Six years ago, four friends and I sat at a tall wooden table near the entrance of Darwin’s Pub and waited to see if anyone else would show up. We had just come from the keynote presentation after a full day of conference talks at the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology’s annual conference. That morning, we thumbtacked a hand drawn flier onto the community bulletin board, snapped a photo and posted it on Twitter, and now here we were, waiting to see if anyone would come.
Scientific conferences (many academic conference, for that matter) can be exciting; meeting new colleagues, attending talks, presenting your poster or giving an oral presentation, sitting in on brownbag workshops, and connecting with new and old friends at the socials. While they can be fun, they can also be overwhelming with large crowds, non-stop social interactions, and professional pressures. This can be especially true if it’s your first conference, a large conference, or if you’re there on your own. For those of us who are LGBTQ+, many of us are also dealing with the added pressures of gender affirming business casual clothing, code switching, locating safe restrooms, concerns about being misgendered by new (and old) colleagues, and unfortunately, the lack of legal protections afforded to us in many states national and international conference are held. Finding community in these spaces can be a well-needed mental reprieve and a great way to form new collaborations and build your broader professional network.
Luckily, we are seeing more and more LGBTQ+ socials popping up at conferences, so keep your eyes out! If you don’t see one scheduled at the conference you’re attending, organizing a low key unofficial LGBTQ+ social at a conference is easier than you think. That night at Darwin’s Pub, we had five people show up. The next year there was 40, and attendance at “Outgroup” (what we call our LGBTQ+ meetup) has been growing every year since.
You can do it, too. Here are some things to help you get started.
Plan with a friend
It’s always easier and more fun to organize with a friend. Don’t know any other LGBTQ+ folks at the conference? Allies are great for this, too.
Depending on how many days the conference is, figuring out “when” may be the most important part. Look for a time where there is a break in the schedule or after the evening keynotes. We always hold Outgroup in the evening, but a lunch or coffee break meetup can also work. Try to find a time when most folks might have some flexibility in their schedules, and keep in mind that there may be networking lunches/meetings.
Look for a public place that is near the conference venue or easy to get to. Outgroup is an LGBTQ+ happy hour meetup, but meeting up at cafes or other alcohol-free venues are great options. We always check to see if there an LGBTQ+ bar/establishment that can serve as the meet-up location, and we host our meetups in the community and not at the conference center so folks who are not out to their colleagues can attend. You’ll want to consider if the space big enough for your group as well as the acoustics – if you anticipate the space will be busy, is there an upstairs, lounge or outside area in the venue? Some general tips include checking to see if there is a cover (go for free places), if there are gender neutral restrooms available (if possible), and if it is walkable from the conference venue or accessible by public transit/rideshare. We look for spaces that encourage folks to mingle, and we avoid sit down dinners that limit conversation to only the few people seated next to you.
Get the word out!
Choose a fun namefor the meetup (puns or science-related names are great!), and then make an eye-catching flier. You don’t have to be an artist to make a great flier (see my flier design vs my friend Sean’s). Make sure you have all the relevant information and hang it up on the community bulletin board that most conferences have. If you are okay with being out at the conference, snap a picture of your flier and share it to Twitter with the conference hashtag and other LGBTQ+ hashtags and ask folks to retweet to help get the word out. LGBTQ+ in STEM organizations will often help you amplify your tweet, so consider asking them! I’ve direct messaged @oSTEM, @500qs, and even the student-run conference Twitter handle to ask them if they would tweet/retweet about our meetup.
Get to the venue on time (or early!) and bring a friend! The worst-case scenario is that you and your friend end up having an enjoyable evening together. Bring the flier and/or wear your conference lanyard so folks can find you. If you contacted the bartenders/owners earlier, introduce yourself and let them know where your group is so they can then send folks your way. Meet, mingle, and enjoy!
Shayle is currently studying Marine Biology at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa. He uses art and digital media to make science more accessible to wider audiences, and he facilitates unique research experiences for high school students underrepresented in STEM fields. Read more about Shayle here.