders!) as to how you can and should be inclusive and encouraging towards LGBTQ+ researchers. Finally, remember that diversity in research will improve your research. ~ Claire Thomas

A few years ago, as an early career assistant professor, I was waiting outside of a large lecture hall for students in the previous class to finish an exam before I went in to teach the next class. As students exited, there was the typical buzz of conversations about what the right answers were to particular questions and how certain questions were confusing. I couldn’t help but overhear that most students were talking about the trick question of the test: a genetics pedigree question that asked about the genotype of the children of two circles on the pedigree.

Was this question testing student knowledge about incomplete dominance, X-linked genes, or the probability of inheriting recessive traits? Nope. This upper-level genetics exam question was testing whether students knew that circles indicated female on the pedigree and whether female organisms could mate to produce progeny. The correct answer on the multiple-choice question was that two women can’t have children. Setting aside the issue that this question did not actually test anyone’s understanding of genetics, it revealed the conflation of sex and gender, the assumption that one’s children need to be biologically related, and the heteronormative nature of pedigrees that asserts that all female humans are straight and cis-gender. As literally dozens of students laughed about the question and made jokes about lesbians, I felt deeply uncomfortable, upset, and abnormal, all feelings that I had spent years working through in my own journey of accepting my LGBTQ+ identity as a gay woman. If I felt that way as a privileged assistant professor not worrying about my grade in that course, how must the LGBTQ+ students in that class be feeling?

A growing body of literature documents that LGBTQ+ individuals are marginalized in undergraduate biology. A recent study showed that the persistence of LGBQ+ students in science is lower than non-LGBQ+ students. An interview study with biology undergraduates found that LGBTQ+ students are hesitant to share their LGBTQ+ identity with other students in biology classes for fear that the students may not want to work with them. Textbooks and classroom curricula are typically devoid of inclusive language and examples for LGBTQ+ students when presenting information about genetics, evolution, or physiology. Even LGBTQ+ biology instructors are more likely to be out to their colleagues than students in their classes, likely contributing to the invisibility and presumed inappropriateness of this identity in the context of undergraduate biology classrooms. In fact, undergraduate biology LGBTQ+ students indicated that having an out LGBTQ+ instructor would be impactful, but they worried about the negative ramifications for the instructor revealing that identity in a professional environment.

So, what can be done to make undergraduate biology classes more inclusive for LGBTQ+ students? Here are four concrete recommendations for instructors based on a larger set of recommendations to make academic biology more inclusive for LGBTQ+ individuals:

  1. Present LGBTQ+ role models in science. If an instructor identifies as LGBTQ+, please consider the potential positive benefits on students of coming out. Although some LGBTQ+ instructors are concerned about this taking away class time, this can be done in less than 10 seconds as part of an introduction to who the instructor is on the first day of class. This approach can also help de-stigmatize the identity by presenting it as a component of one’s identity along with hobbies and pets. If the instructor is not LGBTQ+ or is not comfortable sharing their identity with the class, then other examples of LGBTQ+ biologists can be presented to students to help them see successful scientists who have been able to navigate their identities as LGBTQ+ biologists. Scientist Spotlights is a collection of scientists with varying identities, including LGBTQ+ identities, which can be incorporated into curriculum.
  • Don’t avoid discussions related to LGBTQ+ identity. Be cognizant of the intersections of the identity and biology content and discuss the full range of gender and sexuality in biology. Avoiding the topic not only perpetuates the myths that there are only two genders and that every organism is heterosexual, but it can also make LGBTQ+ people feel unseen and that the material is not relevant to them in the learning environment. These instances can be perceived as microaggressions and may contribute to LGBTQ+ individuals not feeling as though they belong in biology.
  • Be careful about pop culture and humor references, particularly if one is referencing decades old movies or tv shows where homophobia and transphobia were often blatant. LGBTQ+ students are more likely than non-LGBTQ+ students to be offended by jokes made by science instructors about LGBTQ+ individuals, but more generally they are also more offended than non-LGBTQ+ students about jokes related to other underserved or marginalized identities. These jokes can serve as microinsults by reinforcing negative stereotypes about LGBTQ+ individuals. 
  • As college biology classrooms are transitioned into active learning spaces, there are more interactions between the instructor and student and among students. These increased interactions can present more opportunities for LGBTQ+ students to meet other LGBTQ+ students, but there are also greater chances that LGBTQ+ students may be required to work with someone intolerant of their identity, they may be misgendered by the instructor in front of the whole class, or they may be put into a position where they feel forced to come out. In all classrooms, but particularly active learning classrooms, normalize the sharing of pronouns and the inclusion of LGBTQ+ identities into discussions about inclusive classroom cultures. Allow LGBTQ+ students to pick who they want to work with and keep groups consistent to help students establish pronouns. 

That moment overhearing student jokes about two women not being able to have children has stuck with me. Instead of recoiling back into being the butt of that genetics test question’s joke, for me, it was part of the impetus to bring more of my LGBTQ+ identity into the classroom and my research that I do. I began coming out to students on the first day of my 300-person undergraduate biology class and conducting education research to explore the impact of that decision on all students in the class, not only the LGBTQ+ students in the class. I started speaking up when I noticed curriculum, language, or policies that were not inclusive for LGBTQ+ students. And I incorporated that flawed genetics question into a workshop that I have run for hundreds of people on how to spot biases in exam questions, in hopes of preventing a similarly biased question from being administered to students on a formal assessment. I get great satisfaction when workshop participants ask if that was a real question and the response is a groan, as opposed to a laugh. It does get better. 

About the Author:

Sara Brownell is a professor in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University. As a discipline-based education researcher, she conducts research to try to make undergraduate biology learning environments more inclusive for women, religious students, students with disabilities, and LGBTQ+ students.