Diversity Pride: Introducing a new ASCB Committee

June is Pride Month in the United States, a month to commemorate the fight for diversity, equality, and inclusion in the LGBTQ+ community. From the Stonewall Riots to today, it is clear that the rights of this community have advanced in quite a short period of time. These advancements occurred in various sectors of society, because of strong advocacy, visibility, and also through the support and understanding of allies. There are still struggles and threats out there, but the collective advocacy work of so many people and organizations have helped the LGBTQ+ community to be “out and proud.”

Like other sectors of society, the scientific enterprise has also had to deal with matters of diversity and inclusion throughout the years. Women, African Americans, and Latinos are still underrepresented and discriminated against in science. LGBTQ+ individuals are also part of a minority—an often invisible minority—because many people are still hidden inside the closet, afraid of the repercussions of being out to colleagues and co-workers. And as LGBTQ+ people are present in all races and genders, they may be a minority within a minority. Being openly LGBTQ+ can be an important factor for a graduate student, postdoc, or faculty candidate deciding where to live and work, and LGBTQ+ anti-discrimination policies are essential to avoid bullying and other sources of harassment.

ASCB has a long-standing tradition of being an advocate for inclusion and diversity in science, which is reflected by some of its committees such as the Women in Cell Biology, Minorities Affairs, and International Affairs committees. ASCB has supported its LGBTQ+ members by providing a space for a networking session during the Annual Meeting in the early 2000s, and hosting multiple “LGBTQ+ in Science” career discussion tables. These early events showed institutional concern for LGBTQ+ minorities, helped LGBTQ+ people to feel included, and they had an important role in the formation of the LGBTQ+ Task Force, which was recently approved by ASCB Council to become a full ASCB committee starting January 2021. Yes, we are proud to announce the formation of the ASCB LGBTQ+ Committee!

In this blog we would like to share how supportive advocacy helped the task force to complete its task: to be an organized community of LGBTQ+ cell biologists, a place for networking and discussions of both science and LGBTQ+-specific career concerns. And most importantly, to ensure that LGBTQ+ cell biologists are visible, proud, and protected in an inclusive scientific society.

The first step was to improve LGBTQ+ visibility within ASCB. The informal networking session was upgraded to the first-ever LGBTQ+ Diversity Session in 2014. This session combined a scientific talk by an accomplished LGBTQ+ cell biologist with an open discussion on career/life issues between the speaker and the audience. The science talk brings people interested in science (LGBTQ+ and allies) to the session, and also provides young LGBTQ+ scientists with a role model and career inspiration, which are essential to inspire people to be out and proud. The first LGBTQ+ Diversity Session featured Joanne Engel from University of California, San Francisco, and was a success with close to 100 attendees. This tradition has continued, with outstanding speakers and sessions every year. Another strategy was to write articles and posts in ASCB media about LGBTQ+ issues in science. These articles addressed current LGBTQ+ topics such as the SCOTUS resolution on same-sex marriage and the implications for scientists [1]. As a result of these early efforts, in December 2014, the ASCB Council approved the creation of a LGBTQ+ Task Force, which would be responsible for the Diversity Session and assess, promote, and ensure the inclusion of all ASCB LGBTQ+ members.

The initial task force was formed with a roster of members as diverse as possible, in terms of both LGBTQ+ identity and career stage, and included faculty, postdocs, students, and a staff scientist. This broad membership gave the task force the ability to consider different perspectives and widened our ability to recruit more people to attend the diversity session. Importantly, the task force was structured with co-chairs, facilitating direct communication with the supportive ASCB leadership and staff.

The second LGBTQ+ Diversity Session in 2015 organized by the task force featured Matt Welch (University of California, Berkeley and current MBoC Editor in Chief) as the speaker. This session was also a success and, more importantly for the success of a grassroots movement, established a tradition. ASCB members now know that every year there is a LGBTQ+ Diversity Session at the Annual Meeting, and most importantly, they continue to attend the session.

What were the next steps of the task force? Facilitating attendance and visibility of LGBTQ+ ASCB members, with special attention/focus on students and postdocs. ASCB accepted the task force proposal to grant travel awards to LGBTQ+ students and postdocs. The application for the travel award requires a statement about how the applicant will benefit from the travel award; it was (and still is) so beautiful and gratifying to read the stories of success of so many students and postdocs moving forward in their scientific careers and how important it is for them to be out and proud. Statements like “I have never met an openly gay professor” are not rare to hear, indicating that the task force is on the right path. We have awarded 9 travel awards to date from 59 excellent applicants in the last three years, and we expect to award more throughout the next few years.

Recently we recruited the first ally to be a member of the task force, because we believe that allies are critical for a truly inclusive environment. We were also able to work with the ASCB staff to ensure there are gender-neutral bathrooms available during the Annual Meeting, and the task force co-chairs participate with committee chairs during ASCB leadership meetings—a strong confirmation of how supportive ASCB is of LGBTQ+ inclusion. Please stay tuned for our call for new members!

What is next?

The future of the new committee is exciting! We will be holding our Diversity Session for the 7th year, and offering travel awards for LGBTQ+ students and postdocs. And this year we are planning to host an ally workshop session to discuss a very important topic: How to be an effective LGBTQ+ ally in the academic environment. We are also developing a survey to understand better the needs of our constituency to serve you better. And please don’t hesitate to message us if you have questions about the committee.

We could not finish this article without thanking past and current members of the task force, ASCB leadership, and ASCB staff who were supportive of the cause. Happy Pride month to all of us!

(This piece is part of a series of posts about the LGBTQ+ experience to be published throughout June to celebrate Pride Month 2020).

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are the views of the author(s) and do not represent the official policy or position of ASCB.


About the Author:

Bruno Da Rocha-Azevedo is a Senior Staff Scientist in the Department of Biophysics at UT Southwestern Medical Center. Bruno studies the spatiotemporal dynamics of endothelial cell receptors using single-molecule imaging. He was one of the founding members of COMPASS, and co-chair during 2015-2016. Bruno was the founder and co-chair of the LGBTQ+ taskforce (now Committee) and currently is a member. He is a member of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Taskforce. He volunteered on the ASCB 5-year strategic plan, helping on creating the guidelines for further democratizing the society by ensuring leadership and decision making reflect the broad range of the membership and their interests and priorities E-mail: brunodarochaazevedo@gmail.com Twitter: @brunodra
Erika Shugart is the Chief Executive Officer of ASCB.