Technical professionals, scientists, engineers, and… queer folks? Those three terms don’t seem to fit together, but in fact, they do. Just as many women and people of color make a huge impact on the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) professions, LGBTQ people are just as involved in keeping things moving in these professions.
Dating back to the early 80s, The National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals, or NOGLSTP, is a group that advocated for queer people in STEM across the board. Their mission is to “empower lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer individuals in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics by providing education, advocacy, professional development, networking, and peer support.”
They do this through scholarship grants, organizing symposiums and conferences, working with MentorNet, which allows their members to both find and serve as mentors to queer people in STEM, and presenting a biennial summit for LGBTQ people in STEM—Out to Innovate, which will be held next March in Los Angeles.
NOGLSTP was originally inspired by groups like the Triangle Area Gay Scientists and the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Scientists. The first instance of organizing nationally for a queer, STEM professionals group was in 1980 at the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Francisco. There, a special session on homophobia in the workplace was held, and the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists was formed as a somewhat informal, grassroots network for queer professionals in STEM fields. In 1983, NOGLSTP was formalized as an official organization, complete with a board of directors, membership structure, and a regular newsletter.
The Initial Equation
NOGLSTP got started around the same time that the AIDS epidemic swept the nation. Many of the original founders died during the crisis, leaving Rochelle Diamond and her wife Barbara Belmont to eventually take the reins. Diamond was part of the City of Hope/UCSF team that cloned the human gene for insulin. There was a race put up by the Eli Lilly Company to see which team could successfully clone it first, and hers won. She didn’t have an advanced degree and wasn’t allowed to be a co-author on the paper, so she left and went to work for another lab.
Diamond was married to a man for 10 years, but during the marriage, she realized that she loved women. At her new job an engineer discovered this fact and used it to not only sabotage her career, but also her marriage. After this, Diamond decided it was time to be true to herself, and began attending meetings of the Los Angeles Association of Gay and Lesbian Scientists, which eventually led to her helping with the formation of NOGLSTP.
Things have improved since then. In her position as a lab manager, and director of the Flow Cytometry Cell Sorting Facility at CalTech, Diamond is supported and protected in her queerness and outspoken advocacy. This is necessary, as her position as the chairperson of NOGLSTP’s board is very public and requires a lot of time and energy. Everyone participating on NOGLSTP’s board is a volunteer, so there is always a lot of work to be done.
Advocacy and Support
Funding is a major issue NOGLSTP faces. Most of the grants and sponsorships that go towards queer folks in STEM fields go to oSTEM (Out in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), which Diamond acknowledges is a great organization, but feels should not be the only group that gets funding.
Many of oSTEM’s members are students, but once they graduate, they have far less support and access to resources. Diamond and NOGLSTP strive to provide both the support and resources LGBTQ STEM professionals need and, despite the lack of funding, have been very successful. But having a more equitable distribution of funds certainly wouldn’t hurt.
A key battle NOGLSTP has fought to provide more support for queer STEM workers is getting larger national science organizations to create spaces for their LGBTQ members. NOGLSTP has had some success in this arena, organizing dinners and caucuses within the groups, but ultimately, they want these organizations to start doing that work of their own accord.
According to Diamond, NOGLSTP wants these organizations to “have conversations about true diversity and equality so they can actually buy into it and advance it into the industry and academia.” Industry-wise, things have improved, but there is a difference between putting things into policy and actually walking the walk. There are some companies that have great HRC ratings, but their employees aren’t actually protected because they live in states where they don’t have access to the benefits they should be entitled to, such as partner benefits. NOGLSTP believes that the only way to fix this is for CEOs and other high-ranking members of companies to be more aware of these kinds of issues.
Looking to the Future
The other key item on NOGLSTP’s agenda is working on getting better demographic numbers of how many queer people are in STEM. According to a study from the Higher Education Research Institute from March of this year, LGB students in STEM undergraduate programs were 8 percent less likely to stay in them than straight students.
Queer people in science are largely underrepresented due to a history of homophobia, transphobia, and erasure, and NOGLSTP would like to get people to understand how that impacts the scientific community as a whole. One way to help get these numbers out there, according to Diamond, is to have the National Science Foundation (NSF) include demographic numbers in proposals and grants.
Unfortunately, these changes are all tied up in the U.S. Government’s Office of Management and Budget. Diamond and others are writing an open letter to the NSF to push them to include these numbers in future proposals, grants, and other communications and literature.
Diamond isn’t convinced it will work, but she said, “We have to be like Nike and, ‘Just do it.’”
So why are these demographic representations so important?
“Numbers matter; all of us matter. To save our country and the world, we need diversity. Diversity increases innovation and makes things better. LGBTQ people are very creative, and we need to be in all these fields. Everybody counts.”
In our current climate, this is even more necessary. NOGLSTP isn’t an explicitly political group, but it is meant to be a voice for both science and LGBTQ people, so it needs to be doing this kind of work.
“Science and diversity itself are under attack with the immigration issues currently happening, scrubbing the CDC and NH sites of information about LGBTQ people, etc., so we need to keep working to raise awareness and keep pushing for the progress we’ve made.”
That, Diamond said, is what keeps her going.