Does a Physics Mindset Help Towards LGBT+ Inclusivity?

Andrew Coe.

Those of us who pursue a career in science are often driven by a need to classify what we see in the world in order to explain it; a degree in physics in particular can equip a graduate with a wide breadth of concepts and methods of analysis that would, ideally, make us consistently open minded in our day-to-day lives. Despite this, within the physics community we find that those who identify as LGBT+ can still face persecution and isolation based on their identity.

Gender and sexuality are no longer defined at the moment a person is born or by the way they may look, and despite some presumptions, the two needn’t be correlated in any way. Nowadays, the concepts of being Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender are well within public consciousness and are increasingly accepted as a part of the norm, meaning that now is an exciting time to be exploring one’s own identity openly.

Less familiar are terms encompassed by the ‘+’, which highlights the ever growing list of identities coming to prominence; these include asexual, aromantic, pansexual, agender, non-binary and demisexual to name just a few. As we come across more and more identities, it becomes clear that gender and sexuality, which may be presumed to be discretely quantized groups, instead form various spectra across which different people place themselves and indeed move across throughout their lives.

Immediately, this provides analogies to concepts in physics which we are already familiar with, most notably the electromagnetic spectrum, which was built from the discovery of different categories of light (Visible, Infrared, X-Ray etc.). These categories exist because of their construction within man-made boundaries at the time of discovery as opposed to any physical boundaries, but we always remain conscious of the fact that the spectrum is continuous. Likewise, with sexual or gender identity the categories (gay, straight, male, female etc.) we use are in place for convenience and because of their historical foundations; in reality, a spectrum works as a much better model, but this is frequently overlooked because the majority of people tend to place themselves at the extremes of these spectra. Coincidentally, the visible region ties in very neatly with the rainbow pride flag, a key symbol of the LGBT+ community.

Furthermore, the Greek letter lambda, seen across a multitude of areas in physics, has been used to represent equal rights organisations. This originated in 1971 when the Gay Activists Alliance in New York adopted it due to the connotations with the half-life of a system and the notion of exponential change; they felt it represented, “a complete exchange of energy – that moment or span of time witness to absolute activity”.  Another example is Lambda Legal, which is a US charity that provides legal representation for LGBT+ people and those with HIV.

Hence, concepts in physics have been readily adopted by LGBT+ groups for many decades now for these natural parallels and common ideas in science and the push for social equality. Appreciating concepts such as the evolution of a state over time and, as previously mentioned, being able to categorise and describe what we see in nature could arguably make us the perfect group to understand and normalise LGBT+ identities.

However, in the past “scientific reasoning” has been used to push anti-LGBT+ statements, the extreme of this being Ernst Rüdin’s article ‘On the Role of Homosexuals in the Life Process of the Race’. Published in 1904, it argued that gay people contributed nothing biologically to the human race, suggesting they actually posed a danger to it[1], and later served as a basis in the Nazi Sterilisation law. This may seem a distant example, but it was only in 1992 when the WHO (World Health Organisation) de-classified homosexuality as a mental illness. It is incredibly dangerous when scientific findings are used as justification for processes such as homosexual conversion therapy, or for unnecessary and traumatising medical procedures on Intersex people.

Working Environments

A report entitled ‘LGBT Climate in Physics’ published in March 2016 by the American Physical Society provides some insight into the current condition for LGBT+ physicists (albeit in a Western setting). Notably, 20% of participants stated that they had experienced exclusionary behaviour based on sexual/gender identity in the past year, with approximately half being out in the workplace. Somewhat alarmingly, 40% agreed with the statement, “Employees are expected to not act too gay,” demonstrating a culture which is far from entirely inclusive.

Regrettably, several factors prevent a thorough analysis of the current opinions of LGBT+ scientists; surveys, anonymous or otherwise, cannot account for those who remain firmly in the closet, or may feel unable to voice their actual opinions for fear of being “outed”. Furthermore, sexuality and gender identity aren’t necessarily static, but can be in flux throughout an individual’s life, meaning that these surveys may present only a snapshot of one moment in time.

It is no real secret that the field of STEM is a very straight, male dominated environment. Few LGBT+ figureheads exist, and those who do are often remembered solely for their contributions rather than as a person, or famously met with a tragic ending. Consider Alan Turing for example, a pioneer in computer science who was crucial in cracking the enigma code at Bletchley Park in WWII; when found “guilty” of homosexual acts, he was forced to undergo chemical castration and is said to have committed suicide at the age of 41. Though this injustice is widely recognised, it is only in recent years that the government have issued a pardon for his conviction (despite the fact that an apology seems much more apt).

More recently, incidents where noticeboards for a LGBT+ group at CERN (a hub of modern international science) were vandalised shows a shocking lack of tolerance from some of the most brilliant minds in the field. For young LGBT+ scientists, there are seemingly few role-models to base their ambitions on. This is not to say that these role models do not exist (take for instance astronaut Sally Ride, the first American woman in space) though they more often than not remain under appreciated.

