I have experience with standing out and feeling different. I’m a genderqueer person who is still figuring out what pronouns fit them best, a person with disabilities who is also a service dog handler, an agnostic child of a Southern Baptist preacher, a math lover, a science journalist living in an era in which journalists are often devalued or even threatened, and a queer partner to a female scientist.
Many of those layers inform my perspective about including minorities in science, health, and environment stories. And as a journalist, I have the power to foster the representation of marginalized groups, including the LGBTQ+ community.
But ensuring gender and sexual diversity when choosing sources for science stories shouldn’t be seen as an act of community service or a nice political-correctness touch. It serves something central to journalism itself: the story. Meaningful dimensions of our stories—whether they are news articles, features, investigations, profiles, or stories about science careers—are compromised if we choose to only include straight, cisgender sources.
How Often Do Science Journalists Actively Seek LGBTQ+ Sources?
In a recent TON survey of 67 science, health, and environmental journalists, about 57 percent of respondents said they never actively seek out LGBTQ+ sources for their stories. About 30 percent said they do so occasionally, and about 13 percent reported often seeking out LGBTQ+ sources.
Some people who responded to our survey articulated their reasons for including LGBTQ+ sources in their stories. One respondent wrote: “I write for students. They deserve to see people who look like them doing science. And it’s also good to show just how diverse the world really is.” Another said: “The world is made up of more than just straight people—if you’re not including LGBTQ+ perspectives in your stories, you are not getting the whole picture…. Maybe it doesn’t matter in any one random story. But across all stories? You’re going to be missing things you didn’t even think to consider.”
Those journalists who said in our survey that they do not actively seek out LGBTQ+ sources offered varied reasons. “Honestly, I’ve been focusing on gender diversity first and foremost,” one respondent wrote. Another said they don’t care who did the science. Still another wrote that their top priority is simply making their deadlines. And another wrote that to identify a source as LGBTQ+ “would require personal questions that are none of my business.”
Other respondents expressed more uncertainty. “I don’t know how to ask or find out if a researcher is LGBTQ+, or if that is even appropriate outside of the context of writing about LGBTQ+ issues or identity,” wrote one respondent. Another said that “it’s usually not obvious in the type of phone reporting I do whether someone is LGBTQ+.”
Whether the exclusion of LGBTQ+ voices in science stories is intentional or is the product of habit, tight deadlines, limited networks, or uncertainty about whether and how to identify members of underrepresented groups, the impact on the story is the same: It becomes a lackluster reflection of what it could have been.
Diverse sources bring fresh ideas to the conversation, making stories more accurate, profound, and resonant. They sometimes reveal unique and valuable stories yet to be told. This is true regardless of whether or not the source’s LGBTQ+ identity is mentioned in the story.
When Is Scientists’ LGBTQ+ Identity Relevant?
In profiles and other stories that include information about sources’ professional development or personal lives, including information about LGBTQ+ sources’ experiences can make scientists more relatable and yield insights about factors that can shape their career paths or research interests.
For instance, an LGBTQ+ scientist may share how a lack of representation led them to question their place in science. Another might describe choosing to begin their career in a state where they feel safer proceeding with gender-affirming medical treatment. Still another might relate how they sought out opportunities in labs with openly LGBTQ+ supervisors who helped them feel more supported.
“Opportunities to humanize scientists are always welcome,” says Lauren Esposito, an arachnologist at the California Academy of Sciences who identifies as queer and who co-founded the 500 Queer Scientists visibility campaign.
Esposito notes that including a full spectrum of voices in science stories can also provide insights about how the scientific discoveries themselves were made.
In biology, for example, people tend to think about organisms’ sex in binary terms. Thinking outside of the binary—a mental habit that is often easier for LGBTQ+ scientists—may enable researchers to more fully consider aspects of animals’ sex. If thinking outside of the binary, for instance, led a researcher to a critical finding, the fact that the scientist who made the discovery is LGBTQ+ is noteworthy, Esposito says.
It often makes sense to seek LGBTQ+ sources but not to call out their sexual orientation or gender identity in a story (though it’s always essential to correctly use one indicator of gender identity—the person’s pronouns). Regardless of whether any sources’ sexual orientation or gender identity is mentioned in stories, including LGBTQ+ sources in science stories of all kinds is “a global positive,” says Autumn Kent, a mathematician at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who identifies as a transgender woman and is one of the organizers for LG&TBQ, a new conference for LGBTQ+ mathematicians working in geometry, topology, and dynamical systems. It means that “you’re getting their voices, their opinions, and their expertise.”
Esther Landhuis, a freelance science journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area, says she has frequently included LGBTQ+ sources in stories, often without mentioning their identities. For this 2016 story for Science News for Students, for example, she interviewed Peter Robinson, who was then a Stanford graduate student. Though Robinson identifies as gay (something readers could easily learn if they looked him up on Twitter) Landhuis’s story doesn’t mention that fact, as it wasn’t relevant to the story.
Lisa Grossman, an astronomy writer at Science News who identifies as bisexual, says journalists can draw on resources such as the National Union of Journalists’ guidelines on LGBT reporting to judge whether a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity is relevant to the story.
If you’re working on a piece where you’re hoping to discuss the person’s LGBTQ+ identity, developing a rapport with the source is critical, says Kathleen Vander Kaaden, a planetary scientist at Jacobs Engineering Group who is working on the company’s NASA contract at Johnson Space Center and who identifies as a lesbian.
Part of building that rapport, she says, is communicating that you are genuinely curious about the scientist’s experience and expertise. She also advises trying to create an interview environment where the source will feel comfortable opening up. One way to do that is by beginning with questions focused squarely on the science, saving more difficult or personal questions—say, questions about harassment they’ve experienced—for later in the interview.
