Archive for lgbt

LGBT+ STEMinar – Notes on my Keynote

Posted in Biographical, LGBT, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on January 12, 2019 by telescoper

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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LGBT+ History Month and the Royal Society

Posted in Biographical, History, LGBT with tags , , , , , on February 23, 2018 by telescoper

You may or may not know that this month is LGBT+ History Month for 2018, and, to mark it, the Royal Society has been marking it on Twitter by celebrating LGBT+ scientists.

I am very proud to be included among those featured on Twitter, although slightly disappointed that no mention was made of my greatest achievement, namely the Beard of Winter 2018 award.

I can’t show all the people in the Twitter thread produced by the Royal Society because there are too many of us, but I will mention two people that I know personally.

The first is radio astronomer Rachael Padman from the University of Cambridge:

Among other things, Rachael recently won an award from Gay Times magazine. I worked quite a bit with Rachael when I was External Examiner for Natural Sciences (Physics), a job I did from 2014-2016, as she was heavily involved in the administration of the examinations process at Cambridge during this time.

The other person I’d like to mention is Tom Welton, who is Professor of Sustainable Chemistry and Dean of the Faculty of Natural Sciences at Imperial College in London.

I especially wanted to mention Tom because he and I were contemporaries at the University of Sussex way back in the 1980s when I was a research student. I hadn’t seen him since I moved from Sussex in 1990 until two years ago when we were both panellists at an `Out in STEM’ event run by the Royal Society.

I know some of you will be asking whether the Royal Society should be getting involved in LGBT History Month. Some people commenting on the Twitter thread certainly think it shouldn’t.  I think it should, in order to demonstrate that a person can be openly LGBT+ and have a successful career in STEM.  If being visible in this way helps just one career feel more comfortable in themselves and in their career it would be well worth it.

 

A night Out with Nigel Owens

Posted in LGBT, Rugby with tags , , , on February 21, 2017 by telescoper

I’ve had a busy morning teaching and a busy afternoon meeting some interesting people from IBM and elsewhere in connection with Data Innovation Institute business, so just time to mention that I’m looking forward tonight to an event at Cardiff Metropolitan University (whose campus is not far from my house) featuring renowned rugby referee Nigel Owens who, in case you hadn’t realized, is gay. The event is part of the celebrations in Cardiff of LGBT History Month.

I’ll update later with reflections on the evening, but in the meantime here’s some examples of him in action on the rugby field!

Update: it was a thoroughly absorbing evening. Nigel Owens spoke extremely engagingly (and without notes) about his upbringing in a small village  in rural Wales, his mental health struggles as he tried to come to terms with his sexuality, a (nearly successful) suicide attempt when he was in his twenties, and how his decision to come out publicly revitalised his career as an international referee. 

When he takes to the field on Saturday to officiate at the Six Nations match between Ireland and France, it will be his 75th international match as a referee, which is the most for any referee ever.

 

Out in STEM at the Royal Society

Posted in Biographical, LGBT with tags , , , on February 10, 2016 by telescoper

Last night I attended a very enjoyable meeting at the Royal Society in London called Out in STEM. In the 356 years that the Royal Society has been in existence this is the first event that has been devoted to a discussion of LGBT+ matters, so I feel honoured not only to have been present but to have been one of the panellists invited to start off the evening by talking about the question:

“Choosing to be out in the workplace or when studying – what influences that choice?”

In my five-minute answer to this I talked about my own personal decision to be open about my sexuality when I started as a research student at the University of Sussex way back in 1985. In fact, three of the nine panellists as well as a number of other participants did their doctorates at the University of Sussex, an institution has clearly been a kind of incubator of LGBT scientists and engineers! My decision was heavily influenced by the events of the time, chiefly the ongoing AIDS crisis and the infamous Section 28. I felt at the time that it was necessary to stand up and be counted in the face of so much prejudice, a decision which I have never regretted.

Having never really been “in” for my whole research career, coming out wasn’t really an issue for me and I have been openly at every insitution I have worked in – Sussex, Queen Mary, Nottingham and Cardiff. Although I have encounted some isolated examples of unpleasantness, I can’t say that my career has suffered any adverse consequences.

Getting back to the question, I think what influences the choice is a combination of personal factors and the environment of the institution in question. For early career researchers, the choice – and it should always be a choice – can be affected by the perception that one’s career depends on the patronage of persons higher up the hierarchy, be that PhD supervisor, research group leader or departmental head. The less hierarchical the department is, the less likely one is to feel suffocated by the need to conform. It also helps if senior managers make it clear that any bullying or harassment associated with sexual identity or other personal characteristics will not be tolerated. I have tried hard to create such an environment in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences, of which I am now the Head. I’ll leave it to others to judge whether or not I have succeeded.

In fact none of the nine panellists described any major adverse consequences of the decision to come out either, but stressed how positive it can be to feel liberated by being open about who you are.

After the nine short answers to the above question, we split up into small groups and discussed other questions. I enjoyed this part very much because the discussion was relaxed and wide-ranging. One theme that ran through many of the responses when groups were asked to feed back a summary of their deliberations was what a big difference it can make to have an LGBT staff network. I am proud to have played a role in the creation of such a network at the University of Sussex, although I am still saddened that it has taken so long for this institution to create one. I am also glad to say that the Institute of Physics is setting up an LGBT network of its own, with a particular emphasis on early career researchers, for whom the sense of isolation that is often involved in working on short-term contracts in highly competitive field can be exacerbated by the perceived need to conceal important aspect of their private life.

