Science and the LGBT community have not always had the simplest relationship; reflecting contemporary attitudes, the field has not always been on the right side of history.
Although illegality of homosexuality was abolished in the UK in 1967, psychological
study continued to define it as a mental illness until 1973. This view had been
steadily changing in parallel with the larger LGBT rights movement, with Alfred
Kinsey’s research in the 1950s showing that the spectrum of human sexuality was
more diverse and normal than ever before thought. Following that,
Havelock Ellis’ 1963 research suggested that while homosexuality did make you
clearly different, its only psychological ill effects arose from people
repressing their normal sexual behaviour.
Inthe modern day, science loves to quantify. Studies have taken a global census
of attitudes to homosexuality. In 2013 the Pew Research Centre posed the question:
“Should society accept homosexuality?” Britain was the sixth most positive
country on the list, with 76% of people answering ‘Yes’, and with increases of
10-20% in positive responses from South Korea, the United States and Canada in
the past seven years, attitudes are changing for the better.
But what is it like to be part of both the LGBT and scientific communities today?
Inscience, you are judged first and foremost on the quality of your research as
opposed to your personal lives. Scientists are scientists – their gender
identity and sexual orientation is irrelevant.
This invisibility is not wholly positive, but potentially damaging, when a lack of communication makes academia an uncomfortable place for minorities, and the field is running on a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy.
This is why role models are so important. University of York chemistry professor
David Smith asks, “Does it matter that I am a gay scientist? It certainly
doesn’t make me a better or worse scientist, but I believe it matters that people
know.” He chooses to actively talk about his sexuality. He has even drawn
inspiration for some of his research from his husband’s health problems,
developing new chemical alternatives to blood thinning drugs with the potential
to save lives.
In this way, there has been huge effort to get people within the scientific
community talking about these issues, with organisations including the National
Organisation of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals (a
self-confessed mouthful, which also goes by NOGLSTOP) offering networking and
However, perhaps the most important reason why we should try to avoid thinking that
nothing except an academic’s scientific output matters is that it undervalues
us as individuals.
Science and technology is an increasingly global field. Researchers work within their
own institutions and on a global scale, interacting with diverse scientists who
come up with novel ideas and concepts. In our modern world nothing is insular,
let alone discoveries and technologies with the potential to affect everyone.
We cannot allow outdated prejudice to prevent their development.
If we care only about the results of science, and not those who do it, we are at
risk of forgetting that scientific innovations affect us all, and that they
have the ability to bring us closer together than ever before. Science, for all
of its facts and figures, is carried out by people.