Every year, mainly in June, we proudly celebrate the enormous advances in human rights policies that protect the members of the LGBTQIA+ community, and we help to visualize the work of the people and organizations that have made it possible. We have so much to be thankful for and celebrate, the progress has been substantial and is getting better every year. However, this reality is not common to all, because not all people feel free and safe in their workplaces, classrooms, on the streets or even within their own homes or families.
I am a Mexican-born microbiologist currently working in STEM, as well as part of the LGBTQIA+ community. I have personally faced discrimination based on my ethnicity and racial origin, skin color, body type and preferences in various places and different moments of my life. Of course, this is my perspective based on my own experience, but I feel so bad when other people describe their experiences, sometimes worse than mine. We are in 2021 and people are experiencing these types of barriers, limiting their access to personal and professional opportunities, and in some cases, being a target of blame, intimidation and hate crimes. This must end.
These unfair situations are very common and worse in Mexico and other Latin American countries, where being openly LGBTQIA+ is a privilege for some people and a risk for others, basically based on their income, education level, skin color, and ancestry. It is well known to all that if you are an openly LGBTQIA+ person who is building a STEM career, you will face additional barriers and probably will not have access to the same opportunities within the same institution as your cisgender heterosexual counterparts. However, you will be in a privileged position compared to other people with limited access to education and with personal and financial problems.
In Mexico and other Latin American countries, social inequality is more common and evident, and on some occasions, it defines your professional future, limiting access to higher education, job opportunities, and quality of life. Many people work just to get by on a day-to-day basis, and few people get their dream job, including some people who are in STEM careers. This lack of opportunity diminishes interest in pursuing STEM careers, and again, this situation is even worse for the members of the LGBTQIA+ community, for whom the opportunities are very limited and restricted to only a few professional areas. LGBTQIA+ communities in STEM are a historically marginalized minority, however, in these countries, this concept (minority) is not yet recognized as a systematic problem with social and economic consequences.
Some of us (Latin American people in STEM) have decided to move to other countries looking for better opportunities, almost always hoping to go home and help our families, friends and our people. When I came to the United States of America in 2017, one of my colleagues kindly told me: "You are safe while inside the lab but be very careful when you are off campus". I felt very sad to hear that, but I felt worse when I understood the deep meaning of his advice, because it was beyond my reality and my expectations, he was warning me and protecting me, because there are many other things wrong in our society. He was an international student who used to be very quiet and lonely because he was afraid to go out and be the target of stares and accusations based on his race. In that moment, I realized that "being yourself freely is a privilege that not all of us have". By this, I just mean that there are many barriers that minorities constantly face, and the discrimination is not an event, it is a social structure, and much of the time we tolerate it under the common idea of "this is the only way, it has always been like that, and we cannot change it.” But this is not true, we can change these situations!
After living these kinds of experiences and listening to the experiences of other people, I now recognize the intersectional barriers faced by many who want to build vibrant STEM careers, and I am very committed to creating supportive and equitable environments in all the places where I participate. But how do I achieve this? First, by improving the experiences of my students and mentees in labs and classrooms, then motivating others to do the same and work together to consolidate efficient strategies of equity, diversity, and inclusion. We also need to include experts on these subjects to create specialized committees and give real solutions to unethical problems and barriers in our institutions.
Visibility matters and improves future opportunities for children and young people. Please be an ally for everyone, every time and everywhere, respect people’s pronouns and use them consistently. And remember: if you are in a privileged situation, please use your privilege to talk about the wonderful research and professional careers of your LGBT+ colleagues. Ask for opportunities for them, collaborate with them, invite them to give seminars and talks in conferences, make decisions to increase equal opportunities for all people, because increasing diversity and inclusion is not enough if we do not have access to the same opportunities. With equity, we enhance opportunities for all people who want to build vibrant STEM careers. LGBTQIA+ communities in STEM working in Latin American countries need visibility, equal access to opportunities, recognition and gratification.
Everyone needs to feel safe and happy in labs, classrooms, and wherever they are, and we can help build a better and equal society for all. The goal is not only to recognize diversity, as we are all different; the goal is equity, with access to the same opportunities for all people!
Geo is a Mexican microbiologist and works on the ecophysiology of methanogenic archaea. You can follow Geo on Twitter @GeoSantiagoM