My Time Out in Astrophysics

Last week I did a little talk in Cardiff for LGBT Stem Day, which was similar to another I gave earlier this year at the IOP in London at the launch of the LGBT Physical Sciences Climate Survey. I intended to post a summary of the earlier presentation but somehow never got round to it. Doing the more recent one reminded me that I’d forgotten to write up my notes, so here goes.

What I was trying to do in these talks was to explain why I thought (a) the Climate Survey and (b) LGBT STEM day were so important, from the perspective of someone who has been `out’ for over thirty years while pursuing a career in astrophysics. I thought it might be useful to include some personal reminiscences along the way as in both cases most of the audience members were too young to remember what things were like over thirty years ago.

Although I knew I was gay when I was an undergraduate at Cambridge, I wasn’t very open about it except to my closest friends. I also didn’t do much about it either, apart from developing a number of crushes that were doomed to be unrequited. In my final year I decided that I would try to get a place to do a PhD (or, as it turned out, a DPhil). I applied to a few places around the country, and was very happy to get an offer from Sussex and started my postgraduate studies there in 1985. The reputation of Brighton as being a very `gay’ place to live was definitely part of that decision although it was really the topic of my research project that was the decisive factor.

One of the first things I did during `Freshers Week’ at Sussex was join the GaySoc (as it was called) and I gradually became more involved in it as time went on. Initially, though, I kept that part of my life separate from my academic life and wasn’t really all that open in the Department in which I worked. My decision to change that was largely because of things going on in the outside world that convinced me that there was a need to stand up and be counted.

One of these was the AIDS `panic’ exacerbated by the Thatcher Government’s awful advertising campaign, an example of which you can see above. It was a very frightening time to be gay, not only because of the fear of contracting AIDS oneself  but also because of the hostility that arose as a reaction to the `gay plague’.

Although I wasn’t really sexually active as an undergraduate at Cambridge, I had been while I was at school in Newcastle up until 1982. At this time gay sex was illegal with a person under the age of 21, but I had no difficulty finding partners when I was a teenager. I assumed that, as a result of this period of my life,  I would be found HIV+. When I eventually did have a test in 1986 I was quite shocked to find I was negative, so much so that I had another test to make sure. I was lucky, countless others were not.

The second thing that made me want to come out was the Local Government Act (1988), which included the now infamous Section 28 (above). This was the subject of the first political demonstrations I ever attended, but we failed to stop it becoming law.

Anyway, I just got fed up of hearing people making ill-informed generalisations during this time. Rather than make a big public statement about being gay, I just resolved to not let such comments pass. I think it only took a few intercessions in the tea room or Falmer Bar for it to become widely known in the Department that I was gay. That was how I came out in astrophysics, and thereafter almost everyone just seemed to know.

I have to say that for quite a long time in this period my general presumption was that a majority of heterosexual people were actively hostile to LGBT+ people, and that would always remain the case. There were quite a few gay people in Brighton who felt the same and their reaction was to become separatists. The logic was that straight people were always going to be horrible, so to hell with them. You could drink in gay bars, eat in gay restaurants, live in a gay part of the town, etc, and thereby minimise interaction with the hostile majority. This seemed an attractive lifestyle to me for some time, but I gradually began to feel that if there was ever going to be a chance of things changing for the better, LGBT+ people had to engage and form alliances. That strategy seems to have worked for the wider community, and I applaud the many straight people who have become allies.

It hadn’t been fear that my sexuality would have a negative impact on my academic career that had held me back – I never really thought I was going to have an academic career until near the end of my time as a research student – it was more fear of confrontation with colleagues who would be hostile. That never really happened. Over the past thirty-odd years, the vast majority of people I’ve known through astrophysics have been friendly and welcoming. There have been exceptions of course, but I won’t waste my time on them here.

Now fast forward to 2018. Not only has Section 28 gone (it was repealed first in Scotland in 2000,  and then nin England & Wales in 2003), but since 2003 the Age of Consent is now equal for everyone and more recently we now have Equal Marriage. If you had asked me back in 1985 whether I thought there was any chance of this happening even on a thirty year timescale, I would have laughed at you.

