Pride

'I hope that our actions show our members that we are doing our best to support them'

A Q&A with ASBMB Policy Manager Raechel McKinley on the organization’s national-level advocacy for LGBTQIA+ scientists, trainees and students
Marissa Locke Rottinghaus
June 6, 2023

The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology’s public affairs department advocates on behalf of members for sustainable funding for biomedical research, policies that strengthen and diversify the biomedical research enterprise and measures that support international scientific collaboration. The ASBMB Public Affairs Advisory Committee and staff want to be sure that researchers’ concerns are known in Congress and at federal funding agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.

But in their home states, LGBTQIA+ scientists are facing unprecedented challenges, as their legislatures and even local governments are enacting laws and policies that make them feel unsafe and unwelcome.

Raechel McKinley
Raechel McKinley

Although the ASBMB policy team primarily advocates on behalf of scientists to the federal government, some of its work can contribute to protections and support at the state level, such as its recommendations relating to Title IX, the LGBTQIA+ Data Inclusion Act and other federally funded diversity initiatives.

Raechel McKinley is a science policy manager at the ASBMB who specializes in diversity, equity, inclusivity and accessibility policy and advocacy. She is also a queer woman. She discussed the work the ASBMB public affairs team is doing to better the lives and scientific careers of LGBTQIA+ students and researchers. The interview has been edited for length, clarity and style.

Late last year, the ASBMB weighed in on changes proposed for Title IX. What were its recommendations?

Title IX is over 50 years old, and we believe it is crucial that it be updated to extend protection to LGBTQIA+ students and postdocs. As the current ruling stands, they are not protected. We first expressed concern about proposed changes to Title IX in June 2021 after the Department of Education held a public hearing to gather information on improving Title IX. In that comment letter, we urged the Department of Education to update the definition of sexual harassment and institute more provisions to protect sexual harassment survivors.

Later, in 2022, we sent additional recommendations on the updated proposed changes to Title IX to the Department of Education. Most importantly, we wanted to ensure that the rule explicitly protects lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, intersex, asexual and other nonstraight, noncisgender identifying people. In addition, we recommended measures that would make sure people are protected from retaliation. We made this recommendation because there’s currently a lot that’s being done at the state level that threatens students in K–12 as well as higher education. We want to make sure that people within higher education are protected. Since we don’t do much work on the state level, through advocating for changes to Title IX, we can help ensure that discrimination does not happen at the state level.

Tell me about the society’s comments on the LGBTQ+ Data Inclusion Act.

The LGBTQ+ Data Inclusion Act mandates that LGBTQIA+ individuals be included in federal surveys. Currently, there’s no requirement to include them. Even when they are included, the questions sometimes do not accurately collect data on the LGBTQIA+ community.

After consulting with LGBTQIA+ groups such as Out to Innovate , a professional society that supports LGBTQIA+ scientists in STEM, we submitted a position statement in support of the bill.

Why is LGBTQIA+ data collection important?

This population’s needs are varied and unique. Data on gender identity and sexual orientation will give policymakers a better understanding of the challenges they face — such as higher incidences of mental health concerns, HIV, sexual harassment, lower socioeconomic status and less support from family members and schools. This way, they can target outreach and funding programs to support LGBTQIA+ people.

Also, we want to make sure that survey questions use inclusive language to help all LGBTQIA+ individuals feel recognized.

At the ASBMB, we follow evidence-based decision-making when putting together our recommendations. This bill will allow us to better advocate for the LGBTQIA+ community in the future using data and facts.

The society also recently sent recommendations to the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases about its diversity and inclusion efforts. How does that relate to LGBTQIA+ scientists?

We applauded the NIAID for prioritizing and seeking input on their DEIA efforts. We recommended that they collect and report on data of underrepresented groups. Right now, we can’t properly advocate for LGBTQIA+ individuals because they are not included in any type of data collection. More extensive data collection will better inform us so that we can advocate for funding opportunities or safe zone training for LGBTQIA+ trainees and investigators.

