Archive for the LGBT Category

R.I.P. Steve Bronski (1960-2021)

Posted in Biographical, LGBT, Music with tags , on December 9, 2021 by telescoper

I was saddened to hear this evening of the death at the age of 61 of Steve Bronski, co-founder of the band Bronski Beat which provided much of the soundtrack of my early twenties. I spent many an hour in the mid-80s dancing away in gay clubs to their up-tempo numbers like Hit That Perfect Beat but, as I’ve mentioned on this blog before, the song Smalltown Boy had a particular resonance for me because it was about thoughts and feelings I knew very well but had never heard expressed in popular music. I really felt like the Smalltown Boy in the song.

Rest in Peace, Steven William Forrest, aka Steve Bronski (1960-2021).

On the Repeal of Section 28..

Posted in History, LGBT, Politics with tags , , , on November 18, 2021 by telescoper

I was reminded today is the 18th anniversary of the Repeal in England & Wales (on 18th November 2003) of Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, which contained the following:

I remember very well the numerous demonstrations and other protests I went on as part of the campaign against the clause that became Section 28 way back in 1988. Indeed, these were the first large political demonstrations in which I ever took part. But that repugnant and obviously discriminatory piece of legislation passed into law anyway. Students and younger colleagues  probably don’t have any idea how much pain and anger the introduction of this piece of legislation caused at the time, but at least it also had the effect of galvanising  many groups and individuals into action. The fightback eventually succeeded; Section 28 was repealed in Scotland in 2000 and in England & Wales in 2003.

I know the 33 years that have elapsed since the introduction of Section 28  is a long time, but it’s still amazing to me that attitudes have changed so much that now we have same-sex marriage. I would never have predicted that if someone had asked me thirty years ago!

I think there’s an important lesson in the story of Section 28, which is that rights won can easily be lost again. There are plenty of people who would not hesitate to bring back similar laws if they thought they could get away with them.  They are trying to do so now with a sustained assault on the rights of transgender people. That’s why it is important for LGBTQ+ people not only to stand up for their rights, but to campaign for a more open, inclusive and discrimination-free environment for everyone, everywhere, including in the workplace. That’s one of the reasons why today’s LGBTQ+ STEM Day is so important.

LGBTQ+ STEM DAY 2021! (#LGBTSTEMDay)

Posted in Biographical, LGBT with tags , on November 18, 2021 by telescoper

So here we are once again on LGBTQ+ STEM Day! Last year on this day I gave a talk via Zoom and remember hoping that the following year we could have an in-person event in Maynooth but alas that was not to be. Nevertheless I can at least use the medium of this blog to wish all LGBTQ+ persons working in STEM subjects around the globe a very enjoyable day. You can find out about events near you by checking here, looking for the hashtag #LGBTQSTEMDay on social media or by following the twitter account:

JWST: Nice Telescope, Shame about the Name…

Posted in LGBT, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on October 17, 2021 by telescoper
The JWST deployable mirror undergoing tests

I heard last week that the ship carrying the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) arrived safely in French Guiana and is now being prepared for launch on an Ariane-5 rocket at the European Space Agency’s facility at Kourou. Since the telescope cost approximately $10 billion there was some nervousness it might have been hijacked by pirates on the way.

I’m old enough to remember JWST when it was called the Next Generation Space Telescope NGST); it was frequently discussed at various advisory panels I was on about 20 years ago. Although the basic concept hasn’t changed much – it was planned to be the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope working in the infrared and with a deployable mirror – at that time it was going to have an even bigger mirror than the 6.5m it ended up with, was going to be launched in or around 2010, and was to have a budget of around $600 million. About a decade ago cost overruns, NASA budget problems, and technical hitches led to suggestions that it should be cancelled. It turned out however that it was indeed too big too fail. Now it is set for launch in December total cost greater than ten times the original estimate.

I know many people involved in the JWST project itself or waiting to use it to make observations, and I’ll be crossing my fingers on launch day and for the period until its remarkable folding mirror is deployed about a fortnight later. I hope it goes well, and look forward to the celebrations when it does.

There is a big problem with JWST however and that is its name, which was changed in 2002 from the Next Generation Space Telescope to the James Webb Space Telescope after James E. Webb, a civil servant who was NASA’s chief administrator from 1961 to 1968.

It’s not uncommon for scientific space missions like this to be named after people once the proposal has moved off the drawing board and into serious planning. That happened with the European Space Agency’s Planck and Herschel to give two examples. In any case Next General Space Telescope was clearly never anything but a working title. Yet naming this important mission after a Government official always seemed a strange decision to me. Then news emerged that James Webb had enthusiastically cooperated in a McCarthyite purge of LGBT+ people working in government institutions, part of a wider moral panic referred to by historians as the Lavender Scare. There have been high-profile protests (see, e.g., here) and a petition that received over a thousand signatures, but NASA has ruled out any change of name.