Once the discussion session was over we adjourned for wine and canapés, and informal chats. That was extremely pleasant, although I did perhaps have a bit too much wine before I dashed off to catch the train back to Brighton.

It was particularly nice to meet in person some of the people I’d previously known only through social media. I also met an old friend from my previous incarnation at Sussex, Tom Welton, who is now Dean for Natural Sciences at Imperial College. I haven’t seen Tom for over 20 years, actually. I hope we’ll be able to meet up again before too long.

Anyway, I’d like to thank the Royal Society for putting on this event, and especially to Lena Cumberbatch who did a lot of the organizing as well as trying to keep the panellists to time. I enjoyed it greatly and look forward to working with them again. I hope it’s not another 356 years until the next Out in STEM event!

 

 

 

Stonewall and After – in Praise of Drag Queens

Posted in Biographical, History, LGBT with tags , , , , on June 28, 2015 by telescoper

Despite not being able to go to the big event in London yesterday, it’s been a very memorable Pride Weekend, preceded as it was by the ruling of the Supreme Court of the United States of America that the right for same sex couples to get married was protected under the constitution. The White House responded to the judgement in appropriate style:

white-house-rainbow-3

I’m tempted to quote Genesis 9:16, but I won’t.

My facebook and twitter feeds have been filled with rainbows all weekend, as is my wordpress editor page as I write this piece. It’s been great to see so many people, straight and gay, celebrating diversity and equality. Even a Dalek joined in.

Gay Dalek

I’m a bit more cynical about the number of businesses that have tried to cash in on  Pride but even that is acceptance of a sort. It’s all very different from the first Pride March I went on, way back in 1986. That was a much smaller scale event than yesterday’s, and politicians were – with very few exceptions – notable by their absence.

In fact today is the anniversary of the event commemorated by Pride. It was in the early hours of the morning of Saturday June 28th 1969 that the Stonewall Riots took place in the Greenwich Village area of New York City. There are few photographs and no film footage of what happened which, together with some conflicting eyewitness accounts, has contrbuted to the almost mythical status of these demonstations, which were centred on the Stonewall Inn (which, incidentally, still exists).  What is, I think, clear is that they were the spontaneous manifestation of the anger of a community that had simply had enough of the way it was being treated by the police. Although it wasn’t the first such protest in the USA, I still think it is also the case that Stonewall was a defining moment in the history of the movement for LGBT equality.

One of the myths that has grown up around Stonewall is that the Stonewall Inn was a place primarily frequented by drag queens and it was the drag queens who began the fight back against intolerable  police harassment. That was the standard version, but the truth is much more complicated and uncertain that that. Nevertheless, it is clear that it was the attempted arrest of four people – three male (cross-dressers) and one female – that ignited the protest. Whether they led it or not, there’s no doubt that drag queens played a major role in the birth of the gay liberation movement. Indeed, to this day, it remains the case that the “T” part of the LGBT spectrum (which I interpret to include Transgender and Transvestite) is often neglected by the rest of the rainbow.

I have my own reasons for being grateful for drag queens. When I was a youngster (still at School) I occasionally visited a gay bar in Newcastle called the Courtyard. I was under age for drinking alcohol let alone anything else – the age of consent was 21 in those days – but I got a kick out of the attention I received and flirted outrageously without ever taking things any further. I never had to buy my own drinks, let’s put it that way.

Anyway, one evening I left the pub to get the bus home – the bus station was adjacent to the pub – but was immediately confronted by a young bloke who grabbed hold of me and asked if I was a “poof”. Before I could answer, a figure loomed up behind him and shouted “Leave him alone!”. My assailant let go of me and turned round to face my guardian angel, or rather guardian drag queen. No ordinary drag queen either. This one, at least in my memory, was enormous: about six foot six and built like a docker, but looking even taller because of the big hair and high heels. The yob laughed sneeringly whereupon he received the immediate response of a powerful right jab to the point of the chin, like something out of boxing manual. His head snapped back and hit the glass wall of a bus shelter. Blood spurted from his mouth as he slumped to the ground.

I honestly thought he was dead, and so apparently did my rescuer who told me in no uncertain terms to get the hell away. Apart from everything else, the pub would have got into trouble if they’d known I had even been in there. I ran to the next stop where I got a bus straightaway. I was frightened there would be something on the news about a violent death in the town centre, but that never happened. It turns out the “gentleman” concerned had bitten his tongue when the back of his head hit the bus shelter. Must have been painful, but not life-threatening. My sympathy remains limited.

I think there’s a moral to this story, but I’ll leave it up to you to decide what it is.

Network Launch

Posted in Biographical, LGBT with tags , on June 19, 2015 by telescoper

As promised, last night saw the launch of the new Sussex University staff LGBT network. I was quite nervous ahead of the event, unsure of how it would go.

LGBT_staff

In the end most of the people who said they would come did so,  25 people or thereabouts. The mailing list is over 50, but this is a busy time of year so there were quite a few who couldn’t come last night. In fact if there had been many more people it might have made it more difficult for people to have their opinions heard.

At least most of the food and drink was consumed…

nibbles

Anyway, we had a nice discussion of the things we might do and a few people stepped up to volunteer their time to help organize various events. Now for some serious work over the summer to get things really moving and plan a programme for next academic year…

 

 

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.