Where are all the LGBT astrophysicists?

Having scoffed my lunchtime pasty in record time today, I seem to have a few spare minutes to spend writing a brief blog post on a question which popped into my mind when I accidentally discovered that somebody had recently written a blog post (about Einstein’s Blackboard) which mentions me. I used to look after this famous relic when I was in Nottingham many years ago, you see.

There’s a sentence in the post that says

Professor Coles is one of the few out gay astrophysicists in the UK.

Well, it all depends by what you mean by “few” but I think there are more gay (or lesbian or bisexual or transgendered) astrophysicists out there than most people probably think. I know quite a large number personally, dozens in fact, most of whom are “out”. It’s a safe bet that there are many more who aren’t open about their sexuality too. However, it is probably the case that LGBT scientists are much less visible as such through their work than colleagues in the arts or humanities. Read two research papers, one written by a straight astrophysicist and one by an LGBT astrophysicist, and I very much doubt you could tell which is which. Read two pieces of literary criticism, however, and it’s much more likely you could determine the sexual orientation of the writer.

There have been attempts to raise the profile of, e.g., LGBT astronomers through such initiatives as The Outlist, but only a very small fraction of the LGBT astronomers I know have their names on it. I’m not on it myself, although I used to be. It seems I’ve been struck off.

You might ask why it matters if an astrophysicist is straight or gay? Surely what is important is whether they are good at their job? I agree with that, actually. When it comes to career development, sexual orientation should be as irrelevant as race or gender. The problem is that the lack of visibility of LGBT scientists – and this doesn’t just apply to astrophysics, but across all science disciplines – could deter young people from choosing science as a career in the first place.

It has always annoyed me that the Independent newspaper’s annual “Pink List” of the UK’s most influential LGBT people never – and I mean never – has a single LGBT scientist on it, despite the immense amount they do not only in research, but also in teaching and outreach. It’s very sad that this work is largely unacknowledged and even sadder that a great many potential role models are hidden.

The effect of this invisibility is to reinforce the perception that science just isn’t something that LGBT people do. I have known gay students in physics or astrophysics who were on the verge of quitting because of this. I think it’s important for established scientists to be as open as possible about their sexual orientation to counter this. I really don’t think the consequences of coming out are as frightening as people think. This is not to say that homophobia doesn’t exist, but that straight colleagues are much more likely to be supportive than not and (with a few exceptions) most workplaces nowadays won’t tolerate discrimination or bullying based on sexual orientation.

But that brings us to the question of why we should care about whether LGBT students might be deterred from becoming scientists. This is much the same issue as to why we should worry that there are so few female physics students. The obvious answer is based on notions of fairness: we should do everything we can to ensure that people have equal opportunity to advance their career in whatever direction appeals to them. But I’m painfully aware that there are some people for whom arguments based on fairness simply don’t wash. For them there’s another argument that may work better. As scientists whose goal is – or should be – the advancement of knowledge, the message is that we should strive as hard as possible to recruit the brightest and most creative brains into our subject. That means ensuring that the pool from which we recruit is as large and as diverse as possible. The best student drawn from such a pool is likely to be better than the best student from a smaller and more restricted one.

Big companies haven’t become gay-friendly employers in recent years out of a sudden urge for altruism. They’ve done it because they know that they’d be discouraging many excellent employees from joining them. It’s exactly the same way for research.

At Sussex University we will soon be welcoming well over a hundred new students about to start their degree programmes in the Department of Physics & Astronomy. It’s a reasonable estimate than one in ten of these will be an LGBT student. The same will be true for many other departments around the country. So, regardless of your own orientation, if you’re reading this and you’re involved in teaching science just try not to assume, just because you’re talking to a science student, that you must be talking to a straight student. That shouldn’t be be too hard, should it?

31 Responses to “Where are all the LGBT astrophysicists?”

  1. dear peter

    i’m not quite sure the analogy to race/gender role models is appropriate in this case.

    as you say – if science is presented as being “sexual-orientation-neutral” – then the absence of obvious LGBT role models is a simple consequence of the fact that its difficult to identify an LGBT/non-LGBT scientist from their appearence alone (except perhaps by the relatively poor dress sense). this is not the case when a student assesses the mix of race or gender in a group of scientists.

    i find it hard to believe that LGBT students expect these potential scientist role models to go around with labels advertising their sexual orientation, in a bid to encourage their entry into the field.

    …the only situation where i could see active encouragement being necessary would be if you felt that science was overtly anti-LGBT – and as you say – at least in astrophysics – i’m not sure that is the case (but you of course can correct me on that).


    • I’m not saying that people should go around with “labels” on, as you put it.It’s just a question of not being afraid to be open when the issue arises. It doesn’t arise when you’re actually teaching physics, e.g. in a lecture, but may do in other contexts.

      I don’t think I’ve ever actually told any student that I was gay, but they all seem to know….

  2. There’s no harm in asking the person concerned…

    • I would try to phrase things in a gender-neutral way. I find the use of “they” a little bit clumsy, but don’t object to it in a fundamental way.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      I do!

    • I think a little rewording can avoid the problem, and that would usually produce better prose too, but if an alternative really can’t be found I think “they” isn’t as awful as some seem to think!

  3. There was a set of articles in last month’s RSC Chemistry World about issues around diversity in science and specifically in chemistry. Most centered around women, ethnicity and socio-economic issues but there was a short section on LGBT. I’ve copied it in below with a link to the article. I was somewhat surprised by the comment about chemistry being an unfriendly discipline to LGBT, although as someone who is not LGBT myself I can’t really say either way. I thought it was a strange thing to say though- I do see that there are many issues with the general culture in chemistry being unappealing to many people but I’ve never really come across any anti-LGBT sentiment or attitudes (whereas I have seen somewhat out-of-date attitudes towards encouraging women, for example). I’m not sure its really on many people’s radar, but perhaps that in itself is a problem?

    “[Paul] Taylor [Organic chemist, University of Warwick] says he has never heard anyone in chemistry even talk about sexual orientation – it is largely off the agenda. There has been no reason to collect data so far and perhaps people don’t want to disclose this information, but this doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be tried. ‘We are a long way from even being able to discuss it,’ Taylor says. ‘I don’t know if it is an issue, but it probably is. I can’t imagine chemistry as a discipline being most friendly to the LGBT community.’

    There is a danger, he warns, of chemists confusing tradition with retention of power structures. And previous reports lifted the lid on some unpleasant practices in academia. ‘Read some of the gender studies that Jessica Lober-Newsome [ref 2] carried out and her portrayal of tyrannical chemistry professors terrorising students. That was from a female perspective, but would it be so much better if you were black or gay? Your fear is that it would have been just as bad, but it’s just that we haven’t done the studies yet,’ Taylor concludes.”


    • Well, all I can say is that I know a few gay chemistry professors too, one a Head of Department who happened to be a PhD student here in Sussex at the same time as me!

      I don’t think the Institute of Physics has ever tried to collect data on sexual orientation either, but I may be wrong on that.

  4. Michael Kenyon Says:

    Ignore The Pink List, you might as well buy a copy of Hello.
    How on earth is Sue Perkins of any sort of importance to anyone bar her friends and family? Not that I’ve anything against her, just another vacuous celebrity/presenter who has long since stopped doing the thing that got her on television in the first place. Ok, maybe I have!

    I do think you might be highlighting an issue that isn’t really there, do people really think that as LGBT they shouldn’t be scientists?
    I can’t think of many career choices where you would be less likely to encounter homophobia than working in science/academia. I never encountered it whilst I was studying, though friends encountered a lot of the other ‘isms’ which are think are much more prevalent than homophobia . It’s just not something I think would go on a lot compared to other places I’ve worked, when it’s been literally put in your face, you are on your own and you’ve got to make that choice….

  5. A BBC drama about Eddington shown recently presented him as being gay, but I’m not aware that there’s any actual evidence of that. Rumours about Newton are likewise disputed:


    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Nowadays there’s quite a lot of was-he-gay discussion about well known deceased men who never married. It’s a valid question for biographers (whose predecessors would not have raised the question), but too much discussion is not anchored in evidence.

      • Yes. Not long ago it would have been considered insulting to suggest that someone might be gay. Now that is (generally) not the case, the sexual orientation of a historical figure is legitimate if one wishes to understand the subject, especially one who lived in times when attitudes were different. Many biographers are less interested in evidence and research than in making easy money, so this kind of speculative tittle-tattle abounds. Eddington remains an enigmatic figure to me, and he may well have been a repressed homosexual, but what is much more important is that – at least early in his career – he was an excellent scientist.