The main reason NASA give is that they found no evidence that Webb himself was personally involved in discrimination or persecution. I find that very unconvincing. He was in charge, so had responsibility for what went on in his organization. If he didn’t know then why didn’t he know? Oh, and by the way, he didn’t have anything to do with infrared astronomy either…

It’s a shame that this fantastic telescope should have its image so tarnished by the adoption of an inappropriate name. The name is a symbol of a time when homophobic discrimination was even more prevalent than it is now, and as such will be a constant reminder to us that NASA seems not to care about the many LGBT+ people working for them directly or as members of the wider astronomical community.

P.S. As an alternative name I suggest the Lavender Scare Space Telescope (LSST)…

The Killing of Samuel Luiz: why do you straight men do this?

Posted in Biographical, Brighton, LGBT with tags , , on July 10, 2021 by telescoper

This is a picture of Samuel Luiz, a young gay man who was kicked and punched to death outside a nightclub in A Coruña, Galicia, Spain, on Saturday 3rd July 2021. At least 12 men were involved in the vicious assault and they were shouting the word maricón as they beat him. The word is a derogatory term in Spanish for a gay man, roughly equivalent to “faggot” in English. At least four men (all between the ages of 20 and 25) have been arrested for this murder. Let’s hope some justice is served. Demonstrations were held across Spain to protest Samuel’s killing.

This attack came just a few days after the end of Pride Month and if nothing else shows how far we still have to go. People sometimes ask why we still need Pride, after all we now have gay marriage? Well, Spain has gay marriage, but mobs still murder gay men. Anti-gay hate crime is reportedly on the increase in Spain and probably elsewhere. The Government of Hungary has enacted specifically homophobic legislation

There’s nothing new about this kind of homophobic violence. Queer-bashing was endemic in Brighton when I lived there in the 1980s. I know. I was on the receiving end of a beating myself. There were only four assailants in my case, and of course I didn’t die. My physical injuries were relatively superficial, but it was a life-changing experience and not in a good way. The word that was ringing in my eyes as I lapsed into unconsciousness then was “faggot”, so reading about Samuel Luiz brought it back. Sometimes things like this make me want to go and live off-grid somewhere far away from people to avoid such thoughts intruding again.

Anyway, that experience on Brighton sea front left me convinced that however much attitudes and laws change there will always be men – presumably straight – who for some reason despise gay men so much that they want to inflict violence on us. I can’t rid myself of the belief a very large number of straight men would behave in that way if they thought they would get away with it. It takes me a very long time to trust a heterosexual man enough to call him a friend.

I wish I could understand what causes so much hate. Believe me, if thought about it a lot and for a very long time and it remains incomprehensible to me. Perhaps it expresses some kind of need to assert dominance, much as misogynistic transphobic, and racist violence does? Or perhaps just a form of tribalism like football violence? The one firm conclusion I have reached is that the people who do this sort of thing are utter cowards. Why else would they need a gang to beat up one person? And the people who just look on and don’t intervene are cowards too.

In a piece a while ago I wrote about my experience in Brighton:

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 minimize 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’s easy to say you’re an ally but are you willing to stand up and be counted?

A comment below objects to the “you” in the title of this post. I thought very carefully before including it. The response “not all straight men are like that” is unhelpful for lots of reasons.

First, I know that. All gay people do. We already know not every straight man is a murderer, or otherwise violent. We don’t need you to tell us. Second, it’s defensive. When people are defensive, they aren’t listening to the other person; they’re busy thinking of ways to defend themselves. It’s a classic social media response. Third, people saying it aren’t furthering the conversation, they’re sidetracking it. The discussion isn’t about the men who aren’t a problem. Fourth – and this the most important point – nobody can really know which straight men are “like that” and which aren’t until it’s too late.

I would genuinely love to live in a society without prejudice on the grounds of identity but we’re not there yet. I don’t think it does any harm to hold a mirror up to the kind of stereotyping that many groups have to deal with on an everyday basis. You may not like being included in a generalisation but at least you’re not put in mortal danger because of your identity. It’s not you who is a target.

An Article about Pride

Posted in Biographical, Film, LGBT with tags , , on June 28, 2021 by telescoper

Today is 28th June which means that it’s the anniversary – the 52nd anniversary to be precise – of the Stonewall Riots.

I was only 6 in 1969 so wasn’t aware of this event at the time but it (and Pride Month generally) always reminds me of how far we’ve come, though many LGBT+ people still face hostility and discrimination. Nowadays though my own celebration of Pride is very subdued as it tends to makes me feel old and irrelevant as well as worried that we might be headed back right to the bigotry and intolerance of the past. The rights we have won could so easily be taken away. Although I am no longer young, I find I have become very protective towards younger LGBT+ people. I don’t want anyone to have to put up with the crap that I did when I was their age.

Despite these reservations I do find some of the manifestations of Pride quite pleasing. An Post have issued special stamps this year, as you can see above.

I haven’t bought any because I haven’t got any letters to send but I think it’s nice. 18 year old me in the middle of his A-level exams in 1981 could not have imagined such a gesture from a public body. Bród is the Irish word for Pride.

I watched the 2014 film Pride on TV the other day. I’d seen it before but enjoyed the second viewing a lot, although it did make me feel a bit ashamed that I didn’t get involved in the events of 1984 at all. I was too much of a coward.

Anyway just to change tack I thought I’d mention that the “An” in “An Post” is a definite article, which is a bit confusing to English speakers for whom “an” is a form of the indefinite article. There are no indefinite articles in Irish.

Other European languages (including Latin) don’t have any articles at all. Russian doesn’t either. It’s always fun writing a paper with Russian collaborators because articles are so alien to them. It’s not so easy to explain when to use the definite or indefinite article or no article at all to someone used to a language in which articles don’t exist.

International Day against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia

Posted in LGBT on May 17, 2021 by telescoper

Today is May 17th which means that it is International Day Against Homophobia Transphobia and Biphobia.

If you need reasons why such a day is still necessary then you can look here.

Name Change Policy at the Open Journal of Astrophysics

Posted in LGBT, Open Access with tags , on April 27, 2021 by telescoper

This lunchtime I took a bit of time out to complete a task that has been on my to-do list for some time. It has been announced in a blog post at the Open Journal of Astrophysics.

The recent announcement by arXiv of a name change policy has enabled the Open Journal of Astrophysics to introduce a policy of its own concerning author name changes. The aim of such a policy is to reduce barriers to changing public records and online identity, thereby fostering diversity and promoting inclusivity. The changes announced follow recommendations by the Committee On Publication Ethics (COPE).

Since the Open Journal of Astrophysics is an arXiv overlay journal which is totally dependent on the arXiv platform we had to wait until arXiv announced its policy before following it with one of our own, which were recently able to do.

The arXiv now allows the following options:

  1. In full text works: the author name can be changed in the PDF and/or LaTeX source where it appears in the author list, acknowledgments, and email address.
  2. In metadata: the name and email address can be changed in the author list metadata and in the submission history metadata for all existing versions.
  3. In user accounts: the name, username, and email address can all be changed.

The arXiv policy notes, however, that

We are not currently able to support name changes in references and citations of works. Also, arXiv cannot make changes to other services, including third party search and discovery tools that may display author lists for papers on arXiv.

Since the Open Journal of Astrophysics deposits author metadata for all our papers with the Crossref system we can plug this gap by undertaking to redeposit all necessary information to reflect author name changes. Since author metadata is attached to the DOI we issue, this will ensure that citations and references tracked through this system are updated when an author changes their name.

If any author of a paper published in the Open Journal of Astrophysics wishes to make use of this policy the best procedure is to first contact the arXiv under their policy. Once any changes have been made to the arXiv submission the author should contact us with a request. We will then make any necessary changes to the overlay on the Open Journal of Astrophysics site and redeposit amended metadata to Crossref free of charge. We also undertake to ensure entries are updated at the NASA/ADS system.

Following the guidance from COPE the Open Journal of Astrophysics will neither seek permission from nor inform co-authors of any such change.

A list of other journals/publishers and their name change policies can be found here.

The Reason I’m Alive

Posted in Biographical, LGBT with tags , , , on February 27, 2021 by telescoper

For a variety of reasons I’ve always considered myself to have been exceptionally lucky, but last week I got news that increased still further the extent of this sense of good fortune. I hesitated before putting anything about this on here because it is rather personal and there are details I’m going to leave out about how I came by the information.

Over a month ago I posted some thoughts about the TV series It’s A Sin based on my own experiences back in the 1980s. That post ended with this:

… a question that often troubles me returned once again to my mind: why am I still alive, when so many people I knew back then are not?

In response to this a former colleague of mine suggested I get my DNA sequenced to see if I had any innate resistance to HIV infection. I wasn’t sure how to go about doing this but one of the advantages of having worked in several different universities is that I know people in several bioscience and biomedical departments, including people who work on the data science aspects of genetics. After emailing around for advice I eventually ended up talking to a very distinguished scientist in that field to whom I explained the situation.

Since I didn’t really want to have a copy of my entire genome sequence – that’s a lot of data most of which I wouldn’t understand – but just wanted to know the answer to one question it seemed a waste of money to have this done commercially (although at around €1000 it’s not enormously expensive). Instead a plan emerged in which I would offer my (suitably anonymized) DNA as part of a scientific study in return for the small piece of information I wanted.

After a few days I received a kit for taking oral swabs, a medical questionnaire and quite a lot of paperwork to do with ethical considerations and data protection. I sent everything back by return post. Last week the results came back. There was some general info about my genetic make-up – which shows a considerable dollop of Scandinavian ancestry – alongside the answer the question I had asked.

The full DNA sequence of my genome reveals that I have the CCR5-Δ32 genetic mutation. Not just that. I have it twice (i.e. it’s homozygous), which means that I inherited it from both parents.

Of order 1% of the European population has this mutation, which is thought to have arisen in a single Scandinavian individual at some stage during the Viking era and subsequently propagated through mainly Northern Europe where about 10% have one copy, and about 1% have two.

Here is a map of the geographical distribution in Europe (from this paper) :

It’s nowhere near as prevalent in Asia or African populations.

So what does this mean?

Heterozygotic CCR5-Δ32 (i.e. one mutated gene) confers some protection against HIV infection but the homozygotic CCR5-Δ32 mutation involving both copies confers virtually total immunity. I was terrified of AIDS in the 1980s but it turns out I was immune all the time without knowing it. This explains why to my great surprise the HIV test I took in the 1980s came back negative despite my sexual history and behaviour.

As a friend told me when I passed this news on: “you’re a f**king lucky bugger”. Indeed I am. I already considered myself to have been very lucky but this absolutely takes the biscuit.

P.S. My immediate “reward” for having this genetic peculiarity is to take part in further scientific study on it, which I am of course very happy to do.

Memories of the Aldwych Bus Bombing

Posted in Biographical, History, LGBT with tags , , , , on February 18, 2021 by telescoper

Twitter just reminded that today is the 25th anniversary of the Aldwych Bus Bombing, which happened while I was living in London. In fact, as it happens, in the late evening of Sunday 18th February 1996, when the bomb went off I was scarily close to it. The bomb went off in Aldwych, near The Strand, while I was standing in a fairly long queue trying to get into a night club near Covent Garden. The explosion was no more than 200 yards away from me.

The reason I was there was a one-nighter called Queer Nation which was on every Sunday in the 90s. I went there quite regularly and provided very nice music and provided an environment that attracted a very interesting crowd of people. Anyway I preferred it to the very big clubs of the more commercial London gay scene of the time, largely because it wasn’t such a big venue as many of the others and you could actually talk to people there without having to shout.

The queue to get in wasn’t too long and I had only been waiting a few minutes when there was a loud bang followed by a tinkling sound caused by pieces of glass falling to the ground. Everyone in the queue including myself instinctively dropped to the ground. The blast sounded very close but we were in a narrow street surrounded by tall buildings and it was hard to figure out from which direction the sound had come from. Shortly afterwards the air was filled with the sound of sirens from police cars and other emergency vehicles. According to Wikipedia the bomb went off at 22:38.

It turned out that an IRA operative had accidentally detonated a bomb on a bus, apparently while en route to plant it somewhere else (probably King’s Cross). The bomb consisted of 2kg of Semtex, which is rather a large amount, hence the enormous blast. The explosion happened on the upper deck of the bus and the only person killed was the person carrying the bomb.

After the people outside the nighclub had stood up and dusted ourselves down, we talked briefly about what to do next. Everyone was rattled. I didn’t feel like going clubbing after what had clearly been a terrorist attack so I said goodnight and left for home.

Getting home turned out to be rather difficult, however. The police quickly threw a cordon around the site of the blast so that several blocks either side were inaccessible. Aldwych is in the West End, but I lived in the East End, on the wrong side of sealed-off area, so I had to find a way around it before heading home. No buses or taxis were to be found so I had to walk all the way. I ended up having to go as far North as the Angel before walking along the City Road towards the East End. I didn’t arrive him until about three o’clock in the morning (though I did stop off for a Bagel in Spitalfields on the way).

So that was 25 years ago. Fortunately since then we’ve had the Good Friday Agreement and such events have virtually disappeared. But how long will that peace last?