Sexual and Gender Diversity in Physics
Given my own experiences, I can say that a less-than-friendly climate served as a constant distraction from work, not to mention that it impacted my personal productivity. The fact is that when one is devalued in one’s work environment, it doesn’t take long before one begins to consider the possibility that other career paths may offer greener pastures.
The next talk was given by University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor Michael Ramsey-Musolf, entitled “Shattering the Lavender Ceiling: Sexual Minorities in Physics.” In his talk, Dr. Ramsey-Musolf made the argument for supporting members of LGBTI minorities in physics based on the United Nation’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states in part that “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.” [emphasis added]
Dr. Ramsey-Musolf also related the tragic story of Alan Turing, a brilliant UK mathematician and logician who is widely recognized as the progenitor of modern computer science, developing several of the key ideas that went into the construction of the earliest computers; this includes the so-called Turing Machine, a hypothetical universal computational device with which he was able to formalize essential concepts, including the algorithm itself. Turing also played a prominent role in breaking German encryption techniques— particularly the famed Enigma machine— during World War II, an accomplishment that is often lauded as accelerating or even enabling Allied victory against Nazi Germany.
And even during a time in which same-sex relations were widely castigated in the UK— and in fact, were illegal— Alan Turing did little to hide the fact that he was gay. Indeed, it was his own acknowledgement of this fact to Police while they were investigating a break-in at his house in 1952 that resulted in Turing being indicted on a charge of gross indecency. Under UK law the only way that he could avoid jail was to accept being forcibly injected with estrogen with the intent of chemical castration. Further, his Government security clearance was revoked— his contributions to the war effort not withstanding— which likely disrupted his scientific work. Two years later, he was found dead in his house by cyanide poisoning, apparently self-induced, with a half-eaten apple nearby.
Fortunately, in recent years there has been a groundswell in the UK to publicly acknowledge Turing’s mistreatment, and in 2009 Prime Minister Gordon Brown formally apologized for this on behalf of the British government. And just this year, there has been a call by British lawmakers to have Turing honored on a UK banknote.
Next on the panel was Janice Hicks from the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals (NOGLSTP), who related many of the challenges she has personally faced in her career as a lesbian woman in physics and chemistry. Importantly, in her remarks she emphasized that her challenges in the sciences began with the fact that she is a woman, well before anyone else was even aware that she was gay. She was progressing forward in a tenure-track career program as she gradually became open about her sexuality; unfortunately things became uncomfortable to the point that she eventually left her university for a job at the National Science Foundation, who she reported were much more supportive.
Two important points should be emphasized here: first of all, it was Janice’s previous employer who was ultimately the true loser here, as her previous Chemistry Department lost significant sums of money in future grant funding. Secondly, the fact that being a woman dramatically enhanced the issues she faced illustrates a key point: intersectionality counts. The fact is that being a member of two or more oppressed groups often does not result in a mere additive phenomenon; on the contrary, overlapping social oppressions often yield multiplicative— if not exponential— effects.
Then LLLLL gave their talk “Physics Climate as Experienced by LGBT+ Physicists,” presenting results from a recent climate survey they initiated as a Member at Large on the executive committee of the APS Forum of Graduate Student Affairs (FGSA), which represents a first attempt at obtaining hard numbers for LGBT community members in physics. The results of the survey were recently reported in the FGSA newsletter.
While each presenter brought their own unique perspective to the issues at hand, there were certain recurring themes. These included the special challenges that same-sex couples encounter in trying to obtain partner benefits when dealing with academic or federal employment. Some universities do provide benefits to same-sex couples the same as heterosexual couples, but many don’t, even in the case of married same-sex couples. Further, there is the notorious “two-body problem,” which describes the challenge of attempting to find a position for both partners in the same institute (or at least the same city). This problem only becomes more challenging when the partnership might not be formally recognized in the first place.
For trans physicists there are issues of covering (or possibly just obtaining) basic healthcare, including support for hormone replacement therapy, not to mention coverage for surgery for those who require it. There are also potential complications around the fact that transition may involve a name change, which can possibly result in confusion regarding one’s research history (e.g., publication record, etc.).
I would also mention that I know of unfortunate instances when trans physicists have been denied recommendation letters specifically in response to trans disclosure or transition, or refusal to use chosen names and pronouns. Of course, it should go without saying that a recommendation should be based on the person’s abilities, not their identity. And using someone’s correct name and pronouns is just a matter of basic respect (not to mention moving forward in the real world).
We concluded the session with a panel discussion that included all of the speakers as well as Ted Hodapp, who offered an invaluable perspective as the APS Director of Education and Diversity. The panel discussion was further enhanced by strong audience participation. We also asked for audience feedback through a pen and paper survey, which resulted in many insightful comments and ideas on how to move forward with sexual and gender diversity issues in physics; a breakdown of the survey results can be found here.
In the end, the session was well attended, the audience seemed engaged, and those of us who organized the event came away with a lot of energy and a positive feeling that we had initiated an overdue conversation. Since the March Meeting, more physicists have gotten involved in these efforts and we have taken the ideas that came out of that discussion in several new directions.
For example, one ongoing project is to put forward a blueprint that individual physics departments can implement in order to foster an ideal and welcoming environment for LGBT community members. A working draft of this “Best Practices Guide” is available here. In coordination with this effort, one of our organizers, Wouter Deconinck, recently gave a talk on building a supportive academic environment at the recent 2012 Physics Department Chairs Conference.
In addition, we recently started a so-called ‘Out List,’ in which twenty-four people already have volunteered themselves as visible LGBTI-identified physics students, educators, and researchers (along with eleven allies).
However, it is certainly worth noting that we never would have gotten as far as holding the special session at the March Meeting had it not been for support from the APS Committee on Minorities and the Committee on the Status of Women in Physics, and a very special thanks is due to APS Diversity Officer Arlene Knowles as well as Ted Hodapp, who both supported us whole-heartedly.
On a personal level I want to say that I have felt really fortunate to be part of such a creative and productive team; I have to admit that we came much farther over the last year and a half than I had at first expected.
However, I would also like to offer a few brief words of caution as well to my colleagues. In all fairness, I have to report that there was one unfortunate moment during the March Meeting session when the word “tr*nny” appeared on a slide from one of the presenters. As I have already mentioned in private to the other organizers, this word is a slur against trans women, and it can only be meaningfully claimed or re-claimed by trans women.
Also, I would like to offer a word of caution regarding the concept of being ‘out.’ Let me say that, personally, I am generally quite out and I’m proud of that. But that having been said, there is no single valid narrative of how to live in this world as an LGBTI individual.
For example, I think we were all heartbroken to hear of the passing of the first American woman astronaut, Sally Ride, back in late July. However, most of us were also surprised (and proud) to learn that Sally had actually shared in a same-sex partnership over the last 27 years. However, I’ve read more than enough insensitive comments from LGBTI community members claiming that it was a “shame” that we did not get to know this side of her life until after Sally passed. Personally, I think Sally has the right to live her life any way she damn well pleases, and there is absolutely no shame in that whatsoever.
Further I personally know of cases in academia in which one person who is in a position of being able to be out safely has intentionally used that fact to manipulate and coerce someone who is in a more difficult position. Indeed, I suspect this type of situation may occur in academia more often that most of us realize. I think this illustrates a point that those of us who are able to comfortably, safely lead lives as outwardly gay, trans, etc. should acknowledge that this may in fact afford us certain privileges relative to someone in a different situation; hence, we should be very careful to make sure that our politics are supportive of, rather than counter-productive for, those in our field who cannot safely be out.
In conclusion, while there have certainly been some lonely moments for me as a trans woman in physics, nevertheless, I feel lucky having had the opportunity to participate in the generations-old study of nature’s seemingly endless mysteries. I also feel lucky to have had amazing support from so many of my colleagues, especially my research mentors in several places I have visited (Austin, Toronto, Tokyo…). I find physics to be the absolute best outlet for my personal creativity and I am indeed proud that I’ve stuck through some challenges and I’m proud to be my own kind of woman in this world and in this field (and I’m glad to report that I recently visited Paris for an academic conference and had a much, much more positive experience).
However, I also strongly believe that a community that dedicates itself to one of the most pure and noble of humankind’s pursuits— the study of our own universe— owes it to itself to commit to being a bit more open and accepting, more woman-friendly, and even a bit nicer.