We also urged the NIAID to act now to expand grant supplements and establish targeted outreach programs to better connect trainees and scientists from similar backgrounds. We hope the agency will lead the way and encourage other institutes to prioritize DEIA.

You mentioned safe zone training. What is that?

The Safe Zone Project is a training program that can help you get the skills to facilitate conversations surrounding LGBTQIA+ issues and create a more inclusive environment for all students. After you receive the training, you get posters that you can put up in your lab or classroom to show that it is a safe zone. This is an identifier that you are a person who is informed and willing to talk about LGBTQIA+ issues. It is not always evident who is an ally, but this is a simple way to signal your allyship.

Your team advocates broadly for policies supporting scientists in marginalized groups. How do these actions promote equity for LGBTQIA+ individuals?

We have been promoting DEIA for all types of underrepresented scientists, which includes LGBTQIA+ individuals, since the public affairs team was created at the ASBMB. In 2018, we released a comment letter to the National Institute of General Medical Sciences with our recommendations to promote faculty diversity in STEM. We have also been very vocal in our DEIA recommendations to the NIH in response to their 2022 Scientific Workforce Strategic Plan and the NIH-Wide Strategic Plan for DEIA for 2022–2026 as well as to the National Science Foundation supporting the expansion of their sexual harassment policy in 2018. These statements all proposed efforts to research and mitigate harassment, specifically of LGBTQIA+ scientists. The NIH Workplace Climate and Harassment Survey, which appropriately surveyed the LGBTQIA+ community, showed that bisexual individuals had higher instances of harassment in the workplace.

We also understand the challenges that LGBTQIA+ individuals are facing in educational settings, especially in states with anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation. That is why in August 2022 we submitted comments on the Department of Education’s Equity Action Plan suggesting that the federal government work with professional societies to diversify grant reviewers and support staff.

We also released a statement supporting the Educational Opportunity and Success Act of 2023, which would help underrepresented students stay in the academic pipeline and succeed after grade school.

Finally, in order to promote DEIA practices that include LGBTQIA+ individuals at the state level, we recommended that the NIGMS help institutions improve trainee mentoring opportunities for underrepresented groups as well as highlight more alumni with diverse identities and backgrounds to promote student confidence.

I hope that our actions show our members that we are doing our best to support them.

How can allies advocate for the LGBTQIA+ community?

A good place to start is your local community. Most cities or towns have an LGBTQIA+ center. Go in there and talk with people. You can really find out firsthand the needs of your community. Helping out and giving back is a great way to show your allyship.

I also think standing in solidarity with the community right now and giving people the resources they need to fight against these anti-LGBTQIA+ policies and ideas is so important. If anyone feels targeted by all the legislation out there, you can help those individuals craft responses to send to their state and local lawmakers.

It is also important to get people connected with civil rights groups that are well equipped to handle these situations.

What resources can people use to stay informed?

The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation has a glossary of terminology to help you learn about all types of sexual orientation, gender identities and even flags. Each community has their own flag, so this is a great, fun way for people to identify themselves within the community.

In addition, the National LGBTQ Task Force puts on a conference called Creating Change, where they equip you to be an activist in your community. I have attended and highly recommend it.

To stay informed on legislation, check out the Human Rights Campaign and the American Civil Liberties Union. There’s also a website called GovTrack. You can enter your ZIP code, and it’ll give you all of the information that you need about your senators and representatives at the state and federal levels. You can find out if they’ve endorsed or opposed a bill. The website also gives you an automatic response to send feedback and a way to reach out to them, so you don’t have to craft anything yourself.

If you’re a scientist in STEM, there are many organizations you can reach out to such as Out to Innovate; 500 Queer Scientists; Pride in STEM; Out in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics; and many others. If anyone is interested in reaching out to me or the rest of the public affairs team, you can email publicaffairs@asbmb.org.

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Marissa Locke Rottinghaus

Marissa Locke Rottinghaus is the science writer for the ASBMB.

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