Trailblazers 2022 guest editor Tehshik P. Yoon is a professor of chemistry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. An innovator in photochemistry, he is the recipient of numerous awards for his scholarship and teaching, including the American Chemical Society Cope Scholar Award, the Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel Research Award, being named an American Association for the Advancement of Science fellow, and the Cottrell Scholar Award.
The queer liberation movement has for decades celebrated pride, deliberately denouncing the shame and secrecy that were characteristic of LGBTQ+ life into the late 20th century. I echo this sentiment when I say that I am very proud to introduce this special issue celebrating trailblazing LGBTQ+ chemists. As a gay man working in chemistry, I am proud to be a member of this community of scholars, educators, and researchers, and I am delighted to have guest edited this issue highlighting our contributions to the field.
This collection gives voice to LGBTQ+ members of the chemistry community and celebrates their contributions. Our hope is to provide visibility to a population that has been marginalized for far too long and whose basic human dignity is only beginning to enjoy legal protection in some countries.
You may not know who we are, but we work beside you. We are your students, your collaborators, and your colleagues. The insights in our papers and seminars inform your own research daily. Science must create a place for queer people. The inclusion of all our voices in research and education benefits us all.
I’d like to open this essay by confronting a question that inevitably gets asked whenever the chemistry community does something to feature its LGBTQ+ members: Why do we need to highlight LGBTQ+ scientists? The question is raised both by critics and by well-meaning allies. I have been asked this question more times than I can remember. My answer is that a focus on LGBTQ+ chemists is warranted, timely, and critically necessary. My own story and others in this issue together make a strong argument for the power of LGBTQ+ representation in chemistry. But as scientists, we are particularly persuaded by facts and data. So let me paint you a picture of the current landscape facing LGBTQ+ people in the US.
A 2019 Pew Research Center poll shows that acceptance of gay and lesbian people in the US is at an all-time high. About 72% of people in the US said homosexuality should be accepted by society. This is a relatively recent change: the value is up from 60% in 2013 and from 49% in 2007, suggesting that attitudes toward LGBTQ+ people—or at least lesbian and gay people have evolved rapidly in the US.
But we are still far from full equality under the law. As I write this, Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill has just been signed into law. Among other provisions, the law intends to prohibit classroom discussion and instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity. Texas has just decreed that gender-affirming care for transgender minors constitutes child abuse, and laws banning this health care—which medical organizations consider necessary—are already on the books in Arkansas and Tennessee. Since 2020, the number of laws introduced in state legislatures targeting trans rights has been nearly doubling annually, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Nearly 300 were in progress in 2022 as of publication. Many of these laws target trans youth. They ban or criminalize young trans people’s health care, restrict their access to bathrooms, and prevent them from safely participating in school sports. For LGBTQ+ people like me, whose identities have been the subject of political attack and debate for our entire lives, it seems self-evident that efforts to recognize the contributions of LGBTQ+ members of society are an important step toward liberation.
LGBTQ+ identities differ from other marginalized identities in that they are often not evident without disclosure. The choice to be out—that is, to publicly disclose one’s sexual or gender identity—remains a difficult and radically transgressive choice for many people. LGBTQ+ people in the US were not federally protected from losing their jobs because of their identities until 2020, when the Supreme Court extended federal civil rights protections to LGBTQ+ employees. Many LGBTQ+ people remain concerned about the consequences to their careers if their identities are revealed to employers and colleagues.
This is, unfortunately, a very reasonable fear. A 2021 study found that nearly half of LGBTQ+ workers in the US report experiencing employment discrimination at some point in their careers. And sadly, many LGBTQ+ people risk losing their connections to their religious communities, their friends, and their families by disclosing their identities. The University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall estimates that one in five adults in the US aged 18 to 25 who reported experiencing homelessness in the past 12 months identifies as LGBTQ+. Queer culture has long celebrated “chosen families” that provide emotional or financial support when families of origin cut or attenuate ties after a family member comes out.
The social and cultural disincentives against being out are significant, and they have a continuing impact on the choices LGBTQ+ people make in every aspect of their lives. The most recent employment survey by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) found that 46% of LGBTQ+ employees in the US were not out at work in 2018. Troublingly, this statistic is essentially unchanged since the 2008 HRC survey.
Despite the significant federal protections that LGBTQ+ people in the US have secured in the past few years, fears of persecution prevent queer people from fully being themselves in the workplace. For closeted LGBTQ+ scientists, holding back an important part of their identity creates psychological stresses that their straight and cisgender peers generally do not have to consider. These cognitive burdens can prevent smart, well-trained scientists from being as productive as they might otherwise be in their intellectually challenging, creative fields. A recent study by Jeremy B. Yoder of California State University, Northridge, and coworkers found that LGBTQ+ scientists, including asexual scientists, who are not out at work publish fewer papers than a comparison group of straight and cisgender scientists (PLOS One 2022, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0263728). Scientists who were out had publication rates similar to those of their straight and cisgender peers. The consequences of the closet, therefore, are real and measurable, and they impede scientific progress.
