Why explicit and visible institutional support is important for LGBTQ+ trainees

row of stick figures with one rainbow stick figure X'ed out
Illustration by Imge Ozugergin

I grew up in India, where homosexuality was a criminal offense until September 2018 and was punishable by up to 10 years in prison.  I had moved to the United States long before that to pursue a PhD, and like many LGBTQ+ Indians, became very adept at being “in the closet,” depending on the context and company. Even as societal acceptance of LGBTQ+ people in India has grown post-decriminalization, it is still at a nascent stage. Indeed, LGBTQ+ people face varying levels of discrimination almost everywhere in the world. Whether or not to be “out at work” is a decision many international scientists, especially trainees, struggle with.

For me, the decision to “come out” at work was precipitated by a chance and somewhat unpleasant incident at work. This was early 2013, and I had just recently joined my PhD lab. Also in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court took up the “Defense of Marriage Act” (and eventually struck it down). I had joined a group of trainees for lunch in a common space when the topic of gay marriage came up, leading to a rather heated exchange with two extremely vocal opponents of marriage equality trotting out the usual homophobic tropes and others in the group forcefully pushing back. The argument ended only when a professor walked past us. Today I am embarrassed to say that I kept quiet through all of that. But this incident made me realize that being out at work would not alienate the rest of my cohort. So, the next day I came out to my advisor and a few other trainees. Over time, I was generally out at work, and I am happy to say that I never experienced any discrimination.

In the myriad of ups and downs in my PhD, this was a minor blip. But I was also very fortunate to be in Connecticut, which is generally LGBTQ+ friendly, and in early 2013, the US was making great strides in protecting LGBTQ+ rights. This incident made it clear to me that I need not hide myself from my colleagues. But for international LGBTQ+ scholars, especially those from countries with unfriendly policies towards LGBTQ+ people, the nuances of “coming out” to those around you can be quite complicated. For example, the first social interactions that an international scholar might have in a new country are with their co-workers, followed by the local immigrant community from their home country. For international LGBTQ+ scholars, especially those from countries with unfriendly policies towards LGBTQ+ people, this can be quite complicated. I was initially quite hesitant to come out at work because I was unsure whether I would face discrimination because of my sexual orientation, which could potentially complicate my immigration status. I was hesitant to be out to the local Indian community because I was not sure that I would be welcome, and I also wanted to avoid any possibility of being outed to my family at the time. I had heard horror stories of gay Indian men and women being outed to their families and then being forced into arranged heterosexual marriages. Indeed, on a trip back to India, when I came out to my family, I had left my passport and other immigration papers with a friend, just in case my parents tried to force me to stay. Thankfully, I need not have worried. It seems silly today, but the anxiety and stress in these situations were very real for me at the time, and I imagine this is still the case for many international LGBTQ+ scholars.

So, the question remains: what, if anything, can we do as a scientific community to alleviate these concerns? The first and most obvious step is education. Many international scholars need to be aware that they have the same protections and rights in the workplace as US citizens and permanent residents. This is particularly relevant in the context of protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity since the legal landscape in the US varies widely depending on the state and institution. Making the institutional policies and workers’/students’ rights clear during routine orientation may be one way to tackle this. Explicitly stating that these rights and protections are available to all workers, regardless of nationality, is very important. In addition, workplace orientation should include information on institutional HR policies on workplace discrimination since this would indicate to LGBTQ+ personnel whether (or not!) they are in a friendly work environment. Had there been a poster with a rainbow flag visible somewhere in my building in 2013, I may not have hesitated to be open about my sexuality at work. Today, many lab websites have a diversity statement indicating their policy welcoming people from diverse backgrounds. Explicitly including sexual orientation and gender identity in that statement can be very welcome. These may seem like symbolic gestures, but they can have a real impact on how comfortable someone feels in their workplace.

Two years ago, while chatting with some of my colleagues, I discovered that many believed that LGBTQ+ scientists no longer faced discrimination at work. This made me wonder if the faculty in my former program may also have been unaware of these issues. So, I reached out to the program chair and explained what had happened. They responded in a very positive manner, taking concrete steps to educate the department members about the institutional non-discrimination policies and clarifying the reporting structure for any incidents.

Based on my experiences in the US, I have come to think and believe that we, the greater scientific community, are broadly friendly and responsive towards LGBTQ+ issues, if sometimes unaware of them. Nevertheless, coming/being out at work is still a leap of faith, and it can be particularly precarious for international scholars. I was fortunate that I found my allies early in my career, and these co-workers have since become my support system in this country. But this worked out for me by sheer chance. Scientific research is all-consuming, and sometimes we can be oblivious to issues that people from different backgrounds may have to deal with. If we can reduce some of the concerns that LGBTQ+ scholars have about workplace policies, maybe we can all focus just that little bit more on solving scientific puzzles. After all, that is all what most of us want to do.

About the Author:

Abhijit Deb Roy is a postdoctoral fellow at the Johns Hopkins University Department of Cell Biology. He studies cytoskeletal dynamics in migrating cells, and he likes cats. Email: abhijit.debroy@gmail.com Lab website: https://pages.jh.edu/inouelab/people.html