The power of representation and role models for LGBTQ+ scientists


I remember the moment I recognized my queerness for what it was, when I first learned there were options for my sexuality other than “gay” or, the default, “straight.” I remember the rush of self-awareness that this knowledge brought with it–the retrospective understanding of my feelings, the sense that everything finally made sense. Since then, our language around gender and sexuality has grown to give others that same sense of belonging and solidarity I got to experience all those years ago. What a gift it is to realize for the first time that you are not alone in your experiences.

More so even than vocabulary, the number of LGBTQ+ characters in media and pop culture has expanded dramatically. Research on race and gender has reliably shown the effects of media representation on the self-esteem of children (1). Therefore, one can imagine a similar trend emerging in sexuality research in the years to come. The boom of LGBTQ+ representation in the world has given me an image of myself in the world. I wonder whether I would have understood my own sexuality sooner and felt that wave of awareness earlier, had these examples been available when I was growing up.

While it’s incredible to see the growth of LGBTQ+ representation in media, the next step for me, as a queer scientist, is to improve representation in my field. When I attended the LGBTQ+ Task Force Networking Session at the ASCB annual meeting last year, I didn’t know quite what to expect. Being in a room full of other LGBTQ+ scientists was a new experience for me. Beforehand, I didn’t know there were so many of us, and it inspired me to join the LGBTQ+ Task Force to help grow these opportunities within the community.

What spoke to me most at the meetup was our discussion on the importance of being out and visible at every level of scientific training and research. A Pride flag in a professor’s office or a note reading “LGBTQ+ Scientist” on a syllabus or presentation were not parts of my scientific training. Until a few years into graduate school, I had no examples of out and visible scientists in the careers to which I aspire, and the other LGBTQ+ graduate students around me seemed to be in similar positions. The women who have mentored me in science since before I knew I wanted to become a scientist have been integral to my training and growth. I can only imagine how LGBTQ+ mentors might have expanded my view of what a scientist can be.

As a queer woman in a mixed-orientation relationship, I don’t always know how I fit into the LGBTQ+ community. And yet, I am lucky to be part of a community that understands that and gives me the space to shift, grow, and strive to understand my own queerness without pressure or expectation. Even on the days when I don’t feel “queer enough,” being a part of the community, and the Task Force, means that I’m not alone in trying to answer the questions that filter through the intersection of my sexuality and my career. How can I present to make it clear that I am not straight? How can I make biology a safer place for my LGBTQ+ colleagues? How can I be a beacon of queer representation in science for my peers and those who will come after me?

These are big questions, and I try to approach them with the same patience with which I approach the uncertainties of science. Sometimes finding the answers takes time. Despite the uncertainty inherent to something as fluid as sexuality, I am certain that increasing LGBTQ+ representation and visibility in science will benefit everyone in our field. Surely supplementing our self-awareness can only continue to move our field forward. And perhaps one day, young scientists in their moments of self-awareness will find a smoother path with more visible role models ahead of them.




About the Author:

Erica Gorenberg is a PhD candidate in the Interdepartmental Neuroscience Program at Yale University. She is interested in protein interactions at the synapse, and neurodegenerative disease. Follow Erica on Twitter @EricaGorenberg1.