'Don't check yourself when you come to work': Being openly LGBTQ+ in a scientist-led industry

Editor's note: This is the second story in a three-part series profiling LGBTQ leaders and inclusion efforts in biopharma. The first part details how the industry is in the early stages of inclusion work. The final installment looks at organizations bringing together LGBTQ+ members in Boston, London, Dublin and beyond. 

Isabel Aznarez, Ph.D., dreamed of an academic career, not a biotech startup. When she chose to leap into the industry, she needed confidence on her side.  

And that confidence may never have existed to drive her forward and start Stoke Therapeutics had Aznarez not come out in her early 30s.  

“If you’re not self-confident about yourself, then it’s hard to be confident about anything else that you do,” said Aznarez, who serves as vice president and head of discovery research at the biotech

Stoke Therapeutics co-founder Isabel Aznarez,
Ph.D. (Stoke)

It’s hard to know how many other biopharma leaders have gone through similar journeys. The industry sorely lacks data on LGBTQ+ people, painting a dreary outlook for advancing rights and making it difficult to know whether you're the only LGBTQ+ employee in the office or lab.  

Being public about one's sexuality shouldn’t be a prerequisite for respect and a safe environment at work, though. Leaders emphasized that it’s important for employees to come out on their own terms, when they’re ready. And only if they want to.  

One data point, across all industries, shows that being out in the workplace is still relatively difficult: More than half of LGBTQ+ employees are not out to their co-workers, according to Out Leadership.  

Biopharma, which is heavily indexed toward Ph.D.- and M.D.-educated employees, places a strong emphasis on science and knowledge, making for a relatively welcoming environment, according to interviews with nearly two dozen out leaders.  

“I’m a pharmacist; I’m not a Ph.D., but I find that working in biotechnology, the smarter the people, the more this is a non-issue,” said Paul Hastings, chair of BIO and CEO of oncology biotech Nkarta. Scientists are the “most open-minded group of people,” and the adversity they go through in failing before succeeding helps color their world, he said.   

‘Speaking your truth’ 

Coming out can be an arduous process. As a self-identifying group, LGBTQ+ individuals typically “come out” in stages and repeatedly to multiple people in various settings. There’s a laundry list of barriers to doing so in the workplace: decadeslong perceptions about the need to be out at work (or not), geographic disparities, political implications, and even internal or environment-dictated situations.  

“We are so fortunate to have the kind of progressive protection in these major cities,” such as Boston and New York City, said MiNK Therapeutics CEO Jennifer Buell, Ph.D. "But that is not the case when we go across even the United States in many, many locations.”

In interviews with Fierce Biotech, community leaders emphasized the need to have representation at the top, in the C-suite and in the boardroom; the comfort that comes with knowing you’re not the only LGBTQ+ employee at your company; the importance of showing up in numbers; and the effect that open dialogue can have on dispelling assumptions.  

The most common piece of advice from the 20-plus executives? Be your true self. 

“As soon as you start to back down from speaking your truth and maybe avoid those conversations, people may make assumptions about you that aren’t true,” said Gary Urban, a vice president at virtual trials provider Science 37, who has been out for decades. "I think it’s important for people to know who we are, to be visible in the workplace, to not make apologies."

Others have been out every step of their career, like Emily Drabant Conley, Ph.D. 

“[O]ne of the ways that I can be of service to the LGBT community is to be out in my life. Very, very, very out,” said Conley, CEO of microbiome biotech Federation Bio. “So, from day one in all my jobs that I’ve had professionally, I share that I am gay, and I’m married to a woman, and we have two kids.” 

Coming out can also be a decision affected by where you’re working. Some industry peers are not out at their companies for a host of reasons.  

Buell respects those who are not out in their workplaces, but she chooses to be clear that she’s part of the LGBTQ+ community because “leadership is showing, is forging new paths and new opportunities.”  

She compares it to her time as a college soccer player during the height of the Title IX era in which some teammates quit because they thought, “I don’t want to see my fellow football players lose funding, so I’m not going to play soccer.” The 1972 federal civil rights law prohibits sex-based discrimination in schools that receive U.S. government funding. 

“That kind of bifurcation depowers the energy and charge that is actually necessary to make progress,” Buell said. She emphasized other people have fought for LGBTQ+ rights before her and her peers. 

Hastings reminds himself that not everybody is able to be out: “I live in a house that used to be an AIDS hospice. I’ve been out since I joined Genzyme in 1993. I’m very lucky.” 

Not everyone wants to be out in an overly public way, either, but LGBTQ+ employees need a safe environment where they can be themselves no matter the status of their openness.  

5AM Ventures Partner Mira
Chaurushiya, Ph.D. (5AM)

Internal perceptions have changed over the years. Mira Chaurushiya, Ph.D., used to think being LGBTQ+ was the least interesting thing about her. She more strongly identified with other aspects of herself, such as being an Indian female scientist. As a partner at 5AM Ventures, she has “deeply personal relationships” with a host of industry leaders, to the point where colleagues are each other’s therapists at times, she said.  

“The change in thinking for me was [that] normalizing it was really important and making it easier to have these conversations so people can be their true and authentic selves at work,” the investor said. That philosophical change took place in the early 2010s during her time at Genentech, which had a thriving LGBTQ+ community. “Science is hard in general, and why make it harder if people could just relax and be themselves?” 

RELATED: GSK Consumer partners with Gay Times for LGBTQ+ inclusive ad campaigns

Getting to that openness and authenticity requires the elimination of assumptions. 

“If I’m not being assumed to be this, then I can maybe be more open about who I am instead of me always having to be like, ‘Well, actually, I don’t have a boyfriend. My partner is non-binary,’ all those kinds of conversations that I have to continually have,” said Kristy Birchard, a digital project manager at decentralized clinical trials provider Medable.  

These assumptions trickle down to the crux of biopharma’s primary goal: drug development. Heteronormative language is littered throughout protocol designs in which drug developers use “very binary language when it comes to gender,” said Birchard, who works on clinical study designs.  

Gender, race and other parts of a person’s identity intersect with them being LGBTQ+.  

“I’m met with a triple-edge obstacle being an African-American woman and then on top of that being a member of the queer community, more specifically being masculine-presenting as a woman,” said Tia Lyles-Williams, founder and CEO of LucasPye Bio, a contract development and manufacturing organization in Philadelphia.  

'Lovely tsunami'

Jennifer Petter, Ph.D., transitioned in 2018, a few years into her time as co-founder of Arrakis. Her coming out led to a “lovely tsunami” of support from colleagues.  

RELATED: For 2 biotech employees, coming out as trans means asking others to transition with them 

But her story shines a light on how LGBTQ+ issues aren’t isolated from other identities.  

Arrakis co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer
Jennifer Petter, Ph.D. (Arrakis)

“If anything, when people read me as trans, like I have gotten very little shade. People are very receptive. When people read me as a woman, oh man, all the crap women have been telling you about, I’m sorry, honey, it is all true. So that’s been an interesting trip,” Petter said.  

Hariz Hassan, M.D., a senior director of clinical development at BioNTech, wanted to inspire others in the industry to share their own coming out stories. So, he posted to LinkedIn last month to share his background as a gay Asian Muslim. The experience lifted a burden from him, he said. His story has garnered more than 1 million views. 

"You bring your personal self to work. You don’t check your personal self when you go to work,” Hassan said.  

Over the years, Carin Canale-Theakston has seen life sciences executives do just that. A few men have told her they’re gay but wouldn’t reveal that part of their identity when attempting to get investments from venture capitalists.  

That’s no longer an issue, Canale-Theakston said, as she has advised a Rolodex of leaders on ways to authentically come out through her work as CEO of life sciences PR firm Canale Communications.  

She no longer feels the need to come out herself multiple times a week.  

“Now, thankfully, many people know me and know my personal story, and that’s not a necessity.”