December 2, 2022

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Science Gets Queer: Role Models and Resources for LGBTQ and LGBTQ-Parented Youth

5 min read

It’s a great time to love both queer families and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). Not one but two queer scientists (both parents) won Nobel Prizes this year—and there has also been a recent surge in LGBTQ-inclusive children’s books with STEM themes, which could help future Nobel laureates envision their dreams.

Science collage. Infrared-Radio Image of the Andromeda Galaxy (M31) credit: ESA, NASA, NASA-JPL, Caltech, Christopher Clark (STScI), R. Braun (SKA Observatory), C. Nieten (MPI Radioastronomie), Matt Smith (Cardiff University).
Science collage. Infrared-Radio Image of the Andromeda Galaxy (M31) credit: ESA, NASA, NASA-JPL, Caltech, Christopher Clark (STScI), R. Braun (SKA Observatory), C. Nieten (MPI Radioastronomie), Matt Smith (Cardiff University).

Carolyn Bertozzi. © Nobel Prize Outreach. Ill. Niklas Elmehed.
Carolyn Bertozzi. © Nobel Prize Outreach. Ill. Niklas Elmehed.

Carolyn Bertozzi, a professor at Stanford University, won this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry on October 5. She shared the prize with Morten Meldal of the University of Copenhagen and Barry Sharpless of Scripps Research for their work on “click chemistry,” ways that molecules can snap together quickly and cleanly, leading to new ways of testing for infectious diseases and targeting tumors. Bertozzi is only the 59th woman to win a Nobel (versus more than 800 men), and she’s also a lesbian mom raising three sons with her spouse. She’s spoken out about the obstacles she’s faced as both a lesbian and a woman and the need to create positive change throughout the scientific community, as I discussed in my earlier post about her.

Svante Pääbo © Nobel Prize Outreach. Illustration: Niklas Elmehed.
Svante Pääbo © Nobel Prize Outreach. Illustration: Niklas Elmehed.

Svante Pääbo, a Swedish geneticist who founded the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, won this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine on October 3 for his discoveries about the genomes of extinct hominins and human evolution. His work has implications for both medicine and for how we understand aspects of anthropology and society. Pääbo is also a bisexual dad who came out in his 2014 book, Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes.

It should not be surprising that people in the LGBTQ community have made significant contributions to STEM, as they have to every other human endeavor. While there’s not necessarily anything “queer” about their work, our world would be poorer without it. The many STEM-themed, LGBTQ-inclusive children’s books published this year thus come at a propitious time. Let’s explore.

Picture Books

Something Great

Something Great, written and illustrated by Jeanette Bradley (Levine Querido) stars Quinn, a nonbinary child who has created Something Great in their workshop. It might look like a plastic half-gallon milk bottle on a string, but Quinn and a new friend find that it can swing, spin, lift, keep a beat, and more, gently showing simple physical principles. Quinn’s sister and mother ask what it is “supposed” to be, but to Quinn, “It was just . . . itself. Something Great.” Bradley’s warm mixed-media illustrations add to the appeal of this story about STEM thinking, friendship, and believing in your creations.

The Blanket Where Violet Sits

The Blanket Where Violet Sits, by Allan Wolf, illustrated by Lauren Tobia (Candlewick), stars a girl having a star-gazing picnic with her two parents, one of ambiguous gender and the other with a small beard. In gentle rhymes, our perspective zooms out from the blanket where they sit to encompass the park, the city, and on to the whole universe, as Violet peers through her telescope, guided by a book about space. The perspective then slides back down to our planet and the park, where the parents tuck a now-sleepy Violet under her blanket. Absolutely lovely.

Miguel’s Community Garden

Miguel’s Community Garden, by JaNay Brown-Wood, illustrated by Samara Hardy (Peachtree), features a boy with two dads who wants sunflowers for his garden party. Each page gives one characteristic of a sunflower (e.g., it “has yellow petals”), then shows Miguel encountering a plant that doesn’t quite match. Finally, he spots some sunflowers that fit the characteristics! He and his dads celebrate with a garden party. A cheerful book showing readers how to be careful observers.

Middle Grade Books

Long Distance

Long Distance, by Whitney Gardner (Simon & Schuster), is a graphic novel with a big dose of humor. When 9-year-old Vega and her dads move to a new city, her dads enroll her in a summer camp to help her make friends. Vega soon discovers strange happenings there, however. She applies her astronomy skills to help solve the mystery, as other campers contribute their various STEM talents, but the camp’s secret is something none of them could have predicted. Inset panels focus on various STEM concepts, but the book offers just as many lessons about friendship.

The Trouble With Robots

The Trouble With Robots, by Michelle Mohrweis (Peachtree), is told from the alternating perspectives of two eighth-grade girls. Evelyn, who is autistic and bisexual (and has two moms), wants to lead the school robotics team to a championship but doesn’t think her teammates have much to offer. Newcomer Allie has trouble controlling her anger, so the principal offers her a last chance to prove herself, in the robotics classroom. When the team’s existence is threatened, however, the two must work together to save it. Allie also comes to realize she is asexual and/or aromantic; two secondary boy characters are also dating each other. Mohrweis, a STEM educator, weaves in information about robotics, gender bias in STEM, and more, but keeps it a character-driven story with some unexpected twists.

For titles prior to this year (and to see what’s new), including biographies of queer STEM icons as well as books about animals with diverse family structures and approaches to gender, visit my Database of LGBTQ Family Books and More and filter by the “STEM” tag.

And Beyond

Terrestrials

Be sure also to check out the brand-new kids’ podcast series “Terrestrials,” about the expectation-defying natural world. It was created by Lulu Miller, a Peabody Award-winning science journalist who’s co-host of WNYC Studios’ Radiolab, co-founder of NPR’s Invisibilia, and also a queer mom. The subject matter ranges widely and isn’t focused on queer topics per se, but Episode 3, “The Trio,” gives us the true story of two male bald eagles and one female who raised fledglings together—until the female was attacked by another bird and never seen again, whereupon the two dads continued to care for the babies. It’s a great story that challenges assumptions about “natural” family structures and gender roles in parenting and sheds new light on our national symbol. Am I surprised that a queer mom produces and hosts the show? Not at all.

Finally, for some resources by STEM educators to help make STEM classrooms more LGBTQ inclusive, visit Gender Inclusive Biology and the Queer Mathematics Teacher.

These books and resources are welcome ways of helping the younger generation, LGBTQ and not, see LGBTQ people and those with LGBTQ parents among the STEM innovators of the future. They also happily show that books with LGBTQ characters don’t need to be “about” their LGBTQ identities but can depict a fuller picture of their lives. Share them with the young people you know.

Originally published with slight variation as my Mombian newspaper column.

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