Field of Science

Experimental Fags

John Lynch at Stranger Fruit has opened a comments thread on the question of LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender - though to be honest, I always think it sounds like some sort of sandwich) people in science. The query which brought up the question was:

I was wondering if any of you folks at science blogs can discuss the issue of LGBT people in science. Apart from Jim Pollack, Alan Turing and a few others, we seem to be underrepresented. Is it due to something essential or innate in queer people? Is it because there is cultural pressure for gay people to work in other disciplines like fashion etc.?

I can quite honestly say that I have never felt culturally pressured to become a fashion designer. Quite the opposite, in fact - unless Suburban Slob Styles have a completely unexpected burst of popularity, I don't think anyone is likely to be asking fashion tips of me. The basic question of "gay under-representation" still is worth addressing at least briefly. However, the question that needs to be asked in reply is, "Are LGBTI people really under-represented?"

I personally think this is a quite different question from that of female underrepresentation. Yes, LGBTI people are definitely in the minority in science, but they are also in the minority in society in general. Unless the proportion of LGBTI people in science is significantly less than in humanity as a whole, it's not really under-representation. However, the next question is a bit of a deal-breaker - "how would we know?" I have had occassion in the past to refer to being gay as belonging to one of the easier targets of discrimination. My reason for this characterisation was that we have a certain degree of choice as to whether we allow others to know our sexual orientation, unlike (e.g.) women or members of other races who are instantly recognisable as such.

Taking science bloggers as representative of science in general (which must be admitted to be a pretty spurious generalisation), I can look at my blogroll to the right and spot Rick MacPherson and Doug Taron as two openly gay bloggers, out of a blogroll of 65. That may look like under-representation, but only by ignoring the nature of blogging. I only know of those two bloggers' sexual orientations because they have chosen to write about them on their blogs. The community of bloggers vary significantly in what they choose to impart about their personal lives - some write extensively on the subject, others give away very little. Having never directly asked anyone on my blogroll what their sexual orientation might be, I have no way of actually knowing. It is the same in society in general - there is no way of knowing whether the question of LGBTI under-representation in science is actually a valid one. All I can offer here is my own experiences as a gay man working in science.

And I have to say, they've pretty much all been positive ones. Once I reached university, I rarely found the need to hide my sexual orientation, and it has been the same in my working career. I have perhaps been fortunate in that regard to be working in New Zealand and Australia, both of which are pretty egalitarian countries where people tend not to try and interfere with other people's personal lives*. Academia also tends to attract people of a pretty liberal disposition. Part of it may also be my own personal attitude towards these things - I don't personally make any effort to inform people of my sexual orientation, though nor do I conceal it in any way. I just generally run under the assumption that it's general knowledge. And I certainly wouldn't feel any hesitation about, for instance, taking my partner to a work do at a new job.

*I have always remembered a segment I saw on a skit-comedy programme in New Zealand many years ago that was headed "Donoghue comes to New Zealand", back in the days when Phil Donoghue had a television talk-show in America where people would come on set and talk about their personal lives. In the comedy skit, the actor playing Phil Donoghue first asks a woman about her painful divorce from an abusive husband, to which the woman replied, "No, there's nothing wrong. What are you asking for?". He then attempts to interview a heavily disabled man about dealing with his disabilities, only to be told not to worry about him, he's fine, couldn't be better.

My point is that in this, as with so many other things, don't assume anything (as an ex of mine used to say, "Assumption is the mother of all fuck-ups"). Just because someone isn't screaming their sexual orientation from the rooftops, doesn't mean they're straight. If they haven't had any particular reason to tell you, they quite possibly wouldn't. And, as Julia Anderson has put it, Don't Be A Dick.


  1. I have a totally dysfunctional gaydar, and so I may very well have been working alongside 99% of gays in my workplace and not known. And I really don't care. The sole reason for wanting to know someone's sexual orientation is to get them into bed, and other than that, it's the least interesting thing about them (although it may be the most formative thing on their personality, but that's a whole other matter).

  2. I've kind of had a different feeling -- I run into more GLBT bloggers than I expected. Maybe it's because I tend to read bloggers who don't talk about their personal lives or politics much, but whenever, but it's a pleasant shock of recognition to say "what, you too?" To mention two nature-oriented bloggers, there's Wayne Hughes at Niches and the Theriomorph.

    Me, I'm a lesbian and a strictly amateur scientist; I can say that during my abortive grad school career (linguistics) orientation was utterly not an issue, the least of any community I've ever been in.

  3. One of the things I've always enjoyed most about working in science is the emphasis upon intelligence and dedication to the pursuit of knowledge. We've all known the extremely geeky and awkward scientist that could possibly not survive outside of academia, but who is deeply appreciated for their intelligence and dedication to science. Race, ethnicity, nationality, politics, sexual orientation, disability, and plain old nerdness pale in importance to science itself.

  4. I am not gay, but, hey, you put out your line of Suburban Slob Styles, I'll be your 1st customer!

  5. i'm always late to a party...

    andrew said: "Race, ethnicity, nationality, politics, sexual orientation, disability, and plain old nerdness pale in importance to science itself."

    agreed... but isn't it also great to see someone like you [race, ethnicity, nationality, politics, sexual orientation, disability, and plain old nerdiness] in a visible position of achievement to serve as an exemplar that I CAN follow in their footsteps...

    i wish i had a queer steve gould somewhere in my early queer years to simply affirm for me that gay + science = success (or even possible)... i even said this to steve during my grad years, to which he immediately responded in inimitable steve gould fashion, "yes, but thinner and with a better haircut"...

    point is we need more out and visible queer scientists (and professors, conservationists, police, accountants, gym instructors, etc) to provide exemplars for the latest batch of queer youth hungry for role models...

    i'm certainly not calling for us science-oriented types all to start wearing our sexuality on our sleeves... christopher framed things nicely... but neither should we all be assimilated borg in the sciences nor forget that we all have an obligation to help future queer scientists have a somewhat easier time of things than perhaps we experienced ...

    my 2 cents...

  6. Joan Roughgarden has been public about being transgender and is a fantastic scientist.


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