How One Entomologist Has Created Community for LGBTQ+ Scientists
As a museum scientist, Lauren Esposito, Ph.D., knows quite well how shining a light on something new or unfamiliar can open people’s eyes to the beauty and diversity of the natural world.
So, perhaps it’s no surprise that Esposito, an assistant curator and Schlinger chair of arachnology at the California Academy of Sciences, understood how visibility could make similar advances in opening minds within the scientific professional community—visibility, in this case, of STEM professionals identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer.
In 2018, Esposito, along with three colleagues at the Cal Academy, launched 500 Queer Scientists, an online campaign to share the stories of LGBTQ+ professionals in STEM. It started with 50 stories, grew past 500 in just days, and is now closing in on 2,000 stories from scientists across STEM fields sharing who they are and the science they love. Looking back, Esposito, who identifies as queer, says, “It’s just been quite inspiring for many, many people, telling them that it is OK to bring your full identity to science. In fact, it benefits the science in doing so.”
In honor of Pride Month, Entomology Today spoke with Esposito to learn more about her science career, why she’s a fan of amblypygids, her experience in creating a grassroots social advocacy community, and how the entomology community has made strides in welcoming LGBTQ+ scientists—and where it has room to grow.
The Q&A below has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Entomology Today: In the “Science Heroes” story about you on the Cal Academy website, you said “I’d been trained as a museum scientist since I was 19 years old, and all I wanted to do is museum science.” What is it about museum science that’s drawn you in as a career path, and what do you like most about it?
Esposito: As a public visitor walking into a large natural history museum for the first time, you’re really transported into this other universe. So many people have deeply fond memories of experiences with all sorts of museums, oftentimes science museums in particular.
From a young age, getting to visit science museums was a really special moment for me. Those are memories that stand out in my mind, visiting various natural history museums on vacation. I didn’t have a natural history museum in the city where I grew up. They were always associated with family trips or visiting someone.
From a scientific journey perspective, science museums and natural history museums are incredible resources for understanding the world around us.
At one of my first museum jobs, a summer internship as an undergraduate, I was helping to accession a large collection of southern African scorpions into the American Museum of Natural History collection. They had acquired the collection from a scorpiologist who had passed away, and they’d just arrived to the museum from Africa in five-gallon buckets.
I had never been to southern Africa. I was a young person who grew up in North America. I had never been to remote parts of the Namib Desert. My job was to take each of these scorpions out, examine it, determine the species and the sex of the specimen, take the information that was on a tiny slip of paper attached to the tail of the scorpion with a little string and enter it into a computer, and then look up where that place was in the world. It’s a process called georeferencing. In those months I spent with five-gallon buckets full of preserved scorpions, I came to know, really intimately, a time and a place on Earth that I had never physically visited. And that’s the wonder of natural history museums and collections, that every single specimen is treasured and is valued scientifically but is also a record of a time and a place that existed.
It’s how we understand changes on Earth that have taken place since these kinds of records started being kept. The potential for what we can do with natural history specimens and records in understanding global change and understanding how to combat the loss of species feels very significant. It’s something that I’ve just always wanted to be able to work on.
You’ve done field research on every continent but Antarctica. Is there one place that stands out to you as your favorite or most memorable?
Every single place I’ve ever been is unique in its own way. It’s unique because of the people that live there, it’s unique because there’s no two places on Earth that are the same. None of them really stands out in a particular way above another.
That said, I spent a lot of my childhood in The Bahamas, in the Caribbean. I’ve been working in the Caribbean professionally since I was a graduate student, so almost 20 years. The Caribbean always holds a really special place in my heart because it’s such a biologically diverse and culturally diverse place that it’s just quite incredible.
Who in your life or your career has been your biggest inspiration, mentor, or role model?
I’m excited you asked, because it’s somebody who’s really important to ESA at the moment, current ESA President Jessica Ware. I met Jessica as a graduate student at the American Museum of Natural History. She was a graduate student at Rutgers at the time, a few years ahead of me. She was near graduating as I was entering my Ph.D. world.
In the decade and a half since I first met Jessica, I’ve always looked up to her and admired her both for her scientific research, which in many ways overlaps with mine, but also who she is as a human being, the principles she holds up, and what that does for other people in science, really making a space for them.
