Queering Stem: The Importance and Impact of Visibility Campaigns

“Visibility is important for mental health, for standing up to injustices, and for mentoring current colleagues and future scientists.” – Lauren Esposito

Why is queer visibility important? Why will it continue to be?

Esposito, founder of the visibility campaign 500 Queer Scientists, lists succinctly the concrete impacts of queer visibility. But before I talk about impact, I first want to address what I even mean by “queer”.

Queer is defined on Wikipedia as “an umbrella term for sexual and gender minorities”. Originally used as a slur, the use of queer as an umbrella term is somewhat contentious, but it’s reclamation began as early as the 80s. Queer is a term with no defined bounds, it simply encompasses non-normative gender, sexuality, expression, affect… society defines “queer” by distancing and othering these groups. Concurrently, queer becomes a unifying label that seeds community and advocacy.

My initial involvement with queer community was to find social support and become more accepting of my own identity; over time it became a way to advocate for my peers and change the social climate around me. I wanted to create spaces where queer people could be accepting of their identities from the outset by making those identities broadly understood and unquestioned. At universities, queer advocacy can be effectively done from a top-down approach. Emailing an administrator or co-signing a letter with partner organizations is likely to yield results. This advocacy can bring about changes in university policy such as DEI training for faculty, giving students autonomy over their living assignments, or simply changing language usage in emails. Outside of academia, where institutions do not have the same social and financial incentives to promote inclusivity, this top-down advocacy can be much more challenging.

One powerful alternative is advocating laterally to gather support from peers. Sharing my experiences as a queer person has encouraged family, colleagues, and employers to learn more on their own time and begin supporting queer community. By being “out” about my identity in this way, I become visible. This visibility is vulnerable, but it provides personal insight into a community that could otherwise be difficult to empathize with. By creating acceptance amongst peers, I am slowly making space for myself and others in the future to exist genuinely.

In the upcoming months I will be working with STEM Pride of the Triangle, a local queer advocacy group, to produce a visibility publication highlighting the work of queer scientists across North Carolina. This publication will include information on the personal lives, career paths, and scientific achievements of highlighted individuals. Just as it harder to advocate outside academic institutions, it can also be harder to access queer resources; this publication will have the advantage of being distributable to community centers, museums, and other institutions beyond the campus bubble. Young queer people across North Carolina will be able to read about STEM professionals that share the same identities and face the same societal challenges that they do. These examples will demonstrate that there is a path forward in STEM, and that it is possible to hold a queer identity within these career fields.

Society’s opinion of what is acceptable, what is normative, is constantly changing. That change does not occur without the work and vulnerability of many advocates, and there will always be a need for greater acceptance. The ultimate goal of this visibility project is to encourage a future generation of queer scientists and innovators to pursue STEM careers without reservation. Their presence and visibility will in turn continue to create a more inclusive social climate across the state.