Representation matters: The need for LGBTQ+ to be part of the minority conversation

June is Pride Month, the month we celebrate LGBTQ+ communities and their diversity. As you probably noticed, companies, government buildings, and streets fill up with rainbow colors to cheer for a community that has been and still is at risk of intense discrimination and violence. When June comes, it is always important to remember why June is Pride Month: to honor the 1969 Stonewall Uprising in New York City—a series of protests in response to clashes between police and members of the LGBTQ+ community. It is a movement led by drag queens, Black, Hispanic, and transgender people.

We celebrate Pride Month always keeping in mind that everything started as a protest, a call for equal rights and an end to violence. LGBTQ+ rights have been turning into law across the United States. Nationally, LGBTQ+ rights were further consolidated by two critical opinions of the Supreme Court of the United States: Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), which granted same-sex marriages nationwide; and Bostock v. Clayton County (2019), which granted the inclusivity of sexual orientation and gender identity under the umbrella of title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Even though our rights seem consolidated, LGBTQ+ rights have been threatened in different states, aiming to challenge the establish decisions of the SCOTUS. The fight for our rights is not over. We should always remain on high alert.

The fight for a full sense of equality and inclusivity comes together with the concept that, despite all the successes achieved and all the visibility that the LGBTQ+ community has gained in recent years, we are a minority group, and because of that we as a
community are more likely to experience discrimination and violence. Unlike racial/demographic minorities, the number of LGBTQ+ individuals cannot be readily assessed, since it requires self-identification.

The issue of how to identify LGBTQ+ individuals for the purpose of crafting policy has created situations where LGBTQ+ concerns were left out of certain Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) workplans, most notably the National Institutes of Health’s Chief Officer for Scientific Workforce Diversity (COSWD) Strategic Plan, which very vaguely references LGBTQ+ people in their DEI planning [1]. The ASCB quickly responded to the COSWD asking that LGBTQ+ people be included in the strategic plan. The ASCB’s own Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Strategic Plan includes LGBTQ+ as underrepresented individuals in STEM[2]. Not considering LGBTQ+ as members of a minority group may eliminate the opportunity to increase our visibility and representation in science. With that, I would like to discuss why LGBTQ+ people should be considered an underrepresented minority in STEM.

Because Numbers Matter

Polling data from Gallup [3] showed that 7.2% Americans self-identified as LGBTQ+, with 20% of GenZ adults (born 1997-2003) self-identifying as LGBTQ+. When GenX adults (born 1965-1980) were asked the same question, the numbers dropped to 4.2%. These numbers show 1) LGBTQ+ are quantitatively a minority, and 2) there is a generational gap. The way DEI efforts work in different age groups should be taken into consideration. In STEM, it is common to hear students and postdocs mention that they frequently see openly LGBTQ faculty, which could be explained by the percentage of faculty out the closet. A critical factor in the increase of adults identifying as LGBTQ+ came from Hispanics, 11% of whom identified as LGBTQ+, while white and Blacks identified at a rate of around 6% each. Why were these differences observed? LGBTQ+ is a minority that can be inside other minorities. Extra work and outreach are necessary to understand this important intersection. When we look more specifically at LGBTQ+ in STEM, data are not abundant. One reason is because some people are closeted and afraid of discrimination. Universities and other institutions, such as the NIH and the National Science Foundation, need to create ways try to gather data, such as through polls, while preserving people’s confidentiality. Knowing how many people represent the LGBTQ+ community in STEM is important to direct more resources to this minority group, which has very different demographics and needs.

Because Specific Support Is Needed

Data clearly show that LGBTQ+ individuals in STEM were more likely to experience career limitations, harassment, and professional devaluation than their non-LGBTQ+ peers [4]. The institutional support for LGBTQ+ people can be very different from other minorities. The fundamental issue is how much LGBTQ+ support is available for those in scientific institutions. The feeling of “invisibility” is commonly mentioned by LGBTQ+ people in STEM, and high percentages (up to 30% in a recent Institute of Physics survey [5]) of folks consider leaving their positions because of an unfriendly or hostile climate or because of discrimination. Institutions, most importantly the major biomedical agencies—NIH and NSF—need to have resources allocated to LGBTQ+ minorities as they have for the others. Each minority has different historical circumstances, but they are all united in the same goal of having an even playing field, free of discrimination in their workplace or classroom. Specifically in terms of the scientific enterprise, the industry sector is way ahead of academia with multiple employee resource groups (ERGs) targeting specific minorities, including LGBTQ+. Progress has been observed in academic settings, with offices of diversity and inclusion having more openness to embrace LGBTQ+ as part of their portfolio. Students and postdocs have been a major force toward this goal, creating student postdoc chapters (oSTEM chapters, for instance [6]). Representation also matters when all minorities are together designing plans for diversity, equity, and inclusion since some policies can vary depending on the struggles that specific minorities experience. Even inside the LGBTQ+ community, discrimination is higher against trans folks and women,
versus men. All these examples just reinforce the need for proper data gathering and safe spaces for minorities. 

In the end, successful DEI efforts rely on knowing how many people are being represented and how institutions specifically can help these individuals. It is important to recognize that some groups are historically excluded, and that they deserve to have special care in the eyes of society. The protests of 1969 that we honor during Pride Month are a historical reminder of oppression that started way before that time, and there is no need to be reminded that oppression still exists. We should always keep vigilant and make sure we are represented! Happy Pride everyone!





[5] Institute of Physics, Royal Astronomical Society and Royal Society of Chemistry. Exploring the Workplace for LGBT+ Physical Scientists (Inst. Physics, R. Astron. Soc., R. Soc. Chem., 2019).

[6] oSTEM.

About the Author:

Bruno Da Rocha-Azevedo is the co-chair of the LGBTQ+ Committee and works as a Senior Scientist at Eikon Therapeutics in Hayward, CA. He was a member of ASCB’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Taskforce and a past COMPASS co-chair (2015-2016). E-mail: Twitter: @brunodra.@brunodra