What is your favorite insect or arachnid, and why?
I feel like every time I’m asked this question I have a different answer, because I am continually amazed by the insanity of arachnids. But probably one of my all-time favorites consistently is whip spiders, also known as amblypygids. They’re really weird and super cool arachnids.
They’re oftentimes really big. It’s something that grabs your attention immediately, but they’re unique in that they’re probably the closest living relative to spiders, but they don’t make silk, they don’t have venom, and they live in sub-social communities where there’s extended parental care. The mom takes care of the babies for long periods of time. And there’s a lot of interpersonal interaction. The males compete over breeding territories for females by just measuring up how big each one’s jaw is. It feels very civilized. They’re terrifying-looking but not scary at all in terms of behavior, which is really cool.
Let’s turn now to the organization you’re involved with, 500 Queer Scientists. What originally spurred you to launch that effort?
I started 500 Queer Scientists in 2018. At the time, I was 2.5 years into my first tenure-track position. The California Academy of Sciences is in Golden Gate Park, and San Francisco is a really gay-friendly city. It has been for a long time and has been viewed as a respite for people of LGBTQAI+ identities for a long time. But, in the history of my institution, the oldest scientific institution in the western United States, I was the first openly queer curator. That juxtaposition—of living in a queer-friendly city where I feel open to be myself but working in an old institution that had never had LGBTQ representation in its highest ranking scientists—was a reflection that caught me off guard a bit.
When I had that personal revelation, I thought, “Oh, that’s surprising,” and it sent me down a spiral of reflection about my own experiences and things that had happened to me along the way that made me feel like there wasn’t a space for my LGBTQ identity in professional careers. For instance, I had never had a LGBTQ-identifying professor in undergraduate or graduate school that I was aware of. I had never worked in a lab with another queer student or colleague. I didn’t know anybody in my subdiscipline of arachnology who identified as queer. I felt just isolated. Conversely, that was a strong aspect of my personal identity in the LGBTQ community that I had built for myself outside of science, and it wasn’t being translated into science. I wanted to figure out whether there was something that I could do about that feeling.
At the time, being LGBTQAI was not a protected class of employment in the United States. There were parts of the U.S. where there was not state-level protection, where people could be fired for being queer. For me, to be in a place that was safe, especially relative to other parts of the country or parts of the world, even still to feel like I couldn’t express that, I felt like there must be reasons that are consistent across science in terms of the culture.
So, I decided, “I’m going to start a visibility campaign,” because that seemed like a small thing that I can do that will change visibility. At the very worst, maybe it would help me meet other people within my field that are LGBTQ-identifying and, at the best, maybe it could change the climate for other people. I gathered 50 stories just by emailing people and asking them to forward it to their colleagues, trying to find folks who were in a safe space and willing to share their stories.
In June 2018, we launched with 50 stories on social media and grew to about 500 within two weeks. I had called it 500 Queer Scientists because I’d really admired what the 500 Women Scientists community had done to support women and build a community of women scientists, and I wanted to find something like that for queer folks.
And … launch! We're a new visibility campaign for LGBTQ+ people (& their allies) working in STEM & STEM-supporting jobs—a group that collectively represents a powerful force of scientific progress & discovery. Pls join us! https://t.co/4COgp7rnXr #STEMPride #Pride2018 pic.twitter.com/uPVTtWI0by
— 500QueerScientists (@500QueerSci) June 4, 2018
Why did the format of a visibility campaign seem like the right fit as opposed to any other kind of advocacy effort?
It felt like something that I could do as an individual and with the help of a small team of people who had volunteered. At that time, we were four people from the Academy. There was another LGBTQ-identifying graduate student who was helping me, Sean Edgerton, and two people from the Academy’s science communication team that were providing guidance and helping with a digital strategy for how to build a campaign, which, as a scientist, I had no idea how to do. It just felt like something tangible that could create change.
While it did start as a visibility campaign, it certainly evolved into more than that, and now it’s really a community. It’s a community that we continue to steward online through social media and through the website where at this point over 1,700 bios have been contributed. It’s still all volunteer-run, but we take the responsibility seriously of holding the stories that have been shared.