But although many things have changed for the better, the fact remains that LGBT+ people still face widespread hostility and violence. Bullying is rife in schools, many people are still afraid to come out in their workplace, and in many situations there is still a threat of violence. I know what impact the latter can have, as I have experienced it myself and is has caused me mental health problems throughout my life. In fact, I have found it much harder to be open about my mental health problems than I ever did about being gay!

There are increasing signs of a backlash against LGBT+ people, most obviously in Trump’s America. The rights we have won over the years could so easily be taken away and my fear is that if we are complacent and pretend that everything is fixed because we have equal marriage then we will soon see those rights being eroded. We have to remain active and visible, and keep pushing against all forms of discrimination, harassment and bullying wherever it happens. And the first step in doing that is to raise awareness among everyone that it is still a problem.

Now to some specific points about working in STEM.

First, my own experiences caused me not to perceive science being a difficult environment to be gay, but I am aware that many people have quite different perceptions, often with good reasons. One thing that feeds negative perceptions is simply the lack of positive statements. I remember, over a decade ago, being asked by representative of a major STEM organisation if I could think of anything they could do to make them appear more inclusive to LGBT+ people. I looked at the `equal opportunities’ bit on their website and found that it mentioned gender, race, disability, etc but entirely omitted sexual orientation. What message does that send to an LGBT+ person? The omission was not deliberate, but the perception might well be otherwise. Many institutions display posters about LGBT+ matters, and some staff (either LGBT+ or `allies’) wear rainbow lanyards to carry their ID cards. But what if you’re a student who sees these everywhere else other than your own department? Has nobody bothered to put posters up, or has some arsehole torn them all down?

Another important issue is visibility. Students and early career researchers may be deterred from continuing a career in STEM simply because they don’t see other LGBT+ people doing likewise. I know of at least one student who was on the verge of dropping out of a physics degree because `there are no gay people in physics’. Fortunately he said that to a member of staff who knew he was wrong, as her office was next door to mine, but this does illustrate another problem of perception in STEM fields. In Arts and Humanities subjects it’s much easier to be visible as LGBT+ through your work. You even research matters related to gender or sexuality in literature, for example. It’s rather harder when you do theoretical astrophysics. But what’s wrong with having a rainbow icon on your powerpoint?

When giving my talk at the IOP I got into a discussion about `role models’. I am horrified at the thought that anyone would think of me as a `role model’. I don’t like using that term because it seems to me to imply some sort of ideal to which others should aspire, which seems to me rather arrogant. What I do think is important is for as imany LGBT+ people as possible to say `I’m LGBT+ and I’m in STEM: if I can do it and be like me, warts and all, then you can do it and be like you!’

A comment that I’ve heard about LGBT+ people in STEM goes along the lines of `We don’t need all this political stuff in science. You should just concentrate on your research’. Another version I heard from a senior scientist recently was effectively `I’m not prejudiced at all. I don’t care about your sexuality. I’m only interested in your research!’. I think this kind of stance is not uncommon, actually, but I couldn’t disagree more with it.

Science is, above all, a human activity. It’s not done by robots or calculating machines. It’s done by people. And I don’t think you will get the best science out of your research time unless you create a working environment in which everyone feels comfortable and happy being themselves. Just a few small gestures can go a long way towards creating a department or research group that’s genuinely inclusive for all the people in it.

Of course some STEM subjects have other diversity and inclusivity issues to address. For example, there is a persistent gender imbalance in UK Physics that has resisted many initiatives to encourage more women to enter the field. I’m not arguing that LGBT+ matters more than this or indeed more than race or disability or anything else. It is, however, my firm belief that taking measures to make workplace as inclusive as possible actually benefits everyone  in it. That’s partly because it’s the way to build the best team, and partly the way to get the best out of the team once you have assembled it, but it’s also a good thing to do for its own sake.

Another comment I got on Twitter a few weeks ago `When is it Straight STEM Day?’ Well, perhaps when 69% of heterosexual people feel uncomfortable in the workplace because of their sexuality, or when students are bullied at school for being straight, then perhaps there’ll be a need for it. In the meantime, you just need to recognise that despite the undeniable progress there has been over the past decades, there still isn’t anything like full symmetry between straight and gay.

