Creating More LGBTQIA-Inclusive Biology Learning Environments

Sept. 2, 2021

Recruiting and retaining diverse individuals in science is integral to promoting scientific progress, and in order to do this, science must first become more inclusive for all individuals. Currently, science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) academic environments are often considered to be unwelcoming and unfriendly spaces for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual (LGBTQIA+) individuals. Studies show that LGBTQIA+ professionals face systemic inequalities across STEM fields and LGBQ undergraduates are less likely to persist in STEM majors than non-LGBQ students. To create a more diverse and inclusive STEM community, STEM must work to eliminate these inequalities and feelings of exclusion by further understanding more about the experiences of LGBTQIA+ individuals in STEM learning environments, such as undergraduate biology classrooms.
In an interview study of LGBTQIA+ undergraduates in biology courses, students reported that they did not experience overt discrimination in the academic biology community, but also did not perceive it to be a particularly welcoming or accepting space for their identity. For example, one student recounted revealing that she identified as bisexual during group work and her groupmate responded, “We don’t need to know your dirty secrets, we don’t need to know your personal life.” The study highlighted that LGBTQIA+ students were often thinking about how to navigate social situations in courses where their LGBTQIA+ identity may not be accepted, and therefore not able to dedicate their full attention to the biology content they were expected to be learning.

The worry associated with potential consequences of coming out to peers is exacerbated by college biology courses increasingly transitioning from traditional lecture to active learning, where students engage through activities and discussions in class. LGBTQIA+ students in the interview study reported that active learning makes their LGBTQIA+ identity more relevant when they interact with other students. When students were asked what could be done to make them feel more included in the biology community, students agreed that they would benefit from an instructor sharing their LGBTQIA+ identity in class. However, students were reluctant to recommend that LGBTQIA+ instructors share their identities in class for fear that they may experience negative consequences from doing so.
Indeed, biology instructors share this concern. One study found that over half of LGBQ biology instructors came out to their colleagues, but less than 20% came out to their students. Instructors worried that coming out in class would be a waste of class time or that their students would form negative opinions of them. However, the instructors also noted that revealing their LGBQ identities in class would show their students they support the LGBTQIA+ community, make their classroom more welcoming and help students find them more relatable.
Recently, a research group at Arizona State University set out to examine whether instructors’ perceptions were correct. In a large-enrollment biology course where the instructor revealed her LGBTQIA+ identity to her class in less than 3 seconds, two thirds of the students said it had a positive impact on their overall course experience. Students said the instructor coming out made her more relatable and made the class feel more inclusive and welcoming, which matches the predictions of LGBQ instructors in prior studies. The instructor coming out enhanced (1) students’ willingness to approach the instructor, (2) how connected they felt to her, (3) their confidence in pursuing a science career, (4) their sense of belonging in the class and (5) their sense of belonging within the scientific community. The effects across these 5 outcomes were particularly impactful for LGBTQIA+ students. The study also found that students overwhelmingly perceived it to be appropriate for a STEM instructor to reveal their LGBTQIA+ identity during class. The research group plans to publish these findings soon.
This study indicates that an instructor coming out to their biology class may be particularly beneficial for LGBTQIA+ students and strengthen the relationship between the instructor and most students in the class. It is important to note that this choice is a personal decision and will not necessarily be positive for all LGBTQIA+ individuals. Notably, instructors coming out is only one way to normalize LGBTQIA+ identities in STEM and challenge the often unwelcoming environment that LGBTQIA+ individuals experience in STEM.
To identify how anyone, regardless of whether they identify as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, can make their classroom more inclusive, 26 LGBTQ+ or allied biologists came together and articulated 14 recommendations to make academic biology more inclusive. Whether an instructor is a member of the LGBTQIA+ community or an ally, there are actions that can help make STEM classrooms more welcoming for LGBTQIA+ individuals:
  • Learn and use specific vocabulary relevant to LGBTQIA+ identities (e.g., enby, misgendering). The terms used to describe the LGBTQIA+ community in the United States have changed over the past few decades, but trying to learn and use appropriate vocabulary is an important step to being inclusive of the LGBTQIA+ community. Simple steps, like committing the series of letters in the acronym LGBTQIA+ (or LGBTQ+) to memory can help show respect for the LGBTQIA+ community.
  • Meaningfully advocate and demonstrate support for the LGBTQIA+ community. Many campuses provide training about how to be inclusive of LGBTQIA+ students. For example, the Safe Zone Project is a series of free online modules available for individuals to learn about LGBTQIA+ identities and examine prejudice, assumptions and privilege. After completing the training, displaying the Safe Zone logo or rainbow icon on one’s office door acts as a cue to others that they are an ally to the LGBTQIA+ community. Additionally, include statements about inclusion of the LGBTQIA+ community on syllabi or course webpages.
  • Allow students the opportunity to share their pronouns and names, but do not force them to do so. This can be particularly helpful for transgender and nonbinary individuals. In an in-person course, students can display their name to the class using name tents and be given the option to display their pronouns as well. For online courses or online components of in-person courses, students often have the option to add their pronouns to their profile or may have the opportunity to change their name through the university’s system or through the online platform directly (e.g., Zoom). Not all students may feel comfortable sharing their pronouns, so it is important for pronoun sharing to be optional.
  • Consider giving students the option to choose their own groups and maintain those groups throughout the course. This allows students to work with others who are most likely to be accepting of their identity and to form positive social relationships. For example, one student in the interview study who is trans explained, “I like sticking with the people that I know, just because they know how to address me. Not switching groups [saves] me the trouble of having to put myself in another situation where I would [need] to correct people or sit there and have people who didn’t know me keep misgendering me.” Although there are many considerations instructors make when creating groups for class activities, the comfort of LGBTQIA+ students should be among them.
  • Be thoughtful about jokes and pop culture references. Jokes about LGBTQIA+ individuals can perpetuate stereotypes and even become microinsults, which are comments or actions that are insensitive and convey stereotypes that demean a person’s identity. Referencing movies or television shows, particularly from earlier decades, that depict negative stereotypes about LGBTQIA+ individuals and other historically excluded identities counters efforts to create a more inclusive classroom.
  • Highlight contributions from LGBTQIA+ scientists. Instructors can use Scientist Spotlights, brief, out-of-class assignments designed to introduce counter-stereotypical scientists, to seamlessly integrate such contributions into class while requiring little in-class time. These assignments have been found to enhance students’ ability to personally relate to scientists and their interest in science. Having role models in science has been found to be impactful for students with marginalized identities, including LGBTQIA+ students. Seeing representation of LGBTQIA+ scientists, such as transgender neuroscientist Ben Barres, in their biology classrooms provides an example of a successful STEM professional who is also a member of the LGBTQIA+ community.
  • Use inclusive language when discussing topics such as reproduction or genetics. For example, rather than saying women produce eggs, say ovaries produce eggs and focus on the organ, functional activity or role rather than the presumed gender of individuals involved. The language used may also depend on the activity. Whereas “chromosomal male” may be optimal when explaining a Punnett square, “sperm-producing partner” may be a better option when discussing alternation of generations.
Commit to 1-2 of these actions to implement first, then move on to others. As with any adjustment in a course, it will take time to implement these changes, but they are first steps to creating a more inclusive environment in STEM for LGBTQIA+ individuals.

Author: Carly Busch

Carly Busch
Carly Busch (she/her) is a second year Ph.D. student at Arizona State University in the Cooper Biology Education Research Lab and the Brownell Biology Education Research Lab.