Pride month 2023 has come and gone. Corporate rainbow pride campaigns are now back to their traditional colors, fewer pride flags line city streets, and city-wide pride celebrations are now a wonderful memory. Pride month is a special time for queer individuals and our allies. It is a time to come together, to protest injustices towards our community, and to celebrate our collective accomplishments on the road to equality and justice. Pride goers fill their emotional buckets with a sense of belonging, a powerful fuel to be a louder, more confident version of themselves. As in the theme of San Diego, CA pride this year, pride gives us the motivation and energy to not only subsist, but to THRIVE.

This got us at ASCB thinking… What can we do as scientists, teachers, and mentors to promote minoritized voices from the LGBTQ+ community? How can we bring that feeling of pride to our labs, classrooms, and departments all year long? How can we help those around us THRIVE?

We are Joseph Campanale and Jonah Rosas, a mentor/mentee pair, labmates, intellectual colleagues working on the same projects, fellow gay men working in the same lab at the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB), and friends. Together we reflected on how our experiences as out-and-proud scientists have evolved over our careers, and we would like to share a few tools and techniques from our experiences that made us feel a part of our academic communities. Together, we believe that we can promote and celebrate all the diverse voices in our labs and classrooms across the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB) community.

Let’s start with the facts. LGBTQ+ individuals are less likely to participate in STEM fields and even less likely to live as an Out person in academic settings. Being queer means that arriving as our authentic selves is a daily and conscious decision that can be challenging at every career stage. With every new space we enter, there comes a decision to either show or conceal our identities at great personal and emotional cost. For example, we often find ourselves surveying new spaces (conferences, labs, and even conversations) to determine if they are safe to be openly queer. If they are safe spaces where we can share our queer identities in a judgment- and ramification-free zone, then our true creativity, purpose, and motivation thrive in these spaces. So, here are a few actionable ways in which you can create a safe space where all individuals can thrive. Most of these recommendations are for the lab but can easily be adapted to the classroom or department setting.

Many great resources speak about creating LGBTQ+ inclusive spaces (Cooper et al., 2020). We also encourage you to check out the past blogs from the ASCB LGBTQ+ Committee related to this topic. Here we build on a selection of these recommendations and offer sample strategies to employ in your group. Our recommendations come from our shared experiences as mentors and mentees in several labs at multiple institutions.

  • Language is a powerful tool for creating a safe space that enables effective mentoring. Learning, and more importantly using, language that promotes inclusivity is key. Cooper et al., 2020 has a thorough list of LGBTQ+ inclusive terms and their definitions. Using that list can be challenging at first, so start small by adding your preferred pronouns to your lab’s website. Encourage graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, staff scientists, undergraduates, etc. to include their preferred pronouns in their laboratory bios should they choose to share. For groups with long-standing websites, there are always opportunities to update websites with pronouns. Add pronouns to your Zoom profile, to title slides of talks, and to name badges at conferences. If the society or organization does not have an option to add pronouns to badges, contact their administration to make it a possibility. As a leader, set the example and then offer your team the opportunity to add their preferred pronouns in similar situations. Do not make it mandatory but optional for those who would like to do so. This signals to current lab members that you are interested in learning something about their authentic selves and in referring to them in a way that makes them comfortable. It also signals to future potential members that you offer a safe space for them to join.
  • A second simple change of language that goes a long way in creating a safe, open space is avoiding gendered language (i.e., husband, girlfriend) when asking about a lab member’s partner. Using this language makes an assumption and causes someone to defend their authenticity rather than sharing it in a safe space. Use gender-neutral language that offers the opportunity for someone to open up, if they choose to do so, and tell you something about themselves. For example, JC is married to his husband, and this gives him the chance to share that information without it being assumed that his partner is his wife (which for JC would be offensive). This small change in language makes a huge difference in allowing lab members to self-identify and feel included in a space. Think about how you might feel if someone misgendered you, or assumed your partner was not who they were. You might feel offended and refrain from opening up about yourself in the future. Language is just one way to make an inclusive environment.
  • Environment matters. Create an environment that makes it possible for lab members to be out and proud. Once someone feels safe to live as their authentic selves, they can contribute as a team member more fully and without fear of judgment. The goal is not to coax out more about lab members than they feel comfortable sharing, but to create the space for them to make the decision to share on their timeline. Every individual has different boundaries and comfort levels across the LGBTQ+ community. Creating this environment may mean creating a new culture within the group or classroom. At lab meetings in the Montell Lab at UCSB, each presenter takes the first 5-10 minutes to share something about themselves in the form of a few PowerPoint slides. This can be kept relatively surface if the person chooses–Where they grew up or went to college, what they worked on in past research positions etc. This introduction can be a more personal opportunity for lab members to share aspects about themselves–What are their hobbies, who are their family (biological or chosen). Moreover, this can be a chance for someone to share other personal aspects of their identity including whether they are a member of the LGBTQ+ community, or if they are first-generation college students. Whatever they share, we have found it a very welcome way to create a sense of community and learn more about our colleagues. We think you can learn a lot from your colleagues as well.
  • Physical and virtual spaces can be easily decorated with inclusive language and images. For example, safe space stickers are a welcomed addition to physical spaces that welcome LGBTQ+ students into labs and classrooms. Simply adding a Lab Diversity and Inclusion Poster to lab websites sends a strong message that you value and celebrate inclusivity across the spectrum of cultural, biological, physical, and geographical diversity. To go one step further, you may choose to post a thoughtful and honest diversity statement. Whether for individuals in your lab or undergraduates in a course, a diversity statement goes a long way in demanding respect for safe shared spaces. Diversity statements work to create community-level expectations, and the reality is that inclusivity is not a passive exercise. These actions will signal to your trainees and students that you value, respect, and celebrate diversity, including the LGBTQ+ community.
  • Many university campuses have centers that are dedicated to serving the mental and social health of people from minoritized backgrounds, including the LGBTQ+ community. These centers have listservs and websites to promote events, workshops, and training opportunities. Even if your university does not have a similar center, professional societies, like ASCB, have committees dedicated to minoritized groups with additional resources and training for their members (including the one you are reading right now). Try accessing the resources available through professional organizations and disseminate these resources to your trainees and students. Another idea might be to appoint a rotating trainee to give an update on the upcoming workshops and seminars to the lab group at the start of the lab meeting. A community service liaison position could also be created. This could be a rotating position so that all trainees can participate in creating a culture of awareness and resource dissemination.
  • Invite openly Out LGBTQ+ seminar speakers to present for a departmental seminar a few times a year. You can access the ASCB Out speaker list (or even add your name to this list). The speakers on this list added their names as a resource of Out cell biologists to showcase the diversity among cell biologists to students, postdocs, and faculty. Moreover, you can support your trainees by encouraging them to apply for and participate in workshops on LGBTQ+ issues at universities or conferences. A very casual “hey this is happening, I wanted you to have the information so you can participate if you want”, is always welcomed. Be delicate with these conversations and avoid tokenizing LGBTQ+ students within your group.

The LGBTQ+ community is rich in its diversity, compassion, and resilience. By amplifying and supporting these voices in science, we create new opportunities for learning and growth. As out and proud gay scientists, we have met and collaborated with a diverse community of talented scientists who have helped us champion our own identities and push our collective science further. Try implementing some of these strategies in your lab or classroom and watch your group THRIVE.

About the Author:

Joseph Campanale is an Assistant Project Scientist in the Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology Department at the University of California Santa Barbara
Jonah Rosas is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Biomolecular Science and Engineering program at the University of California Santa Barbara.