Today’s massacre in Orlando of unarmed patrons of a gay nightclub in Orlando is sickening, stunning and all too personal for many of us in academics.

Earlier today, I received a Facebook status alert letting me know a trainee in my lab, Pouya Ameli, was safe. I struggled to process what this meant but found out all too quickly as the day unfolded.

Pouya is a neurology resident at Vanderbilt, who hails from Florida and is all heart. He has written eloquently on his family’s fears for him in an America that has become too well known for intolerance, violence and ignorance than for living up to its potential as the land of opportunity.

But my reality choked me, rather literally, in the form of a full-on ‘can’t breathe’ panic attack earlier today. Pouya was safe, but this could be any of my trainees. It could be me, and most of my friends as well. Gay clubs are the best. They are therapy and where gay folks go when their families and communities stifle them. They are a super social version of church with cocktails and great music. These clubs are a haven from a world where LGBTQ community has to explain patiently that no, transgender people have much more to fear from you than you do from them.

I panicked today for Pouya, for my friends and myself. I frankly can’t tell the difference between someone who might change their mind about human rights issues and step up and support gay marriage vs. someone who just wants to know weird lesbian sex trivia for a gross fantasy later. These folks look a lot alike to me. I am just the sort of naive pro-human rights knucklehead that would tell a wound up gay-hating gun nut that he needs to breathe and maybe we should talk about our differences. I’ve done this. More than once. I believe(d?) in the almighty power of education, and that people are inherently good. Today’s panic attack was brought to me by crushing loss of faith in humans and recognition I have too often endangered my trainees, myself, my family and my friends when I reached out when being afraid was warranted.

But this weekend’s massacre in Orlando has proved a painful reminder that my ability to protect trainees ends at my lab door. The diversity in my lab with folks of every sexual orientation, gender, and religion, have absolutely make my lab a better place for science. But it’s up to my department and my university to be as relentless in their belief everyone has a right to be here. Every part of our infrastructure needs to know that there is nothing special about being a white Christian straight male that makes you smarter. It’s just that you feel safe and can focus on the job at hand. And that is a privilege.

Science will move in leaps and bounds by those who burdened by the knowledge that they won’t be subject to sexual violence while campus or at home. Black men will leave my lab and be legitimately worried that they are the targets or random gun violence. And trainees who are LGBTQ know they live in a state where you can still be fired for being gay.

I can move to a state where this isn’t the case, or I can stand and fight here in a state where the fight is real. I spent the night of the massacre with gay friends who had to go to Indiana to get married. I have no judgement for those who choose to pick safety. I get it. It is wearing me out, to be honest (as evidenced by today’s panic attack).

But if this weekend’s tragic events tell us anything, it is that we are not on an equal playing field. Honest-to-God fear of things that could absolutely happen in any town, on any campus or to any of our minority trainees has disadvantaged a huge number of scientists we claim to welcome. If we don’t do more to ensure safety and opportunity for everyone who has been disadvantaged by racism, bigotry, hatred, and fear, then priveledges we enjoy in academia are going to be short lived. Morality, equality and opportunity are the foundation of the academic enterprise. Hoping that a workshop, grant or committee will level this playing field when the fears of the LGBTQ community, women, minorities and Muslims have manifested themselves in such a raw and brutal way is utterly naive.

Pouya allowed me to share an eloquent message he posted earlier today on Facebook.

BethAnn McLaughlin is an Assistant Professor of Neurology and Director of Awesome at The Edge for Scholars. I speak for myself.

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