Voices of the LGBTQ community have been met by great criticism, while efforts to secure their rights seem to have hit a brick wall, especially in Africa. According to a 2013 survey by Global Attitudes and Trends by the Pew Research Center, 90% of Kenyans supported the notion that society should not accept homosexuality. The Kenyan Law has been very instrumental in shaping the stigma surrounding the LGBTQ+ community. One could be put behind bars for 14 years, for having consensual relations with a member of the same sex. When none has been convicted yet, the law influences tolerability for community members and police to harass and stigmatize these people, therefore, violating their human rights.
With more people now identifying as LGBTQ, there is a need to handle this issue with the sensitivity and care. We need to be sensitive to this group especially when it comes to guidance in STEM careers, or else we could lose out on great talent just because of stereotypes and biases.
The Rise of LGBT science
The global LGBT community has raised concerns on the issues that members of this community go through. Since the world is looking forward to making science better and more diverse, recognizing such members of marginalized groups could do wonders in science innovation and discovery. Just as in other areas, politics, gender-bias and racism affect scientists, which hinder progress across various disciplines. Although LGBT issues challenges are there, they are overlooked.
The issues (mainly stigma) affecting members of the LGBTQ+ society, affects advancements in STEM. Here’s how:
1. Low Productivity
Working in an institution where everyone is homophobic could be depressing for a member of the LGBTQ community. Everyone else is allowed to be whoever they are, but they have to hide their true identities when they are at work. It would be easier if this was the only problem. Many LGBTQ+ people are subject to harassment at work and rejected by their family members. With that kind of stress, it becomes hard to focus at work, while many commit suicide. And while this affects the economic output in a country, many good scientists of these orientations do not give optimal performance due to these issues.
According to a Harassment Report by the American Physical Society (APS), more than a third of LGBT physicists considered leaving their workplace or school in 2015. Due to lack of sufficient studies in Kenya concerning the LGBTQ+ society, there are no statistics to quantify the effect of discrimination and harassment on STEM. This is likely to the fact that many victims will not disclose their sexual orientation and on harassment too.
2. Lack of role models
Children who identify as LGBTQ need role models and mentors who they can identify with. The role models need to be able to guide them through the obstacles in science careers that they are likely to experience due to their sexual orientation. According to a survey conducted in New York, students agreed that having role models would be ‘reassurance and inspiration especially for those who were uncomfortable with their orientation or are not out yet’. It’s another way to show these kids that it gets easier. They are also better equipped to deal with the isolation that most are subjected to.
To break isolation, Manil Suri, a Mathematics professor (who is gay) suggests that teachers should come out to students, so that they find role models that will prepare them for future careers. He goes on to say that,
“STEM culture must rein in the pressure to separate professional and personal identities. It should view its workers more holistically, welcoming their interests and differences as sources of enhanced resourcefulness.”
I don’t know how practical it is to do that here, especially because it could get somebody fired because of biases, especially by parents. What science needs is more gifted scientists, and encouraging young LGBT scientists is one of the ways to get them.
3. Lesser opportunities
Globally, it is recognized that LGBTQ+ people are “out”; they are likely to be overlooked when it is time for promotions. This is especially true for the Kenyan society where homosexuality is seen as taboo and as a form of moral misconduct. People who are in these sexual orientations may find themselves overlooked when it comes to opportunities, despite their potential. What this does for STEM is discourage them from further pursuing it, if they have ‘come out’ or keep their true identities concealed, which is likely to affect their productivity at work.
Kei Koizumi, Assistant Director of Federal Research and Development for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy during former president Obama’s administration, acknowledged that to meet the challenges there was a need for talented STEM students and workers from all walks of life.
He went on to say,
“People know I am Asian as soon as they meet me. They don’t know I am gay although I don’t do anything to hide it. But there are many people working in STEM who choose not to go public for a variety of reasons including fear of discrimination and less opportunity for promotions. “
4. Lack of perspective
Karen Warkentin, professor of Biology and Women’s gender and sexuality studies, perceives diversity as a way to improve science. “Feminist biologists and queer—or queer-informed—biologists are likely to notice different things and ask different questions, compared to people without those perspectives” she says. She claims that her queerness led her to discover ‘escape hatching’, since her life experiences had taught her that ‘generally accepted things are sometimes incorrect’.
Whether people believe her words or not, the fact remains that diversity is required in every area, and it is not any different in STEM.
Being part of a marginalized group can alter career success, productivity, work fulfilment and the progress of a sector. We need to encourage people to pursue STEM, and remove the obstacles that young people especially may face as they try to get into STEM.