Often, larger companies and universities implement mandatory diversity training courses which bring these issues to prominence and allow wider access to education on these ideas. Yet in the workplace, particularly in STEM, LGBT+ people feel underrepresented and unable to bring their complete selves to work; some would argue that in physics, one’s identity should not affect their work since a fundamental concept won’t be changed by the person who happens to be investigating it, but this naively assumes that we are machine-like in our labour. To be entirely invested and thorough in what we do seems ideal, but when someone who is transgender goes to use the bathroom of the gender they identify as and is met with hesitant (or even aggressive) glances from colleagues on a daily basis, the negative impact on their work will quickly start to show.

Expanding Concepts

To return to the idea of sexuality and gender as individual spectra, we can also add multiple dimensions along which we can define, for example, the extent to which one feels sexual attraction, or another which measures the amount of “female-ness” a person could identify with. As we refine a model and add new components, inevitably there will be opposition; as scientists, it is to our advantage to be scrupulous with new ideas and to harbour a healthy level of scepticism. This is relatively harmless when a physical concept is being explored, but when this is being applied to the identity of an individual, much more is at stake.

If a heterosexual, cisgender (someone who identifies as the same gender they were assigned at birth) physicist were to claim that an asexual-panromantic-trans-man was statistically so rare that they probably did not exist, they would be denying an entire group of people their identity. If one person from this group comes forward and falsifies this theory, much as we might not like to admit, some scientists will inevitably reflect opinions in wider society, claiming that this person must be “confused” or “going through a phase”, as is so often presumed by those whose identity lies comfortably in the majority.

Social, political and religious concepts of sexuality and gender inevitably come into play, even if we feel that we may have more impartial judgement as scientists given our skills for analysing and presenting data. But we must remember: people are not data. Despite the fact we may like to fully understand every aspect governing gender identity and sexual orientation, whether this is rooted in biology, psychology or something else altogether, it seems unlikely to me that we can possibly create a single system to successfully categorise a planet full of different people.

Our priorities lie not in finding an answer, but in amplifying the conversation about tolerance and openness to new or unfamiliar concepts; after all, is this not the mindset we already use in learning and exploring physics?

 

Atherton, T. J., Barthelemy, R. S., Deconinck, W., Falk, M. L., Garmon, S., Long, E., Plisch, M., Simmons, E. H., Reeves, K. ‘LGBT Climate in Physics: Building an Inclusive Community’, American Physical Society (2016). Retrieved from: https://www.aps.org/programs/lgbt/upload/LGBTClimateinPhysicsReport.pdf

De Cecco, J. P.  & Parker, D. A. ‘Sex, Cells and Same-Sex Desire’, Harrington Park Press (1995).

Galliano, D. ‘Identifying as LGBT+ in physics: why does it matter?’, Institute of Physics Blog (2016). Retrieved from: http://www.iopblog.org/identifying-as-lgbt-in-physics-why-does-it-matter/

Galliano, D. ‘We still have a long way to go: what we learned from the APS LGBT+ in physics report’, Institute of Physics Blog (2016). Retrieved from: http://www.iopblog.org/is-it-ok-to-be-gay-what-we-learned-from-the-aps-lgbt-in-physics-report/

Keating, F. ‘LGBT scientists targeted by homophobic abuse at Cern laboratory in Geneva’, International Business Times (2016). Retrieved from: http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/lgbt-scientists-targeted-by-homophobic-abuse-cern-laboratory-geneva-1550618

Kremer, W. ‘The evolutionary puzzle of homosexuality’, BBC World Service (2014). Retrieved from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-26089486

Lang, T. ‘Studies on the Genetic Determination of Homosexuality’, Research Institute for Psychiatry (Munich, Germany) (1940). Retrieved from: http://journals.lww.com/jonmd/Citation/1940/07000/Studies_on_the_Genetic_Determination_of.8.aspx

Long, E. A. ‘2011 FGSA Climate Survey’, Forum of Graduate Student Affairs (2012). Retrieved from: https://www.aps.org/units/fgsa/upload/FGSA-Climate-Survey.pdf

Mohr, J. ‘Oppression by Scientific Method: The Use of Science to “Other” Sexual Minorities’, Journal of Hate Studies, Vol. 7:21 (2009). Retrieved from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/242094716_Oppression_by_Scientific_Method_The_Use_of_Science_to_Other_Sexual_Minorities

Murphy, J. ‘Toronto professor Jordan Peterson takes on gender-neutral pronouns’, BBC News Toronto (2016). Retrieved from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-37875695?ocid=socialflow_facebook&ns_mchannel=social&ns_campaign=bbcnews&ns_source=facebook

Rapp, L. ‘Gay Activists Alliance’, glbtq Encyclopedia (2004). Retrieved from: http://www.glbtqarchive.com/ssh/gay_activists_alliance_S.pdf

[1] De Cecco & Parker (1995), p.38-9.

Does a Physics Mindset Help Towards LGBT+ Inclusivity?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s