Archive for lesbian

Gay Astronomers – At Last Some Data!

Posted in Biographical, LGBT, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , on June 1, 2015 by telescoper

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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Out and G3 Awards – How about some scientists?

Posted in LGBT with tags , , , , , , on November 30, 2013 by telescoper

I’m taking it easy today so this will be a brief post to follow up on an old one in which I bemoaned the lack of (visible) Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transgendered physicists. I was subsequently invited to speak at an event in London about this issue. I couldn’t make it because of other commitments, but I gather it went well. Anyway, in my earlier post I wrote

It has always annoyed me that the Independent newspaper’s annual “Pink List” of the UK’s most influential LGBT people never – and I mean never – has a single LGBT scientist on it, despite the immense amount they do not only in research, but also in teaching and outreach. It’s very sad that this work is largely unacknowledged and even sadder that a great many potential role models are hidden.

Actually this year’s Pink List did have one scientist on it, but my point remains relevant. It turns out that nominations are open for the Readers’ Awards of Out  and g3 magazines  to be voted on by the public in 2014. The prizes will awarded in April and expect to be reported in the gay media, they often lead on to more widespread publicity for the winners. So I thought I’d do my little bit to encourage folk out there to think about nominating a scientist or engineer for this prize.

You may nominate your favourite sportsperson, broadcaster, celebrity or  ‘straight ally’, but why not put forward the name of a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender person you know from the world of science, medicine or engineering under the ‘Inspirational Role Model of the Year’ category?

All you need for now is their name and email address, so it only takes a few seconds.

Go on. You know you want to. The link is here.

Where are all the LGBT astrophysicists?

Posted in Biographical, LGBT, Science Politics with tags , , , , , on September 13, 2013 by telescoper

Having scoffed my lunchtime pasty in record time today, I seem to have a few spare minutes to spend writing a brief blog post on a question which popped into my mind 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 the 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 I think 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.

There have been attempts to raise the profile of, e.g., LGBT astronomers through such initiatives as The Outlist, but only a very small fraction of the LGBT astronomers I know have their names on it. I’m not on it myself, although I used to be. It seems I’ve been struck off.

You might ask why it matters if an astrophysicist 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.

It has always annoyed me that the Independent newspaper’s annual “Pink List” of the UK’s most influential LGBT people never – and I mean never – has a single LGBT scientist on it, despite the immense amount they do not only in research, but also in teaching and outreach. It’s very sad that this work is largely unacknowledged and even sadder that a great many potential role models are hidden.

The effect of this invisibility is to reinforce the perception that science just isn’t something that LGBT people do. I have known gay students in physics or astrophysics who were on the verge of quitting because of this. I think it’s important for established scientists to be as open as possible about their sexual orientation to counter this. I really don’t think the consequences of coming out are as frightening as people think. This is not to say that homophobia doesn’t exist, but that straight colleagues are much more likely to be supportive than not and (with a few exceptions) most workplaces nowadays won’t tolerate discrimination or bullying based on sexual orientation.

But that brings us to the question of why we should care about whether LGBT students might be deterred from becoming scientists. This is much the same issue as to why we should worry that there are so few female physics students. The obvious answer is based on notions of fairness: we should do everything we can to ensure that people have equal opportunity to advance their career in whatever direction appeals to them. But I’m painfully aware that there are some people for whom arguments based on fairness simply don’t wash. For them there’s another argument that may work better. As scientists whose goal is – or should be – the advancement of knowledge, the message is that we should strive as hard as possible to recruit the brightest and most creative brains into our subject. That means ensuring that the pool from which we recruit is as large and as diverse as possible. The best student drawn from such a pool is likely to be better than the best student from a smaller and more restricted one.

Big companies haven’t become gay-friendly employers in recent years out of a sudden urge for altruism. They’ve done it because they know that they’d be discouraging many excellent employees from joining them. It’s exactly the same way for research.

At Sussex University we will soon be welcoming well over a hundred new students about to start their degree programmes in the Department of Physics & Astronomy. It’s a reasonable estimate than one in ten of these will be an LGBT student. The same will be true for many other departments around the country. So, regardless of your own orientation, if you’re reading this and you’re involved in teaching science just try not to assume, just because you’re talking to a science student, that you must be talking to a straight student. That shouldn’t be be too hard, should it?

