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Caltech Float Brings "Space for Everyone" to LA Pride Parade

Members of the Caltech community brought their whole selves to LA Pride. On June 9, postdocs, grad students, undergraduates, and staff marched alongside Caltech's very first float—themed "Space for Everyone"—as part of the 54th Annual LA Pride Parade in Hollywood. Participants enthusiastically displayed their passion for science, STEM outreach, art, music, and dance, as well as their LGBTQ identities, in a true embodiment of Caltech pride.

Sofia Fatigoni, a postdoctoral scholar research associate in physics, who serves as diversity and inclusion co-chair of the Caltech Postdocs Association (CPA), conceived the idea to enter a Caltech float after attending the LA Pride Parade last year and realizing the Institute was not represented in the event.

"I wanted to see the Caltech community involved in Pride to show that our differences are something that enrich the community," Fatigoni says. "I also feel that it's always good to be a role model for people who are still in the closet and are scared or think it's bad to be different. I want to show that you can be a successful person and also be gay or bi or trans—it's just normal, and there's nothing to be scared of."

Fatigoni, who is originally from Perugia, Italy, says she didn't hear that message of hope often during her childhood.

"If you come from a small town in Italy, and you come out [as LGBTQ], the first thing that people are going to tell you is, ‘If you [are openly queer], your life is going to be so difficult. You're not going to make it. It's going to be so hard to get a job or go ahead with your life.' And that's why I want to show people that we are at Caltech, we made it, and so you can make it too."

Sofia Fatigoni and Riccardo Caniato on the Caltech float
Sofia Fatigoni and Riccardo Caniato on the Caltech float Credit: J. Ehlert/Caltech

Fatigoni's fellow CPA co-chair of diversity and inclusion, Riccardo Caniato, the Olga Taussky and John Todd Postdoctoral Scholar Teaching Fellow in Mathematics, who is also from Italy, shares the sentiment. He says the fear of judgment was pervasive while growing up, but Pride was a uniquely accepting space.

"The first time I went to Pride in Italy, it was incredible," Caniato says. "It was one of the moments of my life that is unforgettable to me, to see all this community surrounding me not scared of showing anything, just being who they are and throwing it in your face. You have to be proud of who you are, whoever you are. That's the reason why, for me, organizing something like this is so important."

Fatigoni and Caniato were joined in the coordinating effort by CPA chair Nivedita Mahesh, the David and Ellen Lee Postdoctoral Scholar Research Associate in Astronomy. For Mahesh, Caltech's participation in the parade was an opportunity to celebrate the multifaceted identities of scientists, while also elevating science and Caltech to the mainstream.

"I'm a dancer outside Caltech, and I travel to schools in LA very often, teaching in assemblies," Mahesh says. "Not everyone has heard of Caltech, and students are often very surprised to hear that I am both a scientist and a dancer. I wanted to showcase Caltech as a place where you can come to do amazing things, no matter who you are."

Mahesh also choreographed and taught a dance combination to several Caltech participants who danced in front of the float during the parade.

Nivedita Mahesh leads Caltech dancers in the parade.
Nivedita Mahesh leads Caltech dancers in the parade. Credit: J. Ehlert/Caltech

"It's been a moment of pride for me to be able to bring so many things I am passionate about together and to see the community come together across all levels," Mahesh says.

Along with leadership from CPA, Caltech's participation in the parade was supported by Graduate Student Council co-chair Matteo Guareschi; Associated Students of the California Institute of Technology president Sofie Elam; PRISM, Caltech's LGBTQ student club; and the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Committees from the divisions of chemistry and chemical engineering; biology and biological engineering; and physics, mathematics and astronomy, as well as the Office of the President.

The design and construction of Caltech's float itself—a truck with a 16-foot bed decorated with painted banners, planets, and a moon—was led by graduate student Catherine Romero.

"Caltech is an exceptional place to do science, and what makes it special is that we all collaborate and support each other," Romero says. "It has always been my belief that to do that successfully, we have to make everyone feel welcome. In designing this float and attending the parade, I want to show everyone that we can be outstanding scientists, engineers, and researchers while also having fun and spreading queer joy."

In the parade, the Caltech float followed a contingent from NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which Caltech manages for NASA. Members from both groups mingled and posed for a photo in the assembly area before the parade began.

Caltech and JPL participants in the parade pose for a photo together.
Caltech and JPL participants in the parade pose for a photo together. Credit: J. Ehlert/Caltech

As the parade progressed through the streets of Hollywood, Caltech participants—led by Mahesh—danced to iconic LGBTQ anthems played from a set of loudspeakers on the float. Others handed out stickers to parade attendees, who cheered eagerly for the group. Atop the float, Romero, Caniato, and Fatigoni (who was wearing an astronaut suit) waved to screaming parade attendees.

"The parade was one of the most beautiful and inclusive experiences I've had here," said Harshda Saxena, a first-year graduate student in astrophysics, after the event. "Being from the field of astronomy, the space-based queer-themed float combined two of my favorite things, so it was natural for me to attend. The dance choreo had an extra flavor of togetherness and unity, which was great, and it was a dream come true to participate in the LA parade and to be received with so much enthusiasm from the crowd."

Undergraduate Maven Holst also reflected on their experience after the parade.

"One of the main reasons I decided to represent Caltech at Pride was to bring visibility to the queer community on campus," Holst said. "For me, personally, perhaps the biggest fear I had coming to Caltech was being unable to find anyone who identified like me on campus, to whom I'd be able to relate. Thankfully, that has been far from the case in my experience here."

Written by Julia Ehlert

Caltech Communications