Did you have any expectations for how much 500 Queer Scientists would grow? How has it evolved, and what do you envision for it in the future?
I had no idea really what the outcome would be. I expected that nothing would come of it, that I would post this original tweet that was just the 260 characters that Twitter allows. That was the first time, actually, in a public space declaring my identities as both a scientist and a queer person. I didn’t know if anybody would care or if it would just go the way that so many online things go.
But the response from the community was really profound. Even people that weren’t in a safe place or didn’t want to or weren’t comfortable sharing their stories were interacting online through social media. It’s just been quite inspiring for many, many people, telling them that it is OK to bring your full identity to science. In fact, it benefits the science in doing so.
We’ve continued to grow. People contribute bios every week still. We have something like 30,000 followers on social media that we try to connect and build bridges between. For example, if a job listing is posted by a queer person, and they’re keen to find other LGBTQ people or want to let other LGBTQ people know that it’s a safe space for them to come and work and bring their full identity, then we post those job listings, and we try to highlight contributors through a newsletter. We try to raise up the profile of other efforts that people are making, whether that’s a podcast or a television show or anything queer-and-science-intersection-focused.
Then last year, we produced an exhibit with the California Academy of Sciences and ASTC, the Association for Science and Technology Centers, called New Science. It’s a full exhibit that focuses on first-person stories. In the same spirit of 500 Queer Scientists, it includes immersive multimedia videos and longer narratives about the person’s journey through science and, more importantly, why their unique identity benefits the way that we do science and the way that science is thought of. It’s also available for free to anyone in the world that wants to put the exhibit up in their own institution, and there’s even some funding for that available through the ASTC IF/THEN project. There’s also an online version of New Science on the Google Arts and Culture platform that’s an immersive virtual exhibit for those who can’t visit in person. We’ve gotten tons of really good feedback from visitors about how meaningful it was for them to see queer, trans, and gender non-conforming people of color represented on the public floor of a science museum.
“New Science is about showing the world that queer & intersectional identities are changing who does science—& how science gets done." Our newest exhibit inspires, reframes, elevates, and opens (in person & online) June 24: https://t.co/lhSMn1Qy81 #pride pic.twitter.com/TlTaml1qyQ
— California Academy of Sciences (@calacademy) June 22, 2021
Day to day or week to week, how do you and your fellow volunteers go about managing 500 Queer Scientists on top of your day jobs?
It’s a labor of love. At this point, it’s essentially me and one other person, Laurel Allen, who works at the Cal Academy as well. We make time whenever we can make time. Sometimes we’re a little slow getting new posts up, for example, or getting the newsletter out. The monthly newsletter doesn’t always come out monthly, but we try our best, and our wonderful volunteer, Simon Morrow, has been gathering fantastic interviews with community members for it. We feel like it’s something really important and worth making the time for even in the midst of busy work and personal life schedules.
How can entomology as a community be more welcoming and equitable for LGBTQ scientists? Likewise, how can entomologists as individuals support their LGBTQ colleagues as well?
There’s already evidence of clear progress within entomology, particularly within ESA. For the last three years now, we’ve had a programmed LGBTQ mixer in the annual conference, which I think makes a really huge difference. The first year that we organized that, they asked us what size of room we wanted, and we said, “Oh, I guess a room for 50 people.” There were well over 500 people in attendance, spilling out of the room and down the hallway in both directions. This last year, we leveled up after a COVID-year hiatus and moved into a hotel bar that was also basically filled to capacity. I think that the desire is certainly there.
By and large, the demographic and attendance at those mixers skews younger. It’s clear that, for young people, networking in scientific meetings is really important for their careers. This kind of event—which allows them a space where it’s safe to be themselves and safe to be themselves as entomologists in addition to being queer people—is really important. It’s a strong signal from the Society that they’re willing to embrace that sense of identity and provide and create space for it. At the very first mixer, both the standing ESA president and the president-elect came to express their support for this space. That sent a really strong signal to the people in attendance that this was something that the Society was supportive of.
Also, now the next clear signal is that our president, Jessica Ware, is an openly bisexual woman, and that sends a strong signal to the young people in ESA and to the Society more broadly that there is a space in entomology to be an openly queer person—that it’s okay, that you can be successful, and this is what success looks like as an out and open person. That shows a lot of progress and a lot of progressiveness within the Society, because certainly that’s not the case for many other professional societies in this country and internationally.
As individual entomologists, one of the best things that you can do is be vocal in your support. Oftentimes, we talk about activism and “allyism,” or how to be an ally. My best recommendation is: If you’re reflecting on your life and your past actions and you can’t think of anything that you’ve actively done to be an ally for queer people or people from other marginalized groups, then you’re probably not being an ally.
Ally is an active word. Even though it’s a description of something that you want to be, it should really be an active verb. You have to act on the allyship in order to be a good ally. One of the best ways to do that is just to say something when you observe something wrong. It takes the pressure off of people from historically marginalized or oppressed communities when other people speak up in the moment. It demonstrates that you’re a supporter of their identity, but also it helps correct problems that are oftentimes unintentional, things that people say that are harmful without them intending to do harm. It takes the burden and the pressure off of people from queer communities to be the ones always having to do the correcting and do the educating in addition to the marginalization that they’re experiencing because of their identity.
Are there challenges that are unique to the scientific field for people of LGBTQ identities that are maybe different from the world at large?
Yes, absolutely. For starters, there’s an estimated 121,000 people with LGBTQ identities missing from the current STEM workforce. That’s an estimate based on what we know about rates of attrition to people from STEM pathways, how fast they leave, and how prevalent those identities are in the general population. Queer and trans people are leaving the STEM workforce at rates much higher than cisgender heterosexual folks.
Among LGBTQ-identifying faculty at university settings in STEM departments, 70 percent of those that are out report being made to feel harassed or unwelcomed by their colleagues. They’re experiencing harassment while at work, bullying. They’re much more likely to report having their professional work devalued as a consequence of their identity than cisgender/straight people, and they express higher intentions of leaving their professional career within the next five years.
Queer people are certainly marginalized within scientific societies and scientific communities in ways that are overlooked and underreported. Because it’s one of those identities that’s not counted, and so therefore it’s disregarded. For that matter, about 40 percent of LGBTQ people working in either professional or faculty positions in STEM are not out to their colleagues, which is similar to what we estimate for the general U.S. population. It’s surprising in a setting like a university, where there’s a sense of freedom of expression that’s associated with working in that space. It’s different in other departments like English or sociology or gender studies; all of those departments don’t have 40 percent of their faculty who are queer being still in the closet. It’s within the scientific fields, and it’s definitely still a problem. For more information, there are some good statistics on the 500 Queer Scientists’ website that come from published research.
It’s great to hear that entomology and ESA are doing some positive things to welcome LGBTQ scientists. What would be good to do next? What are some other potential efforts on the profession-wide level that could help?
There are some good models that have been put in place just recently. For example, I’m also involved with Entomologists of Color, which is another independent group that ESA has embraced and taken on some of the practices that we put in place. For example, mentorship programs for young entomologists of color who are attending the annual conference for the first time.
Some programs like that for queer people, specifically, would be a strong step forward. At the moment, there’s essentially no grant funding available that’s tied to LGBTQ identities. Oftentimes you can apply for funding as women in science or other underrepresented minority groups in science. If you identify as a queer or a trans person, however, and you apply to an NSF-funded program, that’s not counted as an underrepresented identity. Oftentimes, queer and trans people are no longer connected to their biological families. As a result of their identity, they experience financial insecurity at rates much higher than cisgender heterosexual people. So, financial support through grants goes a long way in helping some of those people realize their dreams as professional entomologists.
Thank you so much, Lauren. Any final thoughts, or anything else you want to add?
The last thing that I would say is “Happy Pride” to everyone. And, a reminder that pride is a protest started by queer and trans people of color who’d had enough of the bigotry and violence they’d endured and who stood up. Even though with time Pride has come to be a celebration of our identities, it’s always a good time to put on your activist hat and think about what you do to make the climate better for queer and trans entomologists.
Dr. Esposito’s work is very important and inspiring. As a gay man that has struggled so much with homophobia throughout his career, the 500 Queer Scientists initiative comes a sign of hope. Thank you!