Friday, 27 September 2013 00:00

An Invisible-Becoming-Visible Minority?

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LGBTWe recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of the march on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr's I Have a Dream speech. A critical step towards civil rights was established at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Fifty years later, we are seeing in real time the fastest civil rights movement in history. In 1996, only 27% of Americans agreed that those in same-sex marriages should have the same rights as traditional marriages. In 2013, this number is 53% [1]. Since Denmark first granted legal recognition to same-sex couples in 1989, 15 other countries and 13 states in the United States have fully recognized same-sex marriage. We are far from full equality, but it is undeniable that the change has been fast.

The understanding of equality seems to be related to education, since the higher the educational level of an individual, the higher the acceptance of gay rights [2]. Consequently, in the scientific/academic world, more tolerance and openness is normally observed. The logical question then is: "So is equality really an issue for scientists?"

The answer is: Yes, it is.

You may disagree, but I defend the position using clear examples by which equality is still an issue for gay scientists: 1) partner benefits, and 2) social affairs.

Most renowned private universities and big biotech companies provide same-sex partner benefits; however, this scenario changes when we look at public universities. Public universities in the United States depend mostly on their state's policies regarding the definition of union and marriages. Therefore in places like Texas, Oklahoma, and many other states, same-sex partners do not have the same access to benefits as heterosexual partners. Thus, sexual orientation diversity can have a strong influence in the decision of where to apply for college or graduate school, and postdoctoral and other academic positions. As a consequence, universities that do not have same-sex spouse benefits can lose recruiting power [3, 4]. For example, Nicholas Shumway, Professor Emeritus of the department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Texas in Austin, stated when he was the chair of the department in 2008:

"In sum, we failed to make the best hire because UT does not offer same-sex spouse benefits. I' m certain that versions of this story get played out across campus every year. Indeed, without a meaningful change on same-sex spouse benefits, UT will always be at a hiring disadvantage in comparison with the best universities in the country, both public and private" [3].

Moreover, it has been shown that including same-sex benefits would increase the overall university annual expenditure for health insurance by just 0.6%, which is an insignificant budget increase [3]. University faculty and staff usually favor equality, but the problem is that the legislators who make the rules and budgets do not necessarily favor LGBT rights. How can we change this tide? By showing society (as represented by your state legislators) that universities can lose recruitment power (and as a result, academic excellence) due to discrimination [5].

The choice and the acceptance of an academic position is a hard and multifactorial decision, especially in these tough economic times. It depends on salaries, grants, research capabilities, mentorship, benefits, and location. But for LGBT scientists, university standing for equality should be an important part of the mosaic of factors driving the decision-making process.

The other issue is cloudier, even invisible. Some people would not call it an issue. But how about going to an end-of-the-year department party holding hands with a same-sex partner? Or how about listening to a sexist joke or a stereotypical comment about gays at the lunch table? LGBT is a sexual orientation minority that is not obvious and is present in all other classic minorities. Despite the high level of tolerance among scientists, some LGBT students and scientists adopt a "don't ask, don't tell" behavior, leaving the separation between work and social life pretty well marked.

"How was your weekend? It was good; I went hiking with my partner." This should be a simple, stress-free, statement to be expressed anywhere on campus (in the lab too). Being open inspires others and creates respect among your peers. There is no rule for how to address your sexual orientation. That's why support and conversation always help. Workplaces, universities, and scientific societies should participate in this conversation.

Some scientific societies are already well-positioned on LGBT rights. The American Chemical Society, the American Statistical Association, the American Meteorological Society, the American Astronomical Society, and others have LGBT groups, some included in minority committees, some as independent groups. In a broader level, there is a professional organization focused on LGBT rights for scientists. The National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals (NOGLSTP) is a non-profit organization associated with the AAAS created in the 1980s to advocate for LGBT rights. More information can be found at their website.

The ASCB has a long tradition of supporting the LGBT community by having a LGBT session during the Annual Meetings, but perhaps it is time to broaden the conversation to discuss the presence of LGBT cell biologists in minority committees or the creation of a LGBT task force to discuss LGBT scientist-specific issues, such as discrimination, benefits, immigration, and many other topics.

Segregation and discrimination usually fall when people set good examples. There are many excellent gay actors, journalists, politicians, military personnel, engineers, teachers, bankers, waiters, mailmen, and others. Why not excellent gay scientists? It is just a matter of saying: Yes I am.

[1] http://www.gallup.com/poll/162398/sex-marriage-support-solidifies-above.aspx
[2] http://www.pewforum.org/files/2003/11/religion-homosexuality.pdf
[3] http://www.utexas.edu/staff/pefsa/DPBreport.pdf
[4] Closeted discoveries: LGBT scientists. 
[5] http://www.dailytexanonline.com/news/2013/03/20/bill-could-allow-ut-employees-to-share-benefits-with-same-sex-partners

Bruno da Rocha-Azevedo

Bruno Da Rocha-Azevedo has been interested in how cells interact with their environment since college. During his Ph.D. studies and his first postdoc in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and Richmond, VA, Bruno discovered how pathogenic amoebas interact with host mammalian cells and components of the host extracellular matrix, applying Cell Biology concepts in Microbiology. Currently as postdoctoral researcher at the Dept.of Cell Biology at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, Bruno is expanding his knowledge of cell - microenvironment relationships studying the interaction between fibroblasts and three-dimensional collagen matrices as a model to study skin wound healing at Fred Grinnell's lab.

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