Archive for Section 28

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.

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.

 

Thirty Years since Section 28..

Posted in History, Politics with tags , , on May 24, 2018 by telescoper

I was reminded by twitter that today is the 30th anniversary of the enactment of the Local Government Act 1988, which included the now notorious Section 28, 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. 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 of mine born after 1988 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 2003. I know 30 years 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.  That’s why it is important for LGBT+ people not only to stand up for their rights, but to campaign for a more open, inclusive and discrimination-free environment for everyone.

Countdown to Equal Marriage

Posted in Biographical, LGBT, Politics with tags , , on March 28, 2014 by telescoper

 

So, from midnight tonight, same-sex couples have the right to marry in England & Wales. Not surprisingly, one of the first gay weddings in the UK will be in Brighton: Andrew Wale and Neil Allard (below) will marry just a few minutes after midnight:

Neil-Allard-left-and-Andrew-Wale-3155478

Nice beards! I’d like to take this opportunity to send my very best wishes to Andrew and Neil and indeed to everyone (straight or gay) taking the plunge this weekend.

I find the fact that this has become reality absolutely amazing. When I came to the University of Sussex as a graduate student in 1985, Brighton was one of the most gay-friendly cities in the UK, if not the world. However, the veneer of tolerance was really very thin. Homophobic prejudice was still commonplace, and it was by no means uncommon for that to turn into violence, as I know to my own cost. The Local Government Act of 1988 included Section 28, which enshrined anti-gay attitudes in law. I would never have imagined at that time that, just 25 years later, a law would be passed allowing people of the same sex to marry. It still seems barely comprehensible that attitudes can have changed so much in the second half of my lifetime. Equality in marriage doesn’t mean equality in everything, of course, and prejudice obviously hasn’t vanished entirely, but it’s a start.

And what’s this tripe about same-sex marriage “threatening” of “devaluing” traditional marriage? Is the function of marriage simply to make married people feel superior to those who aren’t allowed to be married? That’s what that argument sounds like to me. If that’s what it’s for I think the state should withdraw legal recognition from all forms of marriage and let us all be treated equally by the law, as individuals.

For those who don’t approve of the change in the law, it’s all actually very simple. If you don’t approve of same-sex marriage, don’t marry someone of the same sex.

It’s all come a bit too late for me to get married. I think I’m destined to remain forever an ineligible bachelor. I will however be spending this weekend wandering around Brighton randomly asking men if they’ll marry me. This isn’t because of the change in the law. It’s what I do anyway…

I hope at least I’ll get invited to quite a few weddings in the near future. I think there’s going to be quite a lot of catching up going on…

Equal Marriage!

Posted in Biographical, Politics with tags , on July 15, 2013 by telescoper

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I just heard that the Equal Marriage Bill has now passed its Third Reading in the House of Lords – without a vote – and now just requires the Royal Assent to become the Equal Marriage Act, allowing couples of the same sex the right to marry.

I find this quite an amazing thing. When I came to the University of Sussex as a graduate student in 1985, Brighton was one of the most gay-friendly cities in the UK, if not the world. However, the veneer of tolerance was often very thin. Homophobic prejudice was still commonplace, and it was by no means uncommon for that to turn into violence, as I know to my own cost. The Local Government Act of 1988 included Section 28, which enshrined anti-gay attitudes in law. I would never have imagined at that time that, just 25 years later, a law would be passed allowing people of the same sex to marry. It still seems barely comprehensible that attitudes can have changed so much in the second half of my lifetime. Equality in marriage doesn’t mean equality in everything, of course, and prejudice obviously hasn’t vanished entirely, but it’s a start.

It’s probably all come a bit too late for me to get married. I think I’m destined to remain forever an ineligible bachelor,  but I hope at least I’ll get invited to quite a few weddings in the near future. There’s quite a lot of catching up to do…

Changing Times

Posted in History, Politics with tags , , on February 5, 2013 by telescoper

I couldn’t resist a quick comment about the news that today the House of Commons began a debate on the second reading of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill. The timing of this when I’ve just moved back to Brighton after an absence of 23 years or so made me think back to what things were like when I was previously here as a DPhil student.

In those days the dominant concern facing LBGT staff and students was the notorious Section 28, part of the Local Government Act of 1988, which, among other things, attacked promotion of “the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. I remember very well the numerous demonstrations and other protests I went on as part of the campaign against that repugnant and obviously discriminatory piece of legislation, but it passed into law anyway. I know 25 years is a long time, 1988 was before today’s generation of undergraduates was even born, but it’s still amazing to me that attitudes have changed so much that there’s even a remote possibility that same sex marriage might be legalized. And from what I hear, the possibility isn’t remote at all…