One way to help young LGBTQ+ scientists feel more comfortable sharing their identities is to highlight role models who are out and accepted. The preponderance of scientists who aren’t out at work may make it harder for students beginning their scientific educations to find LGBTQ+ role models—or, worse, it may send the message that queer folks should not be in science. Personally, I gravitated to science relatively late in my education in part because I saw so many more models of successful queer professionals in the arts and the humanities. It is, unfortunately, difficult to determine whether LGBTQ+ people are being excluded from science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) professions because demographic data about LGBTQ+ people are hard to come by. Most schools, employers, and federal agencies do not collect these data.
Globally, LGBTQ+ people have very different legal and social statuses in different countries. As a Korean American, it pains me to note that my marriage would not be recognized in my parents’ native country. Same-sex marriage is legal in only about 30 countries, homosexuality is still punishable by imprisonment or death in 69 countries, and trans people are specifically criminalized under the law in 13 countries and persecuted by de facto anti-trans applications of other laws in many more. The uneven acceptance of LGBTQ+ people in different countries restricts the free flow of scientists and scientific thought across national borders, to the detriment of scientific progress.
Moreover, even as the status of cisgender gay, lesbian, and bisexual people in Western democracies has improved significantly in the past decade, attacks on transgender people—both legal and literal—have surged in the past few years. In addition to the many anti-trans laws being advanced in statehouses across the US, there is an underreported epidemic of violence against trans people, especially Black and Latina trans women, who are victims of assault and murder at a disproportionately high rate.
There is a long way to go before the entire LGBTQ+ community can be free to contribute to all areas where straight, cisgender people are welcome.
So, to readers who question why a special feature on LGBTQ+ trailblazers in C&EN is valuable: LGBTQ+ people still face significant challenges in STEM fields and beyond, even if these struggles may not be evident in everyone’s daily work. Visibility is a central concern for LGBTQ+ people, who typically must choose whether to face social and political opprobrium by revealing their gender and sexual identities or endure psychological distress from withholding an essential part of themselves. We deserve the right to bring our whole selves to work every day without having to justify our identities.
This celebration of out, proud, successful LGBTQ+ chemists provides role models for young queer scientists early in their training, and I hope it will encourage them to persist in STEM careers. We all do our best science when we can fully express our complete selves. Being proudly out is still a radical act of self-empowerment that enables us to live up to our full potential. I celebrate the spectrum of out and proud LGBTQ+ scientists featured in this issue—and the many we did not have space to include.
It was quite easy to compile a long list of candidates to profile in this feature—a remarkable fact in itself. When I began graduate school 26 years ago, I don’t think I could have named more than three or four LGBTQ+ chemists. In assembling this list, my partners at C&EN and I found that we had many more people we wanted to highlight than we had space for in this issue. Even as we acknowledge how much more work needs to be done, it’s worthwhile noting how many more out, highly visible LGBTQ+ chemists there are than even just a few years ago.
The process of narrowing down our list was guided by several considerations. First, much of the work carving out a place for LGBTQ+ people in the chemistry community was carried out by a generation of true trailblazers who are now well into their careers or approaching retirement, and I wanted to acknowledge with gratitude our debt to them. We also honor a group of historic or recently deceased trailblazing scientists. Their inclusion is balanced by featuring several up-and-coming early-career scientists.
Second, until recently, the construction of LGBTQ+ community in chemistry has been ad hoc and based largely on personal connections. I thought it important to stretch beyond my personal networks and enrich this list with people outside my scientific field of expertise. The Diversify Chemistry website and the 500 Queer Scientists campaign were very helpful in this context.
Third, it was important to all of us to resist the worrying trend of centering LGBTQ+ narratives on the perspectives of White, cisgender gay men. We tried as best we could to make sure that a multitude of LGBTQ+ identities were included in this feature.
This issue provides perspectives on queer experiences through the voices of members of the LGBTQ+ community. I am proud to note that all the profiles included in this feature were written by LGBTQ+ science writers, and all photographs commissioned for this issue were made by LGBTQ+ artists. I’m particularly excited to note that seven of these stories feature conversations between LGBTQ+ chemistry professionals and LGBTQ+ graduate students or postdocs.
Our hope is that this issue will catalyze a needed conversation about the status of LGBTQ+ scientists in chemistry. This may be an uncomfortable dialogue for many of us. It will touch upon matters that we often consider to be profoundly private, and it is always difficult to grapple with the realization that some of our cherished scientific peers struggle in ways that are not immediately obvious to the rest of us. The result, however, can be a stronger, more productive, and more welcoming science community. I am proud to highlight the excellence of this small selection of proudly out LGBTQ+ chemists, and I hope that you enjoy reading it as much as I have enjoyed putting it together.