If a Married Lesbian Couple Saves 40 Teens from the Norway Massacre and No One Writes About it, Did it Really Happen? (via Talk About Equality)

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 2, 2011 by telescoper

“..let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism.”

If a Married Lesbian Couple Saves 40 Teens from the Norway Massacre and No One Writes About it, Did it Really Happen? By this point, most of you have heard about the tragedy in Norway a few weeks ago when a Christian Fundamentalist murdered 92 people and injured another 96. The story has been well-covered by International media and the mainstream press here in the US. What you probably have not heard about is the married lesbian couple … Read More

via Talk About Equality

You didn’t ask, but I’ll tell you anyway…

Posted in History, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on December 19, 2010 by telescoper

I just chanced across the news that the United States Senate has voted to repeal the policy of “Don’t ask, don’t tell”. This silly rule required gay servicemen and women to conceal their sexual orientation or risk being kicked out of the services. It was always an awful compromise and I’m glad to see it has been scrapped.

One of the arguments used against allowing gay people to be open about their sexuality while in the armed forces was that this would be “bad for morale”. I’m not quite sure why, but that’s what people say. Perhaps what it means is that a lot of straight military personnel are deeply prejudiced and that it would be bad for morale to have that prejudice challenged.

Until 2000, the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence imposed an outright ban on lesbian and gay people serving in the armed forces. However, in 1999 the European Court of Human Rights ruled that ban illegal. Now, at least officially, the MoD has a much more open and inclusive policy. One regularly sees official representation at Gay Pride marches and so on. Indeed, in 2008, General Sir Richard Dannatt, Chief of the General Staff, said in a speech that

respect for gays, lesbian, bi-sexual and transsexual officers and soldiers was now “a command responsibility” and was vital for “operational effectiveness”

It would have been hard to imagine even ten years ago that a senior officer in the British Army would make such a statement. I’m sure openly gay soldiers still have a pretty tough time in the army, but we’re heading in the right direction. Times have changed.

But all this is perhaps not as new as you might think.

I’m now going to bore you with a bit of history that might surprise you. The elite division of the Theban army in the 4th Century BC was an outfit called the Sacred Band of Thebes. This consisted of about 300 men, hand-picked for their courage and fighting skill. Or not so much 300 men, but 150 same-sex (male) couples; this was the legendary Army of Lovers. Obviously there wasn’t any need for “don’t ask, don’t tell” in ancient Thebes.

The inspiration for this special unit derived from Plato who, in the Symposium, said

And if there were only some way of contriving that a state or an army should be made up of lovers and their beloved, they would be the very best governors of their own city, abstaining from all dishonour, and emulating one another in honour; and when fighting at each other’s side, although a mere handful, they would overcome the world. For what lover would not choose rather to be seen by all mankind than by his beloved, either when abandoning his post or throwing away his arms? He would be ready to die a thousand deaths rather than endure this. Or who would desert his beloved or fail him in the hour of danger?

Initially the members of the Sacred Band were scattered among the rest of the soldiers, in order to raise morale (!), but later on they were all united in a single fighting division, the “special forces” of the Theban army. They were responsible for several famous victories, including the Battle of Leuctra which established Theban independence from Spartan rule.

But brave and steadfast though they were, they eventually met an adversary that even they couldn’t withstand. At the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC they fought an army led by Philip II of Macedonia one of whose generals was his son, a young man by the name of Alexander. The Macedonian army had a new infantry tactic that gave it the edge over all armies of its age. This was the phalanx, a large but tightly bunched and highly disciplined group of soldiers with interlocking shields and bristling with spears, which was impervious to cavalry and archery alike. A few years later when Alexander became King of Macedonia and set off on his journey to Greatness, the phalanx continued to be the mainstay of his army and it allowed him to defeat huge forces at least five or six times the size of his own.

At Chaeronea the fearsome phalanx made mincemeat of the rank and file of the Theban army. In the face of the Macedonian onslaught, the Sacred Band stood its ground to the last, but their resistance was futile. At the end of the battle, their corpses were found piled one on top of the other. They hadn’t given an inch, but all had died where they had stood. The Army of Lovers was no more.

In about 300 BC the citizens of Thebes erected a memorial to the Sacred Band where they had been buried, with full military honours, by Philip II’s soldiers, at the spot where they had fallen. When this was excavated in 1890, 254 skeletons were found, neatly arranged in rows.

