Building a community of LGBTQ+ cell biologists at ASCB

“But am I gay enough?” It was 2017; I received a call from Lee Ligon, the Co-Chair of the LGBTQ+ task force at ASCB at the time, asking me if I would be the speaker for the LGBTQ+ Diversity session at the Society’s Annual Meeting. I remember that phone call vividly: I was at the Marine Biological Laboratory, standing near the docks overlooking the sea, my head buzzing with insecurities. Yes, I was getting comfortable with my own identity and was out at my university, but since my name would be published in the ASCB program I had to ask myself, was I ready to be out nationwide? I was not a vocal gay activist well versed in diversity lingo. I was a quiet scientist who had come out to family and colleagues seemingly not that long ago. What could I offer to the audience about their questions on LGBTQ+ issues in science, as I was just learning about the nuances myself? After a lovely conversation with Lee in which she patiently listened to all my doubts, I accepted the invitation to speak and am so glad I did. Attended by my friends and colleagues, the session turned into a meaningful occasion of “coming out to my ASCB family.”

I grew up in a time and place where I lacked LGBTQ+ role models. As a student contemplating my career path, I seriously questioned whether someone openly LGBTQ+ could truly succeed in medicine or research; all I saw was that the leaders around the table were mostly straight white men. I harbored fears that being openly LGBTQ+ might harm my chances of getting a job, tenure, or possible leadership positions. In my formative years, I didn’t get to see LGBTQ+ scientists who were openly out; my path may have been different if I’d had a suitable mentor. When I did come out (in mid-career), I made a commitment to be open and present myself as a role model. Now, in presentations and lectures, I routinely introduce myself to students as a gay Asian-American. I put myself on “out-lists” such as the 500 Queer Scientists list, and am currently writing this blog post. Even in today’s more queer-accepting climate, there is still a pressing need for out LGBTQ+ role models and mentors. During roundtable discussions at ASCB, I have been moved by students who told us that they have never met an LGBTQ+ scientist before coming to the meeting. I have come to appreciate that as role models, mentors, and educators, we have potential just by being ourselves to inspire in unexpectedly profound ways. 

About four years after Lee’s call, I am now honored to be serving as the Co-Chair of the LGBTQ+ Committee at ASCB. Throughout my career, I have sought to build scientific communities. Now, working with an enthusiastic and dedicated group of colleagues on the committee, I have found meaningful opportunities to foster a community of LGBTQ+ cell biologists at ASCB.

To help build this community, the LGBTQ+ Committee is working on a range of initiatives to bring together and support LGBTQ+ members and allies at ASCB. For example, we are planning multiple sessions at the Annual Meeting to support and celebrate LGBTQ+ scientists and learners, and to teach mentors how best to support LGBTQ+ members. These sessions will include opportunities for roundtable discussions and networking so that we all get to meet each other, give advice, and share experiences. Importantly, we hope to continue the dialogue among the community throughout the year through tweets, blogs, and webinars. 

A challenge of building community is to identify and reach its members; we need to get a sense of how many we are. Does the LGBTQ+ community represent 1-, 5-, or 10-percent of the Society membership? To this end, the committee plans to survey ASCB members to ask who identifies as LGBTQ+ and what the needs of the community are. One of my personal projects is the establishment of an LGBTQ+ “speakers list” where members can put themselves on a public list on the ASCB website. Ostensibly, this list will facilitate the selection of diverse speakers at scientific meetings and other forums. As more organizations seek to diversify invitations for speakers at meetings and nominees for awards and leadership, there is a rising need to have ways of identifying LGBTQ+ scientists for these nominations. For instance, as part of a new diversity, equity and inclusion plan, ASCB has recently committed to consider diversity factors, including LGBTQ+, as criteria in choosing leadership, program chairs, and speakers. Importantly, this speakers list will serve a critical purpose in identifying out LGBTQ+ cell biologists as potential role models and mentors, and in expanding an LGBTQ+ network to establish community.

I often hear the sentiment that “I don’t need to come out at work, because my science has little to do with my sexual orientation.” In my personal journey, my decision to come out professionally and get involved with the community has been a profoundly rewarding one for my career and my personal growth as a human being. Being part of this growing community of LGBQT+ cell biologists has enriched my scientific network as well as my social circle. I feel privileged to serve this LGBTQ+ community as well as the larger, diverse community of ASCB and am excited to contribute to ASCB’s various missions ranging from supporting scientific progress to education, career development, public policy, and diversity.

About the Author:

Fred Chang is a Professor at UCSF and current Co-Chair of the LGBTQ+ Committee at ASCB. Email: Lab website: Twitter: @fredchanglab