It’s encouraging, says Bruno Da Rocha-Azevedo, a postdoc at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas about the resolution passed this week in Philadelphia by the ASCB Council to formally include lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ+) scientists as integral to the society’s mandate to advance diversity in the scientific workforce. The Council also authorized the formation of a subcommittee on LGBTQ+ diversity to follow up on ways to do just that.
Da Rocha-Azevedo helped put the LGBTQ+ issue on Council’s radar with a petition circulated at the New Orleans meeting last year through COMPASS, ASCB’s postdoc and graduate student committee. Drafted for Council by ASCB Executive Director Stefano Bertuzzi and ASCB Director of Public Policy Kevin Wilson, the newly approved resolution says, “that employment in science should be free of discrimination based on race, gender, age, religious affiliation, ethnicity, disability, and sexual orientation, or gender identity.”
The ASCB has long supported workforce diversity, says Da Rocha-Azevedo, with a history going back to the establishment of the Minority Affairs Committee (MAC) and the Women In Cell Biology (WICB) Committee. Indeed, there has been an LGBTQ+ session at the ASCB Annual Meeting for the past 11 years, he says. Adding LGBTQ+ scientists to ASCB’s diversity mandate may be a formality but it gives new visibility to what has been “an invisible minority,” he says.
Da Rocha-Azevedo is under no illusion that the Council resolution approved at its winter meeting will magically remove what he calls “serious career issues” for LGBTQ+ scientists in ASCB. Many states are fiercely resisting legal recognition of same sex unions and many institutions will not give same sex partners access to “family” benefits such as health insurance. Indeed, says Da Rocha-Azevedo, there are still institutions and whole regions of the U.S. where LGBTQ+ scientists must go back into the closet in order to take up appointments or fellowships. Such attitudes affect LGBTQ+ students as well. “People are picking places not just for the science but most people in science don’t talk about these things,” Da Rocha-Azevedo explains The Council resolution might at least bring more of those discussions into the open at ASCB.
The resolution also opens the way for showcasing role models of highly successful research scientists who are LGBTQ+. He says, “In all these communities, we have a need for role models. Young people look around and say to themselves, ‘I’m gay. Can I be a great scientist?’ Now we can showcase the diversity that already exists in bioscience research,” says Da Rocha-Azevedo, reassuring students entering the field that their sexual orientation or gender identification is not going to kill their career prospects. ASCB is saying that here is a safe place where LGBTQ+ people can talk about their private and professional lives in science. “It’s all a matter of giving space for people to discuss their issues,” says Da Rocha-Azevedo.