Finally, be clear that if there are topics they don’t want to discuss, the source can just let you know. If you sense uneasiness, ask if there is anything you can do to help them feel more comfortable talking to you. And if a scientist seems reluctant to talk about their LGBTQ+ identity, don’t take it personally. Providing answers to journalists’ questions may not be easy, even for people who want their voices to be heard. For one thing, the career impacts of publicly discussing LGBTQ+ identity aren’t always positive. And other aspects of identity, such as being female or being an early-career scientist, can compound potential stigma. Many scientists “try to minimize these labels to be taken more seriously,” Vander Kaaden says.
Where Can Journalists Find LGBTQ+ Scientists?
If the prospect of blurting out questions about a scientist’s sexual or gender identity in the middle of an interview about superconductors or beluga whales seems awkward and invasive, you’re right. That’s … awkward and invasive. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to find LGBTQ+ scientists, even on deadline. Journalists who make a practice of doing so recommend these resources:
Field-specific organizations for LGBTQ+ professionals
If they exist for the area of expertise you’re seeking, field-specific organizations for LGBTQ+ professionals can be a great place to start. LGBT+ Physicists and the American Astronomical Society’s Committee for Sexual-Orientation and Gender Minorities in Astronomy (SGMA) are two examples. These groups collaboratively produced the second edition of “LGBT+ Inclusivity in Physics and Astronomy: A Best Practices Guide.” While this guide is mainly geared towards academic departments, its appendix lists other related resources, some of which might be helpful to journalists, such as the LGBT+ Physical Sciences Network and the GLAAD Media Reference Guide.
Search tips: Besides searching Google, Twitter, and Facebook groups to find field-specific LGBTQ+ organizations, check with relevant professional organization(s) for your discipline (such as the American Chemical Society or the British Ecological Society). Even if a formal group for LGBTQ+ scientists hasn’t been created for a certain discipline, you might be able to find sources or other resources by connecting with folks who have spoken at conferences or society meetings about, say, workplace issues for LGBTQ+ scientists. Also, try contacting the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals (NOGLSTP), Out in STEM (oSTEM) and Pride in STEM to inquire about discipline-specific organizations or resources.
Autumn Kent, the UW–Madison mathematician, alerted me to the concept of “outlists.” These lists provide names and other information about professionals who choose to publicly share their LGBTQ+ identity. She also hopes to create an outlist for mathematicians working in those fields. Outlists vary in scope and organization. Some (such the LGBT+ Physicists website) focus on only one discipline. Others (such as LavenderCal for the University of California, Berkeley) include a plethora of people from many disciplines, not all of which are science. Still others, such as Stanford Medicine’s +OUTlist, are specific to one discipline and one university. Finding these might entail some trial and error.
Search tips: Whether you’re looking for an outlist for a specific university or for a discipline, start with some Googling or a Facebook group search. If you can’t find the list for a specific university, check with the school’s media relations office, LGBTQ+ resource center, or diversity and inclusion office. If you can’t find a discipline-specific list (and don’t want to search through the lists that include many disciplines), try checking with a relevant professional organization or even emailing someone who has recently given a conference presentation about being LGBTQ+ in the particular field to ask if they are aware of any lists for the discipline.
The 500 Queer Scientists website
500 Queer Scientists features profiles of LGBTQ+ individuals and their allies working in STEM and STEM-supporting jobs. Many of these profiles include information about the scientists’ research, along with their full names and links to their social media profiles or other contact information. It’s a fount of sources for careers pieces, potential subjects to profile, and more.
A caveat: The site isn’t currently searchable by name or discipline. Esposito, the campaign’s co-founder, says the website should include this functionality soon. Until then, you can use the site by scrolling through profiles. This is particularly useful if the type of piece you’re writing doesn’t require an expert with a very specific background.
If you need an expert with very specific expertise, you might be able to use the website (or tweet @500QueerSci) to find someone willing to put you in touch with a colleague with the background you need.
The Diverse Sources database
Diverse Sources includes hundreds of entries from scientists who are members of underrepresented groups, including but not limited to the LGBTQ+ community. Each source has the opportunity to include their pronouns, general and/or detailed information about their area of expertise, a website, and their contact information. They can also list the languages they speak, their location and time zone, notes about their membership in certain communities, and what types of media interviews they’re willing to participate in.
Your network of sources, colleagues, and friends
Reaching out to your network for a personalized recommendation can also be useful. This approach to diversifying sourcing does, though, require some extra research, to ensure both that the potential source is the type of expert you need and that they actually identify as LGBTQ+.
One way to structure your request to be connected with LGBTQ+ sources is to take a very direct approach. For instance, you could put out a call on social media stating that you’re writing, say, a feature about sloth evolution for X and looking for experts to interview. You can overtly state that you want to include more LGBTQ+ sources in your reporting: “Can any of you recommend someone I should reach out to? If so, please DM me.”
A participant in our survey suggested “straight-up asking sources for people who are underrepresented.” That respondent shared a recent example request that could be tweaked to become a specific request for LGBTQ+ sources: “Who else do you think I should be speaking to for an article on reproducibility? I am particularly looking for more women voices, but anyone who has been doing important work/thinking on this topic but hasn’t gotten a lot of spotlight would be great to know about. Let me know if anyone comes to mind.” When using the network-based approach to find a LGBTQ+ source, it’s a good idea to ask the person making the referral how they acquired information about an individual and if they would be willing to either contact the person privately on your behalf or put you in touch via a group email or message (while providing some context for the prospective source).
Rachel Crowell is a freelance math and science writer whose work has appeared in Science News for Students, EARTH magazine, Rewire.org, and more. They also blog for Forbes.com and co-edit the American Mathematical Society’s “Blog on Math Blogs.” Follow them on Twitter @writesRCrowell.