We still have a long way to go: what we learned from the APS LGBT+ in physics report

Image: Shutterstock/phoenixman

Last week the American Physical Society (APS) published a report carried out by their committee for LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender) Issues. The committee was established to “review the status of LGBT physicists and assess any barriers to full inclusion”. LGBT Climate in Physics, Building an Inclusive Community summarises their findings and outlines a list of recommendations for the APS themselves to implement.

This, by chance, follows the recent coverage of the struggles faced by LGBT CERN to become a legitimate society within the community at the laboratory, in Geneva. First covered in Physics World, the group had experienced their posters being defaced with homophobic slurs or being torn down entirely.

There are some themes and points within the APS report that I thought were worth highlighting, keeping in mind that the IOP is also just about to start building an LGBT+ community within their membership. It’s also important to note that the survey was mostly carried out within US institutions. However, many points are relevant, especially considering the international scope of a research physicist’s career.

This survey also had difficulty capturing those that had left physics: with a third of respondents from the US survey saying they were already considering leaving their workplace or school in the past year, there could be many of those who have abandoned the field entirely over discrimination.

There’s a lot in the APS report, so rather than summarise the findings and recommendations, I thought I’d highlight some of the more interesting aspects.

Degrees of openness

One element that struck me was how traits associated with LGBT+ identities are still not wholly accepted in the workplace – something I discussed in my previous post here.

I was surprised to read that over 40% of those who answered the survey strongly agreed / agreed that in their physics environments “employees are expected to not act too gay”, and it looks like it’s easier to try and conform to heteronormative ideals or not disclose your sexuality entirely in order to fit in to some physics environments.

too gay graph figure 5
Responses to LGBT-specific climate statements (Image credit: Figure 5, APS Ad-Hoc Committee on LGBT Issues)

However, how do you not act “too gay”? What exactly is “too gay”? My “too gay” would be very different to a colleague’s. If I had to suppress my gayness in my office, I’d never get work done, I’d be too busy checking myself throughout the day to ensure I didn’t let slip anything that I consider indicative of trait that is an essential part of my identity.

FIGURE 4 how comfortable being out
Correlations between experience of climate (vertical) and how many colleagues someone has disclosed their sexuality to (Image: APS Ad-Hoc Committee on LGBT Issues)

Trying to unpick exactly what is “too gay” aside, it’s unsurprising to then read that the more uncomfortable you are in your physics workplace with regard to your LGBT+ identity, the less likely you are to have told your work colleagues about your sexual orientation. About half of those who responded to the survey weren’t out to all or most of their colleagues.


It looks like it’s easier to stay in the closest or try and reduce your level of gay down to heteronormative levels in order to fit in to some physics environments, becoming the more accepted invisible minority. What about those who are unable to hide their identity? What if you are by default too gay? What if you are visibly transitioning?

Being able to pass as cisgender (a person whose gender identity agrees with the sex they were assigned at birth, the opposite of transgender) and straight is not an option open to all.

The transgender community

Unsurprisingly, transgender people reported the “highest levels of exclusionary behaviour, adverse climate, and unsupportive policies”.

trans treatment
Trans-specific climate questions arranged from highest to lowest degree of agreement. (Image: APS Ad-Hoc Committee on LGBT Issues)

In particular, over 40% of transgender respondents said their co-workers did not use their preferred pronouns. Some of this could be due to colleagues not being informed, but some of those responding did say they had requested colleagues to use their preferred pronouns and they had still refused to do so.

This is before even looking at more practical issues, such as access to a bathroom they feel comfortable using or being able to track their research history through papers without needing to out themselves as transgender.

The issues of intersectionality

How about when you’re at an intersection of minorities in physics – not only someone who identifies as LGBT+ but also perhaps a woman in physics, or also from an ethnic minority group? These respondents were found to face greater levels of discrimination, often towards all aspects of their identity without distinguishing between them.

exclusionary behaviour
Observation and experience of exclusionary behavior broken down by gender and separately by trans or cis identity. (Image: APS Ad-Hoc Committee on LGBT Issues)

One respondent shared an example of this: “I have not felt safe to talk openly about my sexuality. The sexism is rampant. I get less respect than others; it’s hard to know if it is my gender or being a lesbian. Other women are not treated with the respect they deserve.”

Women in the survey were three times as likely to experience exclusionary behaviour over men. In terms of intersections of other minorities, I’d recommend reading the open-ended responses that can be found within the report. This is evident at LGBT+ networking meetings when other forms of discrimination can surface. The report mentioned that non-white male LGBT+ people don’t feel comfortable within LGBT+ networking groups.

So, what now?

Despite the disheartening findings from the survey, overall, the report and specifically the recommendations are a fantastic first step for the APS in addressing the issues faced by the LGBT+ community.

But what could the IOP do? We could use this as a foundation to find out more – for example, what would this survey say if we carried it out in the UK? I’d hope the situation isn’t as variable as the US, skewing towards more positive experiences, but we don’t know.

As an LGBT+ community we should help combat the feelings of loneliness experienced by those within our community, especially those within an intersection of minorities. Next time you attend any sort of LGBT+ community meeting, go ad find out about another perspective that is different to yours, not just that of another white gay man (the majority found within LGBT+ in physics). Our numbers are small and we need to support each other.

And to the wider physics community – become our allies. Find out more about the LGBT+ community and get to know the issues. Start by reading the APS report. Challenge any homophobic, biphobic and transphobic behaviour. Support and mentor your LGBT+ staff. Ask your LGBT+ colleagues if you’re unsure about anything.

Together we can create a working environment that is comfortable for physicists of any background, sexuality or gender.

Related posts
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

Comment via Facebook

Comment via Disqus


Comment via Google+