Where are all the LGBT scientists at?


I’m in the ongoing process of being out in a couple of life aspects, being gay and atheistic, (gaytheistic?) which involves a bunch of references to my boyfriend in casual conversation and honest but non-confrontational answers to questions like “So where do you go to church”. I try to be the best “normalizing” presence I can be so that the benefits of visibility accrue. In spite of this I still feel invisible,  not just to the “normal” public but to other LGBT people.

During the process of coming out and becoming more comfortable with who I am I did the normal things. I read up on the process, looked for mentors and affirmation from other LGBT people, told some supportive friends and family and settled into the routine of telling more casual acquaintances. It was comforting to watch other LGBT people come out, forming growing galaxy of role-models and luminaries in all fields. There’s one exception.


The Independent’s 2013 Pink List features artists, actors, activists, business people, politicians and musicians but only two people in academia and no scientists or engineers. The Out/G3 Reader Awards, honor “diversity champions”, broadcasters, athletes, “inspirational role models”, politicians, and rising stars but no scientists or academics. The Guardian’s World Wide Power list is more comprehensive but also doesn’t include any scientists or academics. Out’s Power 50 doesn’t feature any scientists or engineers. The Advocate’s Innovator’s List is the only list that I’ve come across that features people in STEM. It makes you wonder if you’re an outlier, if you’re the only one.

It’s not just about lists of featured people either. There’s little to no science coverage in most LGBT-focused news outlets. This could be emblematic of a lack of science coverage in news media en generale so I’m not saying this is Definitive Proof that the gays hate science. So as an out gay scientist I can’t help but feel unnoticed. I can’t help but feel like science and engineