Member Perspective: LGBTQ+ People in STEM

This article was originally published in the February 2019 edition of the Anatomy Now newsletter.

AAA is headed to Out to Innovate™ next month. The Out to Innovate Summit is a biennial program of the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals (NOGLSTP) bringing together and supporting LGBTQ+ students, academics, and professionals in the STEM fields.

As part of AAA’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, the association is supporting the attendance of Dr. Gary Farkas, Assistant Professor of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Science at the University of California, San Francisco, and AAA Education Affairs Committee member. In advance of the summit, we spoke with Gary about his career and LGBTQ+ representation in academia. We’ll have more to report after the summit.

AAA: How did you discover your interest in anatomy?

GARY: I have always had an interest in medicine and science. Growing up, my family had a two-volume medical encyclopedia that had transparent pages where you could overlay different organ systems. I would flip through these books and read them for fun. Then during college while I was in a year-long, two-part anatomy and physiology course with a cadaver laboratory, I discovered my interest in anatomy. The following year, upon taking a cadaver dissection course where I was able to serve as an undergraduate teaching assistant, I knew I found my niche.

To what degree did being a student-scientist affect your decision or ability to come out?

As a gay individual in science and academia, it can be isolating, especially in a culture that can sometimes be slow to change. I have been out since I was an undergraduate student in Chicago, but when I first started in academia I was quietly out because I naively thought being an out, gay academic was counterculture. However, I quickly realized it was difficult to converse with my colleagues and truly participate in professional events. As cliché as this sounds, by being truthful to who you are, it fully allows you to engage in your teaching, your science, your profession, and with your students and peers. Not speaking up can be mentally and physically taxing, and it slows scientific productivity. Plus, to our LGBTQ+ students we often serve as a role model. It is important to create visibility and a welcoming, inclusive environment so they can see they are not alone.

How important is it for you to have LGBTQ+ colleagues and allies in your professional network and within AAA?

I have always felt I have had two support systems: my LGBTQ+ community and friends outside of my professional life and my colleagues in academia. However, each group does not necessarily understand the other’s challenges and achievements. We often identify with and define ourselves by our careers; therefore, having folks like you in your professional network is important because it is hard to be in a career where you do not see other people who are like you. I tend to think some of the difficulty lies in the fact that most LGBTQ+ people in STEM and academia are just not as visible as some other minority groups. But that is beginning to change through initiatives set forth by groups like AAA and NOGLSTP.

How has AAA’s commitment to diversity and inclusion impacted your professional growth and engagement with the association and other members?

I feel very fortunate to be a part of a professional society that celebrates diversity and inclusion. AAA realizes that when we pay attention to diversity and inclusion—what makes us unique, and our individual experiences—everyone benefits. This in turn allows AAA to benefit through an inclusive environment and richer contributions. It is one thing to talk about diversity and inclusion, but AAA has embraced it through the Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan and its initiatives. The association has created a safe, professional space for members of the LGBTQ+ community (among others) to connect and feel welcomed, as well as allow our voices to be heard. In my opinion, this sets a beautiful example for other societies, and makes AAA the premier anatomy society.

What unique challenges do LGBTQ+ anatomists and academics face?

One challenge that comes to mind is how we incorporate LGBTQ+ health topics, both mental and physical, into our health science curricula. Often the limited exposure on LGBTQ+ health issues in curricula does not adequately cover the needs and realities of LGBTQ+ patients, and in some cases can cause confusion or reinforce stereotypes. Ensuring appropriate specialists are included in the planning and delivery of the content is critical so our students can professionally, effectively, compassionately, and confidentially respond to needs of LGBTQ+ patients.

What are your goals in representing AAA at Out to Innovate?

I hope to learn more about NOGLSTP, its participants, and how the organization can help promote LGBTQ+ professional development, advocacy, and visibility within AAA, like their work with the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Chemical Society. I am also looking forward to connecting with other LGBTQ+ STEM professionals, hearing their stories and celebrating their accomplishments, and discussing current matters concerning LGBTQ+ professionals and students in academia and science. Ultimately, I hope we can promote collaboration, visibility, and empowerment, while mitigating bias in the workplace.

Gary Farkas, Ph.D.