Today at Berkeley Lab

Profiles in Pride: Berkeley Lab Marks Gay Pride Month

— By Sabin Russell

June is Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Month, a nationwide salute to diversity. Berkeley Lab’s Diversity & Inclusion Office plays an ongoing role in fostering the spirit of that celebration, which last year was designated by Presidential Proclamation. “Our Labwide Affirmative Action Plan includes heritage months throughout the year to promote visibility and respect for employees with various backgrounds and traditions,” notes Lady Idos, senior analyst for the D&I office. In keeping with that spirit, three members of the Berkeley Lab community — Susan Synarski, Jay Keasling, and Christel Cantlin — share with TABL what LGBT Pride Month means to them.

Susan Synarski

synarski_prideIn the 30 years since she came out as a lesbian, Susan Synarski has watched a breathtaking shift in social attitudes in the United States. “I stopped going to the San Francisco Pride parade,” she says, “because it had gotten too big, too crowded. That makes me think about how far we have come, although we still have further to go.”

Synarski is Berkeley Lab’s manager for Building 90, headquarters for the Environmental Energy Technologies Division, the Berkeley Site Office, and Creative Services, among others. When she reflects on the meaning of Gay Pride Month, she said she is struck by how comfortable and downright ordinary life has become. “The gay population is integrated into the culture of the Lab. It hasn’t been an issue — at least it hasn’t been for me,” she says.

Three decades ago, the cultural landscape was different, particularly for a young woman who grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “When I came out,” she recalls, “it was very hard for my parents.” Synarski credits the media with helping to make it easier for her mom and dad: “Gay people became more visible on television, and so did parents with gay children, and suddenly it was not a big deal anymore.”
Synarski came out when she was a college student in Sacramento, and gay people “were pretty much invisible there,” she recalls. In 1984, she moved to San Francisco, and immediately noticed a huge difference. Gay life was more relaxed, more visible, and routine. “The Bay Area is so inclusive,” she says, “I can’t imagine living anywhere else.” Yet today she notes that this quality of inclusiveness is no longer restricted to urban enclaves like San Francisco, and attitudes of acceptance and even appreciation of gay people seem to be percolating into the American mainstream. “Each domino that has been knocked over is another step toward making it a non-issue,’’ she says.

This sense of comfort, however, is still jarred by the realization that she cannot legally marry her partner of 22 years in California. “Gay marriage is still the outstanding issue,’’ she says. “It is perplexing for society to be so accepting today, and yet withhold these rights.”

Jay Keasling

14060_JayKeasling--rgov-800widthWhen Berkeley Lab’s Associate Laboratory Director Jay Keasling described himself as a gay man on the nationally televised PBS science program NOVA in 2011, it was news to the folks in his hometown of Harvard, Nebraska, where he grew up on his family’s farm. “Nobody made fun of me for being gay, because I suspect they didn’t know,” says the former class president and valedictorian of Harvard High.
In the Bay Area, and at work at Berkeley Lab, his sexual orientation is a matter of so little consequence that he seldom gives it a second thought. “I can’t say I’ve ever been discriminated against,’’ he says. “But maybe I haven’t stood still long enough to let it hit me.”

Instead there are moments, like on a morning drive up to the Lab, when he approaches a curve on the road and sees the rainbow flag, marking June as Gay Pride month. “That resonates with me,” he says. “I realize how lucky I am.”
Keasling, who is also a Cal professor and Chief Executive Officer of the DOE’s Joint BioEnergy Institute, may be the most famous gay scientist in the world today. He is renowned for using the techniques of synthetic biology to ferment industrial-scale quantities of the anti-malarial drug artemisinin, previously derived from a Chinese herb. His goal is to harness that same gene-making technology to produce sustainable biofuels and biopolymers.

His international stature has also brought home to him that the struggle for full inclusion is far from over. “It can be very hard, and even dangerous, to be a gay scientist in some countries,” he notes. And despite the ease of Bay Area life, real barriers remain. Same-sex marriage has not been legalized in the United States, as it has in more than a dozen other nations.

Following the NOVA broadcast, Keasling received a flurry of e-mails, nearly all supportive. Many were from other gay scientists around the world, congratulating him for his forthrightness, admiring his courage, and expressing gratitude to know they were not alone. Keasling does not see himself as pioneer, but he is proud that he has become a role model. “I am just a normal scientist who happens to be gay,” he says, “but I understand that people who are prominent have a responsibility to their communities.”

Christel Cantlin

cantlinAsk Christel Cantlin about the meaning of Gay Pride month, and she points to the picture of Stella and Ina, who were inseparable in life and death since they first met at the Gay Pride parade in 1980.

The two “lavender seniors” were iconic figures in Bay Area lesbian culture, and their black-and-white portrait on a pair of empty lawn chairs has become a memorial along the route of the parade they enjoyed for so many years. Friends called the couple by one name, “Stina.”

But to Christel, Ina Mae Murri was always “Ina,” and Stella was “Mom.”

Stella Lopez-Armijo raised Christel, her brother, and two sisters while working the line at the Owens-Illinois glass bottle factory in Oakland. The ninth child in a big family from New Mexico, Stella met her German-American husband at the factory, and although they divorced, they remained close. Christel was 18 when her mom came out as a lesbian. “I was shocked,” says Christel, “but it turned out just about everyone else knew.”

Ina was the studious one, who worked in libraries most of her life. She was politically active, leading an organization, Affirmation, for excommunicated gay Mormons, like herself. Stella was outspoken but apolitical, until she met Ina. “My mother did a ‘180,’ and the two of them became well-known. They were founding members of Lavender Seniors, and fought for issues like access to health care,” Christel recalls.

At Berkeley Lab, Christel is Manager of Diversity & Inclusion, an office established to promote an inclusive environment and create a diverse workforce through recruitment and hiring practices. She is the first member of her extended family to earn a Masters degree, and she credits her mother for instilling a strong work ethic. “Education is your ticket out of poverty,” Stella often told her. One of the joys of Christel’s life is that Stella and Ina were loving grandmothers to her own three kids, and great grandmothers to her own grandchildren.

Despite her excommunication, Ina remained close to her Mormon family, which embraced Stella as well. The two were visiting Ina’s family in Idaho on July 17, 2010, to celebrate her annual family reunion, when she lost consciousness at the wheel of their car. Stella could be seen reaching over from the passenger side, steering the car away from pedestrians, even as it accelerated. They both died in the wreck. “I am told she may have saved 30 people,” Christel remembers, wiping away a tear.

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To mark LGBT Pride Month this year, the Diversity & Inclusion Office has been working to revitalize an employee association for gay scientists, staff, and their friends. Berkeley Lab employees interested in joining or supporting the club are encouraged to contact Lady Idos at lvidos@lbl.gov.