Archive for the LGBT Category

My Time Out in Astrophysics

Posted in Biographical, Brighton, LGBT, Mental Health with tags , , , , , on July 13, 2018 by telescoper

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.

 

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It’s LGBTSTEM Day!

Posted in Biographical, LGBT on July 5, 2018 by telescoper

So here I am in Dublin Airport, waiting for a flight back to Cardiff for LGBTSTEM Day. Sadly the Airport WIFI isn’t working and I’m having to write this on my phone so I’ll keep it brief.

I just wanted to say thank you to all the individuals and organisations responsible for setting up and supporting this day, which I hope will become a regular feature in the calendar. In particular I hope there’ll be an event to mark LGBTSTEM Day in Maynooth next year!

I’ll be talking this afternoon in the School of Physics and Astronomy at Cardiff University, but there are events all morning elsewhere in the University and beyond, both nationally and internationally.

Anyway, I had better get on with thinking about what I’m going to say in my talk…

UPDATE: We had quite a big turnout at the talk in Physics – here’s a picture I lifted off Twitter to prove I was there!

LGBStem

Reflections on a Bigoted Lecturer

Posted in Biographical, LGBT, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on June 29, 2018 by telescoper

I heard yesterday that the Department of Applied Mathematics at the University of Cambridge has employed a new lecturer, Dr Aron Wall, whose research speciality is Black Hole Thermodynamics. Dr Wall also runs a blog in which he expresses outspokenly homophobic views. Take this piece for example, which included bigoted generalisations such as:

…the notoriously promiscuous, reckless, and obscene lifestyle characteristic of the cultural venues of the gay community.

It sounds like he knows a lot about these places. Does he visit them often?

You can read the whole piece for yourself and decide what you think. As a gay man I found it thoroughly offensive, but what I think is not as important as what effect this person’s presence in the teaching staff will mean for any LGBT+ students at DAMTP. I hope Dr Wall enjoys the compulsory Equality and Diversity Training he will be required to undergo as a new member of staff and that he does not let his extremist beliefs interfere with his responsibility as a lecturer to treat all staff and students with the respect they deserve.

The news about the appointment of Dr Wall, and some of the reaction to it, caused me to reflect on a few related issues.

The first is that some people have said that Dr Wall’s private beliefs are his own business, as long as he is good at his job. I agree with that. However his beliefs are no longer private, as he has chosen to make them public. I think that makes a big difference. His views are known publicly, and that does not help to provide a welcoming environment for LGBT+ students (which I would have thought was part of his job). You might say that `It’s OK. Just keep him away from LGBT+ students’. That seems to me a pathetic response, no different from saying that its acceptable to employ a serial sexual harasser as long as you keep him away from female students. The duty of a member of academic staff is to the entire academic community (staff and students), not just the fraction of it that the staff member isn’t bigoted against.

The second point that occurred to me relates to freedom of speech. Every now and then in universities there arises something that causes tension between the freedom to express (possibly extreme) opinions and the requirement to treat colleagues and students with civility and respect. One view that I have heard expressed from senior members of staff is that if what a member of staff says is not unlawful then they should be allowed to say it, providing that does not involve inappropriate use of, e.g., university email by which it might be construed that what is being said is official rather than person.

I don’t agree with this view, for a number of reasons. The law relating to these issues is a bit of a mess, to be honest, but it does for example include provisions that outlaws the the use of language that harasses or intimidates. If someone uses that sort of language in the workplace then they should feel the force of the law as well as facing disciplinary action which, depending on the severity of the offence, could lead to dismissal.

But is that it? I don’t think so. The law should set a minimum standard for behaviour, but it is perfectly reasonable for any employer, institution, club or other organisation to stipulate its own code of conduct either as part of an employment contract or as a set of membership rules. You can be thrown out of a sports ground for behaviour that violates ground rules but falls short of being unlawful, and you should face disciplinary action if you violate the standards of the academic community too.

The last point is a bit more personal. I have mentioned before that I found the blog post I linked to above very offensive, but freedom of speech must include the freedom to offend and I respect his right to express his opinions through his blog just as I assert my right to respond here on mine. I do wonder, however, what the reaction would be if a university lecturer wrote a blog post expressing other forms of prejudice, such as racism, or a post mocking disabled people. In UK law sexual orientation is a protected characteristic alongside gender, race, marital status, etc. A good test is therefore to read an anti-gay piece by substituting `black’ or `female’ for `gay’ and working out if it would be offensive then. I think this one would. My own personal experience tells me that universities are far less likely to react to homophobic language than racist or sexist expressions.

