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Developing Allyship at NIH

A man and a woman exchange a hand shake at a meeting.

As Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Sexual & Gender Minority (SGM) Research Office, I’m surprised by how rarely I am asked about my sexual orientation or gender identity. Aside from some assumptions that have been shared with me, it doesn’t come up, and I recently began to wonder why. The truth is, regardless of my personal identity, I can be a strong ally to the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) community. And so can you.

For me, being an ally means recognizing a struggle that is not mine. It means listening. It means speaking up. And it means not making it (whatever it is) about me. Being an ally can be scary, complicated, and uncomfortable. It can also be one of the most important things that you do, in both your personal and professional lives. Being an ally is more than a personal identity about personal choices, it is also about striving to be an institutional leader that helps to develop LGBTQ-inclusive policies and practices. It is communicating about why having a diverse workplace can make us more effective employees, more empathetic colleagues, and more aware and engaged community members.

Developing allyship for the LGBTQ community across the NIH is one of the most critical activities that I do to help make the NIH a more inclusive environment for all employees, patients, and visitors. It is imperative for me to communicate to colleagues about the need to expand research on LGBTQ populations, to encourage more data collection on sexual orientation and gender identity, and to help deepen our understanding of the health disparities that so many in the LGBTQ community face.

August marks my seventeenth year as a public servant at the NIH. Throughout this time, I have been grateful to work at such a stellar institution alongside such dedicated colleagues. In my current position, I have the privilege of seeing up close the results of allyship and how setting a tone of inclusiveness can make measurable differences for the health of research participants and colleagues. Employees at the Clinical Center have embraced the challenge of collecting data on the gender identity of all Clinical Center patients. This data is of course scientifically relevant, but it is also central to recognizing individuals for who they are and for signaling to people that they matter, that they are seen. Program officers across the agency are encouraging principal investigators to follow their research interests and pursue scientific careers in SGM health research. They are developing funding opportunities and teaching students and trainees about grantspersonship. NIH leadership is continuing to demonstrate the ideals of allyship by supporting programs that foster LGBTQ inclusive research and policies that recognize LGBTQ trainees and employees. Over and over again, I have met people at NIH who, once aware of the unique issues faced by LGBTQ populations, have taken to allyship with purpose, passion, and clarity.

Building allyship across the NIH starts by making a commitment to try. I am not a perfect ally. I have reaped the benefits of my cisgender, heterosexual identity. I make mistakes. I have used incorrect pronouns. I have made assumptions about people. I apologize. I learn. I try again. And in the end, I am a better person. Won’t you join me?

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