Becoming an LGBTQ+ ally as a mentor or peer

Regardless of your background, almost everyone has had the experience of feeling like an outsider. For some of us, it happens less frequently, but for others, it is woven into the very fabric of our existence. From the very moment we realized we were different from most of the people around us, the feeling is there. It is inescapable and affects us as humans and as scientists. This feeling is a burden that makes an already difficult career as a scientist even more challenging. It drags us down, creating extra pressure because we feel like everyone is watching us.

Finding comfort and support from peers and mentors is an important way of dealing with these feelings and thus realizing our true potential. A critical part of realizing your potential as a scientist involves developing a support network. This is true for everyone but even more so for LGBTQ scientists. Developing this support network is an important role of ASCB’s LGBTQ+ Task Force, and so we welcome everyone to our events. In addition, I want to encourage everyone to become a better colleague and a better mentor by becoming part of this support network yourself.

I used to think it was OK to be indifferent toward diversity, that if we just ignore our differences then everyone can be equal. But that position doesn’t help anyone feel accepted, and it doesn’t free our LGBTQ friends from the burden of a lifetime of fear. It is not enough to be indifferent, which ignores the very real consequences of persecution and bigotry. We need to encourage everyone to be able to express themselves in the way that the privileged majority never thinks about. This, in my opinion, is the importance of allies: We are here to say that even though we can’t possibly understand your struggles, we want to try to help. We’re here to listen, to defend you and to support you.

We cannot do this passively or silently. We must loudly stand up against bigotry and discrimination. As peers, we can lend an ear for concerns that we may not understand or share, but it can make a big difference in the life and success of our colleagues.

As mentors, we need to realize that being a good mentor means being part of that support network. It means taking the time to get to know each mentee personally as well as professionally and providing support and understanding in a way that is sensitive to everyone’s different life experience. Part of the problem with privilege is that it is so difficult to know how your life has been different from someone less privileged. But such a level of empathy is exactly what is required to be a good ally. Fortunately, this level of empathy is easily attainable for even the most privileged. The beauty of diversity is that it is everywhere if you open yourself to it. Everyone can listen and learn and become a better ally.

For peers as well as mentors, part of being a better ally is making inclusion a priority. This can be as simple as using the right words. For example, it is a simple gesture to avoid gender-specific terms if you are unsure of how someone or their partner wants to identify. Likewise, it is important to use the appropriate terms once you know how someone identifies, being careful to let them decide under what circumstances they want to make this information public. This might seem complicated, but it’s really not. It just requires that you be aware, be considerate, and be engaged. Sometimes being engaged just means having a conversation with your coworker or mentee. If they know you make an effort to be inclusive, they will feel much more comfortable talking to you when they are ready.

As allies, we can make a difference! During Pride month, let’s celebrate the strength of our friends and find the strength to better support them.

About the Author:

Erik is an Instructor at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, where he uses computer vision and light sheet microscopy to study how the subcellular distribution of signaling proteins shapes cell fate. He joined the LGBTQ+ task force in 2019 after an inspirational first visit to ASCB in 2018, and looks forward to making our community more supportive and more inclusive for everyone. twitter @ErikWelf