(This is the updated and corrected version of an article first printed in ‘Spectrum’)
Things were different for a gay science student in the eighties. Firstly, we had the hangover from the previous thirty years, when the brand image of science was developed – the middle-aged white man in a white labcoat, with immaculate hair, supervising space missions or telling housewives which laundry powder they should use.
Then we had the developing AIDS crisis: thousands of gay men were being diagnosed with this alarming new disease for which no safe treatment existed. The spread of AIDS provoked acres of hostile newsprint, and forced mortgage and pension advisors to request detailed, intimate personal data from their customers.
And it was also common for research projects to be funded by defence contractors or the nuclear industry, who – it was generally assumed – barred gay employees for security reasons.
I recall our Careers Tutor, during our final year, giving us a run-down of what to expect from the world of work: “Remember, the chemical industry is a rather conservative place” he said. “It will not help your job prospects if you display any unconventional attitudes.”
This left me thinking that I should carefully avoid any disclosure of my personal life, which meant that I had some very elaborate and stilted conversations with my work colleagues over the next few years.
Of course, one of the most famous gay people in the scientific arena was Alan Turing, the eccentric mathematician who had helped establish the codebreaking centre at Bletchley Park. Convicted of gross indecency in 1952, he was sentenced to hormone treatment therapy and died of cyanide poisoning two years later.
In 2012, Britain hosted the Olympic Games; and the ceremonial torch was handed over in Sackville Park, above the bronze statue of Alan Turing, on the centenary of his birth.
Then, two years later in 2014, a report was published by the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) entitled ‘Improving Diversity in STEM’. This report highlighted the shortage of skilled scientists in the UK, and the economic repercussions of failing to maintain our technical prowess. The report mentioned the standard perception of ‘science’ as being white and male; and set out projects to recruit more women, disabled candidates, and ethnic minority applicants.
But in this report, I was unable to spot a single reference to sexual orientation or LGBT issues. Perhaps the authors did not believe that LGBT employees were at any disadvantage in building a successful career in science.
The world is now a different place; and this became obvious when the first LGBT STEMinar was held at the University of Sheffield in 2016.
Organised and hosted by Beth Montague-Hellen, Professor David Smith and Professor Elena Rodriguez-Falcon, it featured a range of presentations covering environmental science, astrophysics, psychology, materials science and medical research, together with a poster session. We also had lunch and a drinks reception, where you could openly discuss professional and home life, without having to worry about committing career suicide by blurting out that yes, you live with a partner and no, they’re not of the opposite sex.
The seminar was expertly reviewed by Alex Bond: https://labandfield.wordpress.com/2016/01/16/why-the-lgbtsteminar-succeeded-was-needed/
Further events were held in 2017 (Sheffield), 2018 (York) and 2019 (London). And, to offer support and encouragement to aspiring young scientists, several professional bodies have come on board to promote the events, including the RSC, RAS, AWE, IoP, RSB, BES and NPL, together with the Wellcome Trust and the Royal Society.
Hopefully now the old ideas are gradually being swept aside, and people will begin to recognise that LGBT people are able to make a valuable contribution to science and engineering. Signs are also emerging that employers consider diversity as an asset, not a weakness, in their workforce. However, it is worth noting that at CERN – a project with thousands of staff, all brilliant scientists – the on-site LGBT social group has seen their posters defaced with offensive graffiti. It appears that work still needs to be done to achieve acceptance…
General information about the issues of LGBT diversity in STEM employment can be found on Professor Dave’s Youtube channel:
Update: This report from the RSC (2018) represents a minor improvement on the earlier publication; however, it manages to mention ‘sexual orientation’ six times without any indication that LGBT individuals actually work in the chemical industry.