LGBT+ STEMinar – Notes on my Keynote

I’m in a hotel near King’s Cross having had my Full English and with an hour or so before I have to check out and trek to Heathrow for my flight back to Dublin.

First things first. I promised a few people yesterday at the LGBT STEMinar that I would post the slides I used in my Keynote talk yesterday so here you go:

And here are a few pictures of me in action. I got all these from Twitter so apologize for not giving due credit to the photographers. My timeline was very crowded yesterday!

What I tried to do in the talk was to discuss the theme of progress over the last thirty years, both in my area of research (cosmology, specifically the large-scale structure of the Universe) and in the area of LGBT+ rights.

I started with my time as a graduate student at Sussex. One of the first things I did during `Freshers Week’ at when I started there was to join the GaySoc (as it was called) and I gradually became more involved in it as time went on. Over the five years I was at Sussex, `Gaysoc’ became `Lesbian and Gay Soc’ but a move to recognize bisexual people in the title was voted down, by quite a large margin. Inclusivity was (and still isn’t) a given even among marginalized groups. Biphobia and transphobia are still very much around.

Initially I kept my sexual orientation 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’. I’m convinced that this campaign led directly to a great deal of the violence that was inflicted on gay people during this time, including myself.

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. We failed to stop it becoming law, which was what we had wanted to do, but one positive that came out of this was that it did galvanize a lot of people into action, and the law was eventually repealed.

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.

So that was the eighties. If somebody had told me then that in thirty years the United Kingdom would have legalized same-sex marriage I would just have laughed. That wasn’t even really being discussed by the LGBT+ community then.

Anyway, back to the talk. What I then tried to do – actually for most of the presentation – was to outline the progress that has been made over the last thirty years in cosmology. When I started in 1985 there was hardly any data. There were some small redshift surveys of the order of a thousand galaxies, but my thesis was supposed to be about the pattern of fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background and there were no relevant measurements back then. I had to rely on simulations, as I mentioned here a few days ago.

Over the years there has been tremendous progress, especially with the accumulation of data enabled by improvements in observational technology. Theory has moved on to the extent that we now have a standard model of cosmology that accounts for most of this data (at least in a broad-brush sense) with just six free parameters. That’s a great success.

This rapid progress has led some to suggest that cosmology is now basically over in the sense that we have done virtually everything that we’ll ever do. I disagree with this entirely. The standard model contains a number of assumptions (general relativity, cold dark matter, a cosmological constant, and so on) all of which should be questioned. In science every answer leads to new questions and all progress to new challenges. If we ever rest on our laurels the field will stagnate and die. Success should never lead to complacency.

So then in the talk I returned to LGBT+ rights. Some (straight) people have said to me that now that we have equal marriage then it’s basically all done, isn’t it? There’s now no discrimination. You can stop talking about LGBT+ matters and `just be a scientist’.

That, I’m afraid, is bollocks. We have equal marriage but, though welcome, by no means represents some sort of utopia. Society is still basically a patriarchy, configured in a way that is profoundly unfair to many groups of people, so there are still many challenges to be fought. Unless we keep pushing for a truly inclusive society there is a real danger that the rights we have won could easily be rolled back. This is no more over than cosmology is over. In fact, you could really say that it’s really just the start.

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3 Responses to “LGBT+ STEMinar – Notes on my Keynote”

  1. “If we ever rest on our laurels”

    Someone resting on their laurels is wearing them on the wrong part of the body. 🙂

  2. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen the images on slides 13, 15, and 16.

  3. […] photographer at last week’s LGBT STEMinar took these pictures of me while I was delivering my keynote talk, and I thought you might find it amusing to see them. Actually quite a few of them could serve as […]

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