Identifying as LGBT+ in physics: why does it matter?


Earlier this year I attended the UK’s first science conference for the LGBT+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and other) community in science, technology, engineering and maths, the LGBT STEMinar. Considering I’d only met a handful of LGBT+ physicists throughout my varied academic and industry career, I was extremely curious to meet more.

However when I would tell my peers that I was going to this conference, the first question they would ask was “why have an LGBT+ event?” And that made me think.

I, luckily, have never had too many issues being a gay man in my career as a physicist. The most I got told was not to get an ear piercing when I worked as a consultant in industry. The idea of a man with a piercing didn’t fit with the corporate heteronormative image the consultancy was going for. I was planning on leaving and starting a PhD, so I never thought about that incident too much.

Throughout my PhD in cosmology, I met many more gay men who were astrophysicists or cosmologists. We even had an office which was entirely made up of gay men and straight women. (This was entirely coincidental: we didn’t kick out the straight men, honest.) When I moved to working in outreach full-time, I found a lot of those delivering activities were women or gay men.

However when I attended the conference, I realised how lucky I had been. Many of the scientists had never knowingly met another LGBT+ scientist. Finding others can be a challenge as being part of the LGBT+ community is being part of a mostly invisible minority.

Delegates at the conference came from all over the country. Photo: Claire Brand

The conference had two plenary sessions, the first by Professor David Smith from the chemistry department at the University of York and the second from Professor Elena Rodriguez-Flacon from Sheffield’s engineering department. They came out at different times in their careers and both saw benefits from no longer hiding who they were from their colleagues.

It seemed that I had been very lucky in my experiences, but it seemed there was still a lot more to be done to improve the lives of LGBT+ researchers. I heard how some scientists had had problems with coming out throughout their careers, and I spoke with a few transgendered scientists that had to switch courses or universities to find more accepting environments to study and work under.

One way of looking at the problems of the LGBT+ community in STEM is as a symptom of wider problem in academia: How being a rounded human being isn’t seen as favourable, especially in the current competitive climate. It’s all about being a creature of logic and producing papers in a system entirely built on meritocracy.

There’s little space to talk and be anything else, whether it’s playing football, dancing, being a parent, being a loving partner, or identifying as LGBT+. Addressing the issue in academia of the lack of personal identity in the workplace would definitely tie in with efforts in tackling the issues facing LGBT+ researchers too.

Not only that, but anecdotally we know that having more visible out senior LGBT scientists helps those earlier in their careers to come out and not worry about hiding any more. And that is what the conference helped achieve: the start of a national LGBT+ scientist community.

The best part of the conference was hearing about some of the exciting science being done in the country by some very talented members of the LGBT+ community. As a professional science communicator, I was impressed with the high standard of talks across the disciplines.

Several discussions and seminars took place throughout the day. Photo: Claire Brand

The biggest challenge is that we don’t actually know what the specific problems are for the LBGT+ community within STEM. Since this conference I’ve heard a few stories about students dropping science subjects due to lack of support and understanding. How widespread could the problems be? As people identify as LGBT+ at a younger age, will we see the number of LGBT+ people in physics drop as social stereotypes creep in – just like we currently see for girls? We don’t know.

So that’s why I think we should have more meetings. That sense of community, for us as a mostly invisible minority, is needed. We also need to find out what the problems are, beyond the scattered anecdotes here and there.

Since the conference, the Royal Society held their first event for LGBT scientists, Out in STEM. Here at the IOP, the diversity team has started to measure the LGBT+ profile of their members, and I’m helping them to start an LGBT+ network of members so we can start investigating what the IOP can do for the LGBT+ community in physics. If you have any ideas or would like to attend the first LGBT+ Network meeting on 24 March, let us know. Email or tweet me @PhysicsDom and we’ll make sure you’re registered for a free place.

I would personally like to thank Lenna Cumberbatch for organising the Out in STEM Royal Society event where I had an opportunity to have some great discussions on what our next steps as a community should be. I would also like to thank Dr Beth Montague-Hellen and her team at Sheffield for organising the LGBT STEMinar. And I would like to see more physicists at next year’s event – we can’t let the biologists outnumber us again.

  • For more information about inclusivity in physics, check out the March issue of Physics World on Physics for All. If you’re a member of the IOP, you can now access the digital edition of the magazine in your web browser or on any iOS or Android mobile device (just download the Physics World app from the App Store or Google Play).
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Dominic Galliano

Dominic Galliano

Dominic Galliano is the director of outreach at SEPnet. He has worked across industry, academia and the IOP. While at the IOP he managed projects such as the national Physics in the Field programme and Cheers Physics, ran the IOP's Public Engagement Grant Scheme and was part of the IOP’s staff diversity committee. Since becoming director of outreach for SEPnet in early 2015 he has written a new strategy and structure for the existing outreach programme which includes a greater emphasis on public engagement. He is also helping the IOP’s diversity team form a strategy for supporting LGBT+ physicists.
Dominic Galliano

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