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The Beginner’s Guide to Being an LGBT+ Ally Part 1

1st June 2017
 | Guest Author

This post is the first instalment of a two-part series.  

Today marks the start of Pride Month and though many people don’t realise it, it can be difficult for LGBT+ researchers to bring their ‘whole selves’ to work in the same way their heterosexual colleagues do. But even if you aren’t LGBT+, there are still plenty of things you can do to be a good ally and make your lab a friendlier, more welcoming place.

Broadly speaking, it is easy to believe that LGBT+ people no longer face discrimination in the modern western world. With that in mind it would be natural to expect LGBT+ scientists, engineers and mathematicians to feel comfortable being open about their personal lives. So why did a recent study (Queer in STEM 2014) reveal that only 57% of LGBT+ respondents are out to most of their colleagues? The fear of a potentially negative reaction, or an otherwise adverse impact on your career, leads to LGBT+ people hiding personal relationships, checking our behaviour and what we say to others. The stress involved in this constant self-screening can have a profound impact on mental health, and LGBT+ scientists who feel comfortable enough to be out at work tend to report they are happier and more productive.

Just because you’re not LGBT+ doesn’t mean you can’t help

The Queer in STEM study established that LGBT+ people are much more likely to come out when they perceive their environment to be a supportive one. When it comes to making the lab or the classroom a more LGBT+ friendly place, there’s a huge amount that you can do.

  • Learn about LGBT+

LGBT+ is an umbrella term that covers a lot of different identities. Most people will know the basic four: lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, but other identities are often included as extra letters, such as queer (Q), asexual (A) and non-binary (NB). For the sake of brevity I am using a + to represent these identities together, but it’s important to remember that each is a community in its own right, with its own perspective and issues.

Stonewall provide a lot of free resources about LGBT+ issues, for both our community and for our allies. Read about us and the issues we face and you’ll go a long way to understanding us better.

  • Think before you assume

One of the most common ways that LGBT+ people end up disclosing their sexuality or gender identity is by correcting false assumptions. It might not seem like much, but having to say “actually I have a boyfriend” over and over again is awkward, and every time it involves a moment of panic as you weigh up whether or not to come out to the person you’re talking to.

Use gender-neutral words (they/them, partner, etc.) until you are confident you know what is appropriate. And if you’re still unsure, you can always ask politely.

  • Be open about your support, show you care

If you’re an ally, don’t be afraid to show it. Any indicator that you are friendly and supportive will help a colleague or student feel more confident when deciding whether or not to come out. This can be as simple as showing the Pride flag (the six-coloured rainbow) or the trans flag (pink, blue and white) somewhere in your lab.

These flags are not just for LGBT+ people but for anyone who supports equality, and are now routinely flown by governments and businesses that wish to show their support, or to celebrate events like Pride or LGBT History Month (October in the USA, February in the UK).

  • Challenge discriminatory language

It shouldn’t be up to LGBT+ people to challenge a joke or comment made at our expense. If you hear someone say something offensive, make it clear to them that you find it offensive too.

  • Take note of role models

It makes a huge difference to someone’s confidence to know that there are people out there who are LGBT+ and successful at what they do. The historical lack of famous LGBT+ role models in STEM (compared to, say, television) comes up a lot when people are asked why they were so cautious about coming out in the lab.

While you might not be able to act as a role model for LGBT+ people in STEM, they still exist: Alan Turing is a historically profound example, though perhaps not a happy one. More contemporary examples include the CEO of Apple, Tim Cook, the American astronaut Sally Ride, and Lynn Conway, a trans woman and computer scientist. Read up on famous LGBT+ people and take note of anyone in your field who holds their identity up proudly, especially if they’re in senior positions. When you talk about them, it’ll give a confidence boost to any closeted LGBT+ people listening.

  • Know your local support network

Being in a minority can lead to feelings of isolation, especially in small organisations. While universities have LGBT+ societies that look out for their students but there isn’t always a similar safety net for post-graduates and staff, and many LGBT+ researchers say they do not know anyone else in their research field who shares their identity. This is improving though: many companies now run their own LGBT+ networks aimed at giving employees a sense of community and providing specialist pastoral care. Even if your organisation doesn’t have its own LGBT+ network, there are groups like the Organisation for Gay and Lesbian Scientists, the LGBT+ Physicists and Astronomers Network and InterEngineering.

If you’re in a position of responsibility, find out which network covers your organisation. Advertise its existence to your colleagues and students, so that if someone has a problem they’ll be able to get the help they need.

In part two we shall look at even more ways you can help. Please do share yours with us too!

Joby Razzell Hollis is a multi-disciplinary scientist with a degree in chemistry from Sussex University and a PhD in physics from Imperial College London, where he studied the morphology of organic solar cells. He is frank about his sexuality and how it intersects with his career, and uses that experience to advocate for greater diversity and inclusivity in science, particularly for LGBT people.