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Why LGBTQ+ inclusion is essential to the academy, according to 7 Pitt researchers

  • Community Impact
  • Innovation and Research
  • Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

From conducting HIV prevention trials to studying how youth use social media, LGBTQ+ Pitt researchers are a part of caring for their community. Whether by asking questions stemming from lived experience or screening for bias in findings, their diverse perspectives help shape the course of their scholarship. And, LGBTQ+ representation in research leads to positive impacts beyond the lab, influencing governmental policies and shaping how we understand ourselves and our world.

In recognition of Pride Month, Pittwire spoke with LGBTQ-identified researchers about how their work supports their communities’ health and well-being.

On the value of LGBTQ+ inclusion

“In the big picture, diverse scientists produce a diversity of thought and diverse research. My own identity influences how I approach my research and interpret the findings, but I am just one member of a large community. I'm personally excited to study the neurobiological mechanisms underlying community-level mental health disparities in LGBTQIA+ communities. I'm grateful to be part of a diverse team of scientists who are also passionate about this research, which helps us conduct more rigorous and unique science.”

Kristen Eckstrand, assistant professor of psychiatry in the School of Medicine, whose latest published research is a cross-sectional study of youth and young adults examining the links between neural reward systems, sexual identity, victimization and depression.

Our work is important, but so is taking time to rest, celebrate and connect.

Claire Stout

“The phrase ‘nothing about us without us,’ made popular in the U.S. by the disability rights movement in the 1990s, is an appropriate sentiment that applies to many marginalized identities and groups, including the LGBTQIA+ community. With more than 500 anti-LGBTQIA+ bills introduced in state legislatures in 2023 alone, having LGBTQIA+ researchers and community members involved in research focused on the LGBTQIA+ community is extremely important.”

Brett Welch, doctoral student in the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences. In collaboration with Leah Helou, assistant professor of communication science and disorders, his research focuses on experiences of communicative congruence across different groups and gender identities.

On the power of LGBTQ+ inclusion in academia

“In the Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies Program, we’ve been working on programming and research opportunities for students that provide ways to engage with LGBTQIA+ history, including the LGBTQ Archival Education Project, a partnership with the University Library System and a project that has tremendous support from Thomas J. Peterson (A&S ’78). With students and community partners, this is truly a collaborative effort, which ideally prevents us from repeating the same historical exclusions in our ongoing work to fill in the gaps of history. It’s hard to capture the transformation that happens when students discover our lost history, but even more transformative is what happens when you are funded and institutionally supported in that work. This support is the best way to show LGBTQIA+ students and researchers that we matter and we belong.”

Julie Beaulieu, teaching associate professor in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences. Her current book project, “Obsessive Love: A Queer History,” focuses on how love and desire queer our sense of self and autonomy.

My own identity influences how I approach my research and interpret the findings, but I am just one member of a large community.

Kristen Eckstrand

“For marginalized groups, including but not limited to LGBTQIA+ people, positive representation is crucial to foster appropriate development. This includes academia because when younger generations of LGBTQIA+ students and researchers see people with similar identities leading fulfilling and successful careers, this might help make them feel more confident and empowered to pursue their career goals and personal aspirations.”

César Escobar-Viera, assistant professor in the School of Medicine. He is the recipient of a 2022-23 Pitt Momentum Fund scaling grant, which will fund a cross-disciplinary study of the effects of loneliness and social isolation on mental health among youth from marginalized backgrounds in collaboration with researchers across Pitt and several community partners.

“For LGBTQ+ students who hope to study LGBTQ+ topics, my advice is to build community in-person and online with other LGBTQ+ students. These friendships and maybe even collaborations offer support and joy during an incredibly stressful time. Our work is important, but so is taking time to rest, celebrate and connect.”

Claire Stout, a doctoral student in the Dietrich School and member of member of Sophia Choukas-Bradley’s Teen and Young Adult Lab, which published a review of adolescent social media use and mental health, highlighting the experiences of LGBTQ+ youth.

On partnering with the LGBTQ+ community

“Because so many of the psychology scales have been developed with cis, heterosexual youth in mind, we do qualitative interviews to learn things we may otherwise miss about the trans and queer experience – we are able to gain an in-depth understanding of adolescents' lived experiences in their own words. It’s important to remember that no one individual can speak for all members of the LGBTQ+ community; this is a broad and diverse community with many different sexual and gender identities that intersect with other identities such as race and socioeconomic status.”

It’s hard to capture the transformation that happens when students discover our lost history ...

Julie Beaulieu

Sophia Choukas-Bradley, an assistant professor in the Dietrich School whose research in the Teen and Young Adult Lab is dedicated to studying interpersonal and sociocultural influences on the mental health and well-being of adolescents and emerging adults. She recently received a National Science Foundation CAREER Award.

“Many marginalized communities have witnessed exploitation at the hands of both medical and research institutions, and while it is by no means a requirement to be a member of the LGBTQIA community to conduct LGBTQIA-centered research, it may help to facilitate communication and promote retention and engagement.  Even then, researchers still have to do the real work to earn the trust of the community.

“The Pitt Men's Study is a longstanding natural history or cohort study of men living with and without HIV that has spanned over three decades. To sustain our cohort, we have to listen to the needs of our study participants, respond to their voices and validate and recognize their contributions to the community at large.”

Ken Ho, associate professor of medicine and medical director of the Pitt Men's Study. Ho’s primary research focus is on biomedical strategies for HIV prevention, including pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and microbicide development.


— Nichole Faina, top photo by Aimee Obidzinski