The Ecological Society of America is holding its 100th annual meeting this week in Baltimore (congratulations!), and they’ve added something that I think is fairly unique (at least I’ve not seen it before) – ribbons to append to your name tag that identify you as a council member, session chair, or, interestingly, a rainbow ribbon with “ally” written on it.



This got me thinking a bit about LGBT participation at scientific conferences. Some organizations/conferences have an LGBT section (mostly informal), and occasionally I’ve seen notes pinned to the conference notice board for “OutGroup” off-site get-togethers (OutGroup being a rather tongue-and-cheek pun for out LGBT attendees).

I should say that I’ve never been at a conference with any sort of official (or unofficial… at least that was broadcast to attendees) LGBT event. So when I saw Josh Drew’s ally ribbon, I thought that could be an interesting idea, especially at a conference like ESA, where there are 8000 attendees or so.

Back in 2005/6, I ran a campus “Safe Space” program, running workshops and distributing safe space stickers for students to put on their dorm doors, and less frequently for faculty/grad students to put on their office doors. Our biggest concern was that the program be genuine, and participants be somehow vetted. We accomplished this with an hour-long workshop and some take-away literature.  The ESA ribbons can be obtained at the registration desk, and I suspect that given their public display (alongside attendees’ names) that the lack of vetting won’t be a problem.

Conferences and scientific societies are increasingly becoming aware of the social issues around their meetings, and many now put in place codes of practice (you can see the ESA’s here, which includes discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender, but not gender expression, which needs to get fixed).  I couldn’t easily find the equivalent document for the British Ecological Society.

Most of the conference I go to are much smaller – a couple hundred people at most. Consequently, they don’t have codes of conduct, or rainbow ribbons, or an OutGroup get-together. That makes me sad.

So, here are a few rambling thoughts on what scientific organizations (and their conferences) can do to support their LGBT members:

Have an LGBT section

Putting LGBT scientists in touch with each other is huge. I didn’t (and still don’t really) have any LGBT scientific mentors that I can look to for professional advice or mentoring.  I think having LGBT mentors is incredibly important, and there are some organizations that are going down this road – the National Organization of Gay & Lesbian Scientific Professionals (NOGLSTP), for instance, but their representation in ecology & evolution and outside the United States is small/non-existent.

Even if this is something unofficial to start, societies encouraging their LGBT members to get together will make those members feel welcome, and hopefully more likely to be more active in other aspects of the organization.


Have an LGBT event

This is, of course, much easier if there are already active LGBT members who can aid in organizing it. Networking is a major aspect of scientific conferences, and people I’ve met at conferences have become friends, collaborators, and close colleagues. Most, if not all, of these relationships have been forged at lunch/dinner/the pub/wandering around the poster session and not sitting in a lecture theatre listening to a talk.

Some conferences have informal groups (I think the Evolution conference had an “Out Group”, but can’t find the link) where folks met for drinks one evening.

If the society has other “interest groups” for subsections of the discipline, or other groups, follow the lead of what they do. If not, start something!


Be mindful of LGBT members when planning meeting locations

This is particularly important for international meetings. There are 75 countries where homosexuality is illegal, mostly in Africa, the Middle East, and South/Southeast Asia. Everyone decides for themselves what their comfort level is, and for me, these 75 are right out.


The ally ribbon

The experiment at ESA is intriguing, and I’ve asked folks to let me/teh internetz know what sort of reaction/interaction it elicited, if any.  I’m genuinely curious. I see this as being a potentially useful thing at larger conferences, like ESA, where there are many more nameless faces.  Even if no one comes up to say anything, having them visible can be incredibly valuable. Like the Safe Space program I coordinated, just having the stickers on the doors can send an important message, and is very important even if no one explicitly comes in looking for a safe space.


In a perfect world, though, we wouldn’t need any of these things. But we’re not there yet. And like I said, these are just my thoughts.  Things that I think would be useful to my professional career, and that I’d like to offer other early-career scientists. Not everyone would find these useful/relevant, and that’s ok. We’re all products, at least partially, of our time and culture, particularly when it comes to LGBT issues, and have different needs/wants/challenges/solutions. But let’s start somewhere.

Have you been to a conference with any LGBT events/groups? What else would you like to see at both big and small scientific meetings?


Update – 12 Aug

This tweet from Ms. Dr. Joseph Simonis indicates that she was mis-gendered when introduced for her talk by someone wearing an ally ribbon. Not cool. The ribbons were freely available at the registration desk, apparently, so there appears to have been no vetting/training/standard-setting for those sporting them. Also not cool. When tags like “ally” are given away with no level of quality control, they are self-ascribing someone’s status. Being an “ally” means different things to different people, and it’s clear from the case above that the expectations from the LGBT* community differ from what some self-described allies think. This is a dangerous mix, and throws the utility of the ally ribbon right out the window.

When I ran the safe space project, we made sure those sporting the sticker on their doors met some minimum level of competence and shared values. This is immensely important, or else the trust just isn’t there and it’s a make-the-ally-ribbon-wearing-folk-feel-good exercise more than anything else. And that’s dangerous and unproductive.

It would be great to get some LGBT* folk involved with the ESA to run/help run a workshop pre-meeting if these ally ribbons are going to make a repeat appearance. I, for one, am free for early August 2016 in Fort Lauderdale. Let’s chat, ESA.