As chemists mingled at the Indiana Convention Center for the second day of the American Chemical Society’s Spring 2023 meeting, a different kind of get-together was taking place just blocks away. On March 27, the Indiana House of Representatives convened at the state capitol and passed S. 480, legislation that would ban gender-affirming health care for transgender youth.
By the time the ACS conference rolled into town, S. 480 was one of 18 bills that had been introduced in Indiana up to that point this year specifically targeting the rights of transgender people. The bills were in keeping with the state government’s recent push for anti-LGBTQ+ legislation. Eight similar bills had been proposed in 2022, and one ultimately became law.
The juxtaposition of the two gatherings in Indianapolis sparked a discussion among chemists on social media. Several commented on ACS’s silence when the news of S. 480 broke, and they called for the society to make a statement to show support for its transgender attendees. (C&EN is published by ACS but is editorially independent.)
The conversation also raised the question of what scientific organizations should do when their national meetings are to be held in areas where lawmakers are passing legislation that threatens the rights of some of their attendees.
For the organizations, that’s a delicate decision for which they must weigh the potential financial repercussions of moving a conference against their values and what’s best for attendees.
For Emily Arndt, a trans chemist, choosing whether or not to attend the spring meeting involved calculations about legal and personal safety risk. “Am I gonna get prosecuted for something?” she recalls wondering when she heard the location of the spring meeting.
It isn’t an unfounded concern. Most of the proposed legislation was aimed at minors. But one of Indiana’s anti-trans bills, H.B. 1520, would have made it a misdemeanor for a person to use a public bathroom that didn’t match their assigned gender at birth. H.B. 1520 was advancing through the legislative process when the ACS Spring meeting began. (It died without fanfare a month later.)
Arndt also worries about the possibility of gender-related hate crimes, which have increased in recent years, according to statistics collected by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation. She acknowledges that such crimes can occur anywhere but adds that “you’re probably safer in some states rather than others.”
In the end, she decided not to attend the Indianapolis meeting. But skipping one of the largest chemistry conferences of the year has its drawbacks. Arndt says that, like most scientists, she goes to conferences “to meet people, to see people, to keep professional connections alive.”
Networking at large national meetings can be invaluable for a person’s career, to the point that some trans and nonbinary chemists decide to attend the events even when they are held in less-than-ideal locations.
“I tossed and turned for a long time about whether or not [my student and I] would go,” says a nonbinary chemist in Ohio who requested anonymity because of the precarity of their early-career status. “It was a hard opportunity to pass up because of the stage of my career and the stage my students are in,” the chemist says.
Some people, including Arndt, have suggested that scientific societies move future conferences out of these states to show solidarity with transgender and nonbinary members. But relocating large events can be a logistical and financial headache. It can also eliminate opportunities for scientists living in such states, says Bec Roldan, a nonbinary graduate student at the University of Michigan.
On the other hand, not addressing the issue could send trans and nonbinary scientists the message that their professional societies don’t value them, despite recent emphasis on diversity, equity, inclusion, and respect (DEIR). “It is basically saying to all of those people that we only really care about you whenever it’s beneficial for us, whenever we want to showcase you during Pride Month,” Roldan says.
Scientific societies plan their meetings years in advance. For instance, ACS chief operating officer LaTrease Garrison says the society’s board of directors has approved locations through 2032; actual contracts are also negotiated several years out.
Through both the planning and negotiation processes, societies take the legal landscape into account. For example, Garrison says ACS is monitoring future host states to ensure that current and future legislation won’t prevent meeting attendees “from carrying out the goals of sharing chemistry, networking, and engaging in professional development activities.”
If state bills impinge on attendees’ ability to fulfill these goals, the ACS Committee on Meeting and Expositions will work with the board to develop an alternative plan, she says, which could include moving a meeting.
ACS has threatened to do so in the past. In 2017, the society learned that the Texas legislature was deliberating on a bathroom bill. ACS was concerned, as it had two events on the books in the Lone Star State: a regional meeting planned for Lubbock later that year and a national meeting scheduled for San Antonio in 2021.
In response to the legislation, ACS sent a letter to Texas governor Greg Abbott and attached a statement, approved by the ACS Board, that highlighted the society’s commitment “to supporting its members’ rights to attend meetings without sacrificing their human rights.” To show that support, the statement said, ACS reserves the right “to take appropriate actions, which may include relocating meetings from jurisdictions that have enacted discriminatory legislation or regulation even if moving these meetings might result in a financial impact to ACS.”
After months of pushback from multiple businesses and organizations, the Texas bill died quietly.
ACS currently plans to hold its Spring 2028 meeting in Florida. The state has enacted a bathroom bill that could sentence trans people to up to 1 year in jail for using a restroom not aligned with their assigned gender identity; it has also passed a law that eliminates 80% of gender-affirming care. The severity of Florida’s laws has led civil rights organizations to issue a travel advisory for the state, and several transgender and nonbinary scientists say they would not travel to a national meeting held there.
Garrison declines to estimate how moving a meeting might hurt ACS financially. Andrew Black, chief of staff of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, says the association would have incurred “millions of dollars in liability” if it had pulled its 2018 annual meeting out of Austin, Texas, which it was ready to do if the state’s bathroom bill passed.