  6. […] A blog about the Universe, and all that surrounds it « Where are all the LGBT astrophysicists? […]

  7. Thanks for looking at my blog. Yes, I know there are rumours and speculation about various scientists and their sexuality, and I try to make it clear that they are rumours. In Eddington’s case I made a judgement based on the words of the writer of the BBC documentary, assuming he had done his research. With Newton, again, I make the point that his sexuality is not proved. I’ll be saying a bit more about him next month. It’s true that there are more out physicists than people think, but that is still few compared to the whole scientific community. As far as living out physicists are concerned, I prefer not to mention them unless they have stated as such publicly in print – personal knowledge that someone is gay isn’t the same, as my out gay physicist friend has said to me. Lots of professional people are out to family, friends and colleagues. It all depends on the relationship between each individual and the people they choose to come out to.

  8. I think there are some definite steps that universities and individuals can make to improving LGBT visibility and support. Here at Caltech, we have Safe Zone training available for staff, students and faculty, which is a 2-hour training session about LGBTQ issues and how to be a supportive ally. Attendees get a Safe Zone sticker that goes on their office door to identify them as a safe space for all LGBTQ students and colleagues.

    The program has been pretty successful – I’ve encouraged and accompanied many of my colleagues to the training (even those who are generally ok with LGBT folks sometimes need a friendly gay to go with them to metaphorically hold their hand) and I’m very happy to say that there’s a proliferation of the stickers in the hallways of our building. It’s a great way to passively show LGBTQ students that we know they exist and that we’re supportive and they can talk to us at any time.

    I do tend to go a step further and make sure I’m out to everyone, whether it’s through emailing the building to encourage them to go to training, or working with the LGBT group for the AAS. I also make a point of having some kind of safe zone/LGBT-welcoming sticker on my badge at conferences. I’m glad I do – I’ve lost count of the number of grad students and postdocs who have talked to me about their concerns about coming out in astronomy and their relief at seeing a “safe” person there. The more out we all are, the less those students have to worry.

    • The problem I have with this idea is that it implies there is an unsafe zone, but perhaps we might introduce it in my School.

  9. At Physics Today, where I work, we published an article about how to create a female-friendly physics department. The authors made the point that such departments are friendly to men, too. An LGBT-friendly department is also likely to be welcoming to everyone.

    The benefits of tolerance extend beyond expanding the talent pool. A tolerant workplace is happy, productive one, where collaborations can flourish.

  10. It turns out that this post has given me the proudest moment in five years of blogging. A student emailed me to tell me that this blog had finally given him the courage to come out to his friends and colleagues. I won’t out him here, but do wish him well!

  11. Stefano Meschiari Says:

    In my opinion, more LGBT astronomers (and allies as well) should elect to be on the Outlist. It is important for younger astronomers to be aware of LGBT colleagues and mentors around — especially if they are not out, or are not ready to reach out IRL, or from less than illuminated countries. I know it was important to me to see people I recognized and respected on that list before I came out… and I did reach out as a result.

    Congratulations to the student!

    [Apologies if this comment was sent twice]

  12. HI Peter et al,
    Sorry this is such a late reply, hope It’s not too off-topic. When I finished my Chem degree (Leic Poly ’86) we were all given careers advice; and it was made clear that the scientific establishment was ‘conservative-with-a-small-c’ and that any remotely unorthodox political or personal beliefs would impede one’s professional progress.
    Hopefully the world has moved on since then….
    Thanks for the lively discussion!
    Tim Norris

  13. […] welcoming to me and my partner. And I know I’m not alone. As I go about my business, I meet many other happy, out LGBT […]

  14. […] welcoming to me and my partner. And I know I’m not alone. As I go about my business, I meet many other happy, out LGBT […]

  15. […] welcoming to me and my partner. And I know I’m not alone. As I go about my business, I meet many other happy, out LGBT […]

  16. […] Tom’s piece is related to something I blogged about a while ago (being a gay scientist) but he turns it the other way round and writes about how the difficulties […]

  17. […] welcoming to me and my partner. And I know I’m not alone. As I go about my business, I meet many other happy, out LGBT […]

  18. […] welcoming to me and my partner. And I know I’m not alone. As I go about my business, I meet many other happy, out LGBT […]

  19. […] to me and my partner. And we know I’m not alone. As we go about my business, we accommodate many other happy, out LGBT […]

  20. […] time ago I wrote a blog post entitled Where are all the LGBT Astrophysicists. I wrote that piece when I accidentally discovered that somebody had recently written a blog post […]

  21. […] wrote some of my own thoughts from the point of view of LGBT+ diversity here but much of what I said in that context is of wider […]

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