LGBTQ+ people are no strangers to a life in the minority, especially in the workplace. That goes perhaps double for LGBTQ+ scientists, who not only face all the challenges that come with being out at work, but the added struggle of making a name for themselves in a profession that has had its fair share of barriers to anyone who falls outside the straight, white, cis-gendered male norm that has come to be expected from leaders in innovation.
But what is innovation without a bit of difference? Despite the challenges facing them at work and in the world, these four women have made strides both for their contributions to scientific discovery, and their efforts to bring more visibility and support to other LGBTQ+ people working to unlock the mysteries of our world and our universe.
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In 1916, Albert Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves, ripples in the fabric of spacetime left over from huge cataclysmic events. Almost a full century later, Dr. Nergis Mavalvala, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, proved him right. The discovery opened up new avenues of exploration for physicists looking to understand the origins of our universe.
STEM fields have never been known for their extensive diversity, but Dr. Mavalvala bucks all trends. In addition to being a woman in a heavily male-dominated field, Mavalvala is also a queer woman of color, an immigrant from Pakistan who came to the U.S. to complete her higher education. Since winning the MacArthur Genius Award in 2012, she’s been thrust into a more national spotlight, speaking both on her research and as a queer woman of color in the field. Through that work, she’s become a role model for other female scientists and for queer scientists, who, thanks to her, see what is possible.
Speaking to Science Mag in 2012, Mavalvala said she was lucky growing up, as her family never stressed traditional gender role and supported both her and her sister to pursue academics and other work regardless of the way society may want them to act. Currently, she lives with her wife and children in Cambridge.
If you’re looking for proof that STEM fields, especially physics, have never been the most welcoming places for LGBTQ+ researchers, Elena Long is the person who has it. A transgender woman working in the physical sciences herself, Long founded the LGBT+ Physicists organization, which assists in connecting other physicists of gender and sexual minorities to each other. She has also served as a member of the American Physical Society where she has worked to increase diversity in the physical sciences.
As part of that work, Long published the results of a survey in 2016, conducted with the APS, which sought to quantify the number of LGBTQ+ scientists working in the world of physical sciences. Nearly half of those surveyed had experienced harassment, and transgender scientists, in particular, were the most at risk.
She has received several awards over the last few years, for both her work as an atomic physicist and as an activist for other LGBTQ+ scientists. In 2016, Nature named her one of their “10 people who mattered this year.” She currently works as an associate professor at the University of New Hampshire.
In 2013, a study published in the Journal of Homosexuality caught the attention of Lauren Esposito, an arachnologist working at the California Academy of Science in San Francisco. That study found that as much as 40 percent of LGBTQ+ scientists were not out in the workplace due to their own fears.
Esposito was inspired by those results to create the organization 500 Queer Scientists, a group that aims to make LGBTQ+ scientists more visible to the rest of the community. “The response from the community overall has been really exciting and energizing,” Esposito told Mother Jones in 2018 after the launch of the organization. “I think both LGBTQ+ people and allies from the scientific community have been excited about this and about highlighting the diversity of science, and that’s going to be a good thing.”
In her scientific work, Esposito is one of the only women working in scorpion research today and has discovered new species of the arachnid while also performing research on medical uses of their venom. Not content to stop there, she also co-founded another organization, Islands & Seas, which works to create a network of research stations around the world focused on conservation efforts. In 2019, she was the recipient of the Walt Westman award from the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals (NOGLSTP), the highest award given by the organization to those working toward their mission.
Speaking of the NOGLSTP, no list would be complete without recognizing its founder, Rochelle Diamond, and the work she has done over decades for the LGBTQ+ community in the sciences. The chair of NOGLSTP, Diamond was always a scientist and was always gay, but was not always the out lesbian activist she has become.
In fact, her first marriage was to a man in her senior year of college, a marriage that lasted 10 years — until she fell in love with a woman and the two decided to divorce (she says they’ve remained friends). Diamond waited until her mid-20s to come out to her family, who did not all react positively, and didn’t come out professionally until the early 1980s after experiencing homophobia in previous workplaces. From there, she started attending meetings of LGBTQ+ activist groups for people in the sciences. It was there that she met her eventual wife, Barbara Belmont, another chemist, and the two have been together for more than three decades working together as part of NOGLSTP.