Finally, and I think this brings me more-or-less back to where I started, events like the LGBT+ STEM Day and initiatives like the LGBT+ Climate Survey are vital because they acknowledge that we’re involved in a  process, not a fixed state and we have to recognise that this process could easily be pushed into reverse. All that’s needed for that to happen is for people to assume that everything is fine now and close their eyes to the overwhelming evidence that it really isn’t.

POSTSCRIPT: A thought that occurred to me while I was writing this relates to inclusivity within the LGBT+ community itself. When I arrived at Sussex in 1985, I joined `GaySoc’. A few years later that became `Lesbian & Gay Soc’. It took a lot longer for Bisexuals to be acknowledged, and even longer for Trans people. Only last week the annual Gay Pride March in London was disrupted by anti-transgender campaigners. Some of us still have a lot to learn about what it means to be inclusive.

 

Advertisements

6 Responses to “My Time Out in Astrophysics”

  1. Reblogged this on Symptoms Of The Universe and commented:
    I’m reblogging this important and affecting post from Peter Coles. (See also his Reflections On A Bigoted Lecturer post from a few weeks back).

  2. “A thought that occurred to me while I was writing this relates inclusivity within the LGBT+ community itself. When I arrived at Sussex in 1985, I joined `GaySoc’. A few years later that became `Lesbian & Gay Soc’. It took a lot longer for Bisexuals to be acknowledged, and even longer for Trans people.”

    Hear, hear! See my comments on another recent post on this blog.

  3. “There are increasing signs of a backlash against LGBT+ people, most obviously in Trump’s America. The rights we have won over the years could so easily be taken away and my fear is that if we are complacent and pretend that everything is fixed because we have equal marriage then we will soon see those rights being eroded. We have to remain active and visible, and keep pushing against all forms of discrimination, harassment and bullying wherever it happens. And the first step in doing that is to raise awareness among everyone that it is still a problem.”

    I completely agree. I’m quite worried about the situation in the US. I suspect that over the next few years, our Supreme Court will leave the ruling in favor of equal marriage rights nominally intact, but will allow states to opt out of actually granting those rights in practice, under the guise of “respecting religious freedom”. If this prediction proves wrong, it will probably be because it was too optimistic, sadly.

    Now more than ever, those of us who care about these matters have to fight for what’s right. I haven’t been as active in the fight as I should have been, but it’s a good time to start.

    • If the Supreme Court goes the way in which you think it might, especially if Trump’s latest suggestion is confirmed, what would happen to homosexual people who are married now? Would their status remain the same? Or is it conceivable that their marriages could somehow be dissolved?

      • I think it’s unlikely that existing marriages will be dissolved, although at this point I hesitate to say that anything is impossible. What’s more likely to me is that states could be allowed to rewrite their laws so that specific benefits would be restricted to opposite-sex couples. The result would be that same-sex couples are nominally married but do not have the same rights as opposite-sex couples.

        The most likely first step would be that a state would allow non-state entities to treat opposite-sex couples differently (i.e., worse). A hospital, for instance, could decide only to allow opposite-sex spouses to participate in medical decisions. (Many US hospitals are associated with religious organizations, and before marriage equality this was a source of great agony for people who were denied the right to be at their dying partners’ bedsides.) Or an employer could grant benefits such as health insurance only to opposite-sex spouses. (Of course, the best solution to that last one would be to replace our absurd health-care system with one where insurance wasn’t provided by employers at all.)

        The likely outcome would be a complicated patchwork of rules that vary by state. Many states, particularly in the northeast and on the west coast, would almost surely maintain more or less complete equality; others would not.

        In this scenario, the Federal government would also be allowed to treat same-sex couples differently. This could have big effects, particularly in immigration policy and social security (the main source of income for many retirees). Whether those changes would actually happen depends on who controls Congress and the Presidency. I suspect that the good guys can largely fend off these outcomes at the Federal level, and that the major battles will be in the states.

        Let me reiterate that I’m speculating on what I think may happen. None of this is certain, and I could be wrong in either the optimistic or pessimistic direction.

  4. I have an UG student, who was a bit upset, that “all heads of departments are straight”. I told him about you, Peter, and he became more happy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: