Gay Astronomers – At Last Some Data!

Some 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 (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 that 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 at the time I wrote that  I thought 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.

You might ask why it matters if an astrophysicist or astronomer 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.

Anyway, at last we have some evidence as to whether this might be the case. In 2014 the Royal Astronomical Society (of which I am a Fellow) carried out a demographic survey of its membership. This happens from time to time but this one was the first to include a question about sexual orientation. The Institute of Physics did a similar survey about Physics about a decade ago, but did not include sexual orientation among its question, so this is the first time I’ve seen any data about this from a systematic survey. The results are quite interesting. About 7% of UK respondents (from a total of around a thousand) refused to answer the sexual orientation question but, among those who did, 3% identified themselves as bisexual and 4% as gay men. Both these proportions are significantly higher than the figures for the general UK population reported by the Office of National Statistics. The fraction of respondents in the RAS Survey declaring themselves to be heterosexual was 84%, whereas the corresponding figure from the ONS Survey was 93.5%. The number of UK respondents in the RAS Survey identifying as lesbian was only 0.2%; the proportion of respondents identifying themselves as male was 77.5% versus 21.3% female, which accounts for only some of the difference between gay and lesbian proportions.

So, according to the survey, gay men are actually significantly over-represented in the Royal Astronomical Society compared to the general population. That confirms the statement I made earlier that there are more gay astronomers than you probably think.  It also shows that there is no evidence that gay men are deterred from becoming astronomers. In fact, it seems to be quite the opposite. It’s a different story when it comes to other demographics, however. The RAS membership is older, less ethnically diverse, and more male-dominated than the the general population, so there’s a lot of work to be done redressing the balance there.

On the other hand, next time the Royal Astronomical Society is looking to elect a President it will naturally want to find someone who is representative of its membership, which means an ageing white gay male. I rest my case.

 

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