Coincidentally, I today received full details of the programme of events for LGBT+ STEM Day at Cardiff University. Here is an extract:

We’re getting involved because LGBTQ people in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) still struggle to be themselves at work and in their careers.

A lot of careers and workplaces are challenging for LGBTQ people. If we don’t feel comfortable or safe to be ‘out’ at work, we spend every moment monitoring what we say and how we say it. That takes its toll on a person’s mental health.

LGBTQ people working in STEM fields with better representation of women, for example, are more open about who they are – and so, biologists are more likely than engineers to be ‘out’ to their colleagues.

International research is giving us a sense of the challenges. In the US, LGB students are more likely to drop out of STEM degrees.

A few people have said to me that events like LGBT+ STEM Day are unnecessary because there is no longer any prejudice. Of course you won’t see prejudice if you turn a blind eye to it, but it is very much still around though usually not so obvious as the example I have discussed.

International LGBT+ in STEM Day

Posted in Cardiff, LGBT with tags , , on June 27, 2018 by telescoper

Tired by the heat and by watching Glamorgan losing at cricket, and despite being on annual leave, I popped in to the relative cool of the office of the Data Innovation Research Institute at Cardiff University to tidy up a few things. I noticed the above poster on the main entrance to the School of Physics & Astronomy, which reminded me to post a quick plug for the first ever LGBTSTEM Day, which takes place next Thursday (5th July). I agreed some time ago to give a short talk at the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University about this and am looking forward to returning from Maynooth next week to do so.

Many universities and other organizations (including the Royal Astronomical Society) are involved in supporting events on 5th July. If you want to keep up with what’s happening try having a look a the twitter hashtag #LGBTSTEMDay.

It’s not too late to put your own event together either! You can find a handy toolkit to help you do it here.

International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia & Biphobia

Posted in History, LGBT with tags , , , , on May 17, 2018 by telescoper

Today is May 17th, which means that it is International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. If you’re wondering why May 17th was chosen, it’s to commemorate May 17th 1990, which is when the World Health Organisation removed homosexuality from its list of “mental illnesses”.


Please remember at although attitudes in the UK are much more enlightened than they were only a few years ago, homophobic violence still happens with distressing frequency and in over 70 countries around the world being gay is still a criminal offence. Moreover, the rights we have won over the past 50 years could so easily be lost.

 

The theme for this year is “Alliances for Solidarity” so, even if you don’t identify yourself as LGBT+, then this should still be an important day for you. Here, for example, is a handy guide produced by Pride in STEM on how to be an ally:

Out Thinkers Dublin

Posted in LGBT, Maynooth on May 5, 2018 by telescoper

I’m back in sunny Cardiff and have quite a lot to do today, so I’ll just do a quick post to say that yesterday I left work in Maynooth slightly earlier than usual to take the train onto Dublin for an event called ‘Out Thinkers’ at the Science Gallery in Dublin. I got there in good time before the show, which was held in a nice little theatre inside the Science Gallery, which is about 15 minutes walk from Connolly Station.

Out Thinkers serves to showcase the talent of LGBT+ researchers, providing a platform where people can talk about their scientific work while truly being themselves. This Out Thinkers event featured a range speakers talking about their research and experiences as LGBT+ individuals in academia.

It was a very enjoyable event and it was a nice opportunity to see some familiar (and some unfamiliar) faces in a new setting.

Sadly, because the event overran a but I had to leave before the finish to get a train back to Maynooth so I didn’t get the chance to say goodbye and thanks to the organisers for the splendid show!

The LGBT+ Physical Sciences Climate Survey – Final Reminder!

Posted in LGBT with tags , , , on April 27, 2018 by telescoper

This morning, a tweet from the Institute of Physics containing the above image reminded me to remind you all to participate (if you are so minded) in the LGBT+ Physical Sciences climate survey, which was launched amid the snows of 1st March this year. The deadline is coming up so if you want to complete the survey form and haven’t yet done so, please get on with it!

The survey is open to anyone (whether a member of a professional organisations or not) who identifies as LGBT+ or an ally and who may be working, teaching or studying in a physical sciences field. Respondents will need to be at least 16 years of age and above. The Institute of Physics (IOP), Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) and Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) are managing this survey on behalf of the LGBT+ Physical Sciences Network. Its aim is to collect evidence for what the working and studying climate is like for LGBT+ physical scientists in the UK and Ireland.

You can complete the survey here.

The survey is open until Monday 30th April, which is very close so why not do it right away?