At the Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine, researchers from more than 130 labs are harnessing the latest advances in biology and engineering to confront the root causes of diseases that impact billions of people around the world. While we are focused on shaping the future of medicine, we also recognize that this moment in time would not be possible without the countless scientists from all walks of life who came before us. Here we celebrate just a few of the LGBTQ+ biologists, physicians, and public health leaders who made lasting impacts on human health, often in the face of the persistent prejudice and exclusion that still exists in STEM fields today.
Pride month commemorates the 1969 Stonewall Riots and the launch of the ongoing LGBTQ+ civil rights movement. For any organization focused on translational advances in cell biology, biotechnology, and regenerative medicine, Pride month is also an opportunity to celebrate the enduring contributions that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer scientists have been making to science, medicine, and public health for thousands of years.
It’s almost certain that many of the acclaimed scientists in our history books, as well as those who have contributed to advancements without public recognition, would today identify publicly or privately as LGBTQ+. Personal papers, public records, and possible clues left in paintings and texts support speculation that some of the most celebrated names in science, including Francis Bacon, Leonardo Da Vinci, Florence Nightingale, and George Washington Carver, were gay or bisexual.
Stigma, discriminatory laws, and the lack of language to describe the many queer identities that have always existed are just some of the factors that have prevented the majority of LGBTQ+ people, including scientists and scholars, from claiming or publicizing their sexual orientations and gender identities. Even as recently as 2013, a survey of workers in STEM jobs found that 40% of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people were not open with their colleagues about their sexual orientations and gender identities.
Looking back a century, however, at least one openly gay public figure was making her mark in the poorest neighborhoods of New York City.
Sara Josephine Baker was a physician and public health and hygiene crusader who persuasively noted that it was six times safer to be a soldier in the trenches than a baby born in the United States. Her efforts to expand and improve preventative care transformed life for generations of mothers and children.
Baker developed a method to dramatically reduce infant blindness and directed a division that regulated midwives and appointed school nurses. She set up stations to distribute safe milk, launched school lunch programs, and identified the patient-zero known as a Typhoid Mary. She was the first woman to receive a doctorate in public health and the first woman to be a professional representative to the League of Nations. By the end of her career, the infant mortality rate in New York City had fallen from 144 per 1,000 live births in 1908 to 66 in 1923.
Baker was also a prolific writer. She published more than 250 articles that appeared in journals and the popular press and is the author of five books, including her autobiography, which chronicled her work on behalf of children and families and her involvement in the women’s suffrage movement. In her retirement, she settled on a farm in New Jersey with her partner, the novelist Ida Wylie, and the physician and pathologist Louise Pearce.
Around the same time that Sara Josephine Baker was transforming child welfare in New York City, other LGBTQ+ scientists were making landmark discoveries that have improved human health and broadened our understanding of cellular biology.
The physician Alan Hart established the use of X-ray technology in tuberculosis detection, helped establish widespread TB screening, and, in 1918, became one of the first transgender men in the United States to undergo a hysterectomy. Two years later, the Spanish neuroscientist Pío del Río Hortega identified and characterized microglia, the immune cells in the brain that today are believed to play a role in many neurological disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease. And, at almost the same time, Louise Pearce was in today’s Democratic Republic of the Congo, testing the first effective treatment for trypanosomiasis, the devastating disorder known as African Sleeping Sickness.
No chapter in the history of human health is more closely associated with the LGBTQ+ community than the terrible, terrifying early years of the AIDS epidemic. While millions lost their lives to AIDS, particularly gay men, many LGBTQ+ scientists and activists were also at the forefront of the fight to understand the treat the disease.
Among the principal leaders of the Stonewall uprising was Marsha P. Johnson, a Black trans woman and community activist who made an impact on public health by providing support services for homeless queer youth in New York City and helping to call attention to the AIDS epidemic. Johnson, a cherished figure in Greenwich Village, marched in the first Gay Pride parade, joined the AIDS advocacy group ACT UP, and co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) with fellow trans activist Sylvia Rivera.
Others would follow Johnson’s lead. Joseph Sonnabend, a gay man born in South Africa, moved to New York City to conduct research at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine. He began volunteering at the Gay Men’s Health Project in Greenwich Village. After opening his own clinic in 1978, Sonnabend was one of the first care providers to recognize the AIDS crisis.
While continuing to treat patients, often in their homes, sometimes for free, he helped to increase awareness and spark action by co-founding the AIDS Medical Foundation, now the Foundation for AIDS Research, and creating the Community Research Initiative, a groundbreaking, grassroots strategy to accelerate clinical trials of potential life-saving drugs. Sonnabend became a vocal proponent of safe sex, a controversial idea at the time, helped expand the use of an affordable drug to prevent pneumonia in people with H.I.V., and won one of the first AIDS-related civil rights cases when he fought back against an attempt to have his clinic evicted.
Sonnabend was just one of the many LGBTQ+ scientists at the vanguard of AIDS research in the 1980’s. Bruce Voeller was a biologist and an advocate. Voeller, who coined the term acquired immune deficiency syndrome, published pivotal research, including a paper establishing that condoms were effective at preventing AIDS transmission, co-founded the influential National Gay Task Force, and was the subject of a Supreme Court case arguing for parental rights for lesbians and gay men.
Decades later, LGBTQ+ people remain statistically underrepresented in STEM fields, a reality that unjustly limits opportunities and hinders the quality of scientific research. In fact, until 1975, gay men and women could be prohibited from holding jobs in federal departments, locking them out of opportunities at the NIH, NSF, and other government research agencies. Today, LGBTQ+ scientists are more likely to stop pursuing STEM degrees or leave STEM careers and more likely to encounter discrimination than their straight peers. The challenges are compounded for LGBTQ+ women and people of color, who are more likely to experience professional devaluation and harassment.
500 Queer Scientists is one online platform spotlighting the stories and achievements of LGBTQ+ scientists. The digital community of more than 1,400 students and professional biologists, engineers, educators, and others aims to provide role models for LGBTQ+ people considering STEM careers, foster connections, and collectively lift the profile of LGBTQ+ scientists.
In January of 2021, representatives from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Iowa organized the first ever Black Queer Town Hall in Stem, modeled after the Black Queer Town Hall held during the summer of 2020. The STEM event, featuring four days of speakers and performers, explored questions related to increasing equity and representation in STEM, the importance of mental health, and cultivating community across the public and private sectors.
Addressing Inequities in Our Research Community
Research from the NIH has demonstrated that diverse teams are capable of solving complex scientific problems more effectively than homogenous teams. Integration of multiple perspectives, experiences, and worldviews matters. In that light alone, the persistent underrepresentation of LGBTQ+ scientists and in STEM fields is a barrier to progress for individuals impacted directly and for entire populations who stand to benefit from breakthroughs in scientific research. To learn about the steps ISCRM is taking to increase equity within our research community, please read our five-year strategic plan for diversity and inclusion.