“For us, it’s not really about the politics of it,” Black says. “We want our attendees to feel like they can move freely, be themselves, and not feel unsafe.”
He acknowledges that not all organizations can afford to relocate a meeting. Still, some professional societies are choosing to do it. This year, the Association for Higher Education moved its 2024 annual meeting out of Louisiana because of laws banning nearly all abortions and forbidding transgender girls and women from participating in school sports.
Most often, cancellation fees are unavoidable and become steeper the closer the cancellation is to the event’s scheduled date, according to Barbara Dunn, a corporate attorney with expertise in the meeting and event industry. Meeting planners can sometimes negotiate with hotels and conference venues to lower these fees, but Dunn says that “bottom line is, the group’s going to write a check.”
Scientific societies can also negotiate an escape clause allowing them to cancel meetings if certain types of legislation pass in the months before a conference. Although such clauses are rare, says Joshua L. Grimes, an attorney with Grimes Law Offices, they can allow groups “to cancel or relocate a meeting because of changes in laws that they find to be against the group’s objectives or values.”
Laws that seek to bar transgender people from safely using public bathrooms are a major safety concern but far from the only one. It’s also difficult for transgender attendees to carry out Garrison’s goals of sharing chemistry and networking when they are in a state with or considering anti-trans legislation of any kind.
There’s often “a lot of anger towards trans people” in these places, says Irving Rettig, a postdoctoral researcher at Reed College. Although transphobic folks might be a small share of the population, he adds, “they’re really, really, really loud.”
That vocal minority is why Rettig, a trans chemist, created a safety plan with his adviser before he attended a Gordon Research Conference in Texas last year. It’s also why the Ohio chemist took special care to find areas in Indianapolis “where a lot of rainbow flags were hanging,” they say.
Such precautions can be a double-edged sword. They can help protect trans and nonbinary chemists but can limit their ability to attend social events—one of the main draws of a scientific conference. Rettig says he might feel less inclined to participate in a networking activity held outside the conference venue if it’s not in a part of the city that he knows is LGBTQ+ friendly.
Rettig might also skip activities simply because he’s too exhausted from having to be hyperaware of his surroundings for large portions of the meeting.
“To feel like you’re constantly under psychological, physical, and legal threat is really hard to describe to somebody who hasn’t experienced it,” says Nancy Williams, a chemist at the Claremont McKenna, Pitzer, and Scripps Colleges in California. “I don’t get to go for more than about an hour or two without thinking about the fact that I’m trans.”
When scientific societies select meeting cities that aren’t hospitable to all their members, it contrasts with their claims that DEIR is are part of their core values, Williams says. “There are safer places where we can schedule meetings so that we don’t have to put our members in potentially dangerous situations,” she says.
But moving meetings is far from a perfect solution, as it can hurt the scientists who live and work in these places, says Roldan at the University of Michigan.
Roldan understands why, given the current political and legal landscape, some people may decide not to travel to some states. But organizations choosing not to hold events in the Midwest or the South, for example, would make conferences even more inaccessible for people at smaller institutions in these regions, they say. These places “already don’t get enough funding,” Roldan says.
Michelle Nolan, a genderqueer chemistry librarian at the University of Florida, agrees. “I would hate to see conferences only in solid-blue states, because they’re also incredibly expensive and out of reach for a lot of people,” they say.
So what’s a conference planner to do? A recent paper that has not yet been peer-reviewed attempts to answer this question for microbiology conferences (EcoEvoRxiv 2023, DOI: 10.32942/X2601V). “Our author group really did not recommend pulling conferences from locations because of legislation,” says Rachel Gregor, a postdoctoral researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who coauthored the paper. But it was a contentious issue, she says.
Instead, the paper provides suggestions for creating trans-inclusive meetings. For example, to address safety concerns, organizations should create easy-to-use harassment reporting systems and promote them heavily. They can also ensure that off-site events are held in locations that are LGBTQ+ friendly and can continue to offer hybrid and virtual options.
Rettig and his adviser, Mir Bowring, suggest other ways that scientific societies can make their conferences more welcoming, regardless of where they’re held. Rettig proposes that meetings have safety escorts to walk someone back to their hotel if they don’t feel comfortable going alone. Bowring says organizers can provide a list of local restaurants and other businesses that have gender-neutral restrooms and are known to be LGBTQ+ friendly.
“If they are able to make some meaningful changes and accommodations, even if it is not moving the location of conferences that are already planned, I would receive that as a positive message,” Bowring says.
No matter what combination of approaches meeting planners choose to implement, it doesn’t fix the underlying problem for transgender scientists. Anti-trans laws are still being proposed and are increasing quickly.
So far this year, more than 500 anti-trans bills have been proposed in 49 states; 74 have been signed into law. “The most tangible thing that you can do to support us is to actually stop these bills from happening in the first place,” Roldan says.
For scientific societies, that could involve taking a public stance on such legislation and communicating that back to their members. Societies “could also donate money to groups fighting for LGBT rights in the state where the conference is held,” Bowring says.
Cisgender members of these organizations can show support by paying attention to their local politics. “Until the cis population starts caring about these topics, the burden ends up being on trans people who are fighting to just exist right now,” says the chemist in Ohio. “We need cis allies to speak out and to raise awareness.”