The point I’m trying to make with this bit of ancient history is that our attitudes to sexuality are not built in. They’re all formed by social conventions. In fact, bisexuality was quite normal in Ancient Greece, so nobody had any reason to think of homosexuality as some kind of “otherness” that could be a focus of discrimination. Alexander the Great himself had relationships with both men and women and, although he was clearly a megalomaniac and not at all a nice person, he was undeniably rather good at being a soldier.

There’s therefore no reason why gays and lesbians shouldn’t serve with distinction in the army, or anywhere else for that matter. The problem’s not with them, but with the rest of you.


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The Balding Version

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on July 31, 2010 by telescoper

Now that I’m back from a period of rest and recuperation I thought I’d try to get back into the swing of things by posting a few short items about things I found interesting in the papers. One item today caught my eye as it touches on a theme I’ve addressed before: Freedom of speech, and its limits.

This story concerns sports presenter Clare Balding who is apparently presenting a new TV series called Britain by Bike. I don’t know much about her or the new series, but it was reviewed last week in the Sunday Times by a person by the name of AA Gill who referred to her as

…the dyke on a bike, puffing up the nooks and crannies at the bottom end of the nation

Not very nice at all. I’m not linking to the original article (a) because it’s behind a paywall and (b) because I don’t want to send the Evil  Empire  of Murdoch any traffic. You can find the gist of it in a story at the Guardian.

I didn’t know that Clare Balding is a lesbian, but then there’s no reason why I should have thought about her sexuality as it’s not at all relevant to her job.  Apparently she is quite open about and comfortable with her orientation, but the obviously pejorative reference to the word “dyke” got her understandably riled. She complained to the Sunday Times editor, a nasty piece of work called John Witherow, who replied

In my view some members of the gay community need to stop regarding themselves as having a special victim status and behave like any other sensible group that is accepted by society.Not having a privileged status means, of course, one must accept occasionally being the butt of jokes. A person’s sexuality should not give them a protected status.

Clare Balding was unhappy with the response, saying

This is not about me putting up with having the piss taken out of me, something I have been quite able to withstand, it is about you legitimising name calling. ‘Dyke’ is not shouted out in school playgrounds (or as I’ve had it at an airport) as a compliment, believe me..

She has now made the matter to the Press Complaints Commission under article 12 of its Editor’s Code of Practice, which states

The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual’s race, colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability.

There’s no denying that the word “dyke” is a pejorative term for a lesbian so one would imagine that this will be an open-and-shut case. Note also that the response from John Witherow explicitly refuses to accept the terms of article 12. Whether he likes it or not, sexual orientation is specifically protected in the Editor’s Code of Practice to which he is a signatory. John Witherow probably thinks so little of this code that he hasn’t even read it. If he is exonerated it will prove beyond any doubt that the Editor’s Code of Practice is simply a sham.

Whether the right to free speech should be bounded by law is a topic that has come up several times on this blog, including one very recent example and one rather older which has direct parallels with the Clare Balding complaint. I think it is right that this matter should be dealt with outside the law courts. Gill’s comment may be nasty but I don’t think such things should be regarded as criminal, unless they are clearly intended to harrass. If, for example, he’d screamed the word dyke through her letterbox, I think that would be a criminal matter.

However, the problem with voluntary “codes of conduct” such as this – including those that form part of certain employment contracts – is that they usually amount to nothing other than window-dressing, at least when it comes to sexual orientation. The word “dyke” is as offensive to a lesbian as the word “faggot” is to a gay man, but cases involving these words are rarely taken as seriously as those involving racial or gender-based terms. Can you imagine the outcry if AA Gill had used the word “nigger” or “paki” in a review?

Mentioning “sexual orientation” in a list isn’t the same as taking the related prejudice seriously or trying to something about it. The fact of the matter is that lesbians and gay men may be more accepted in society now than they were twenty years ago, but there are still many walks of life in which this is not the case.  In fact, I think the depressing reality is that the vast majority of heterosexual people simply don’t like homosexual people and resent their apparent “acceptance”.  You can argue about the rights and wrongs of “politically correct language”, but the problem it is trying to address in this case is very real and it is often the only thing that prevents overt abuse, as indeed it is with racist abuse.

Having said that, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the Sunday Times gets away with this clear violation of the PCC code. It would just be another example of gross hypocrisy to add to the many that already demonstrate that political correctness is  a very thin veneer. Far better, in my view, to dispense with the code of practice altogether if this happens than keep it there and openly flout it. At least then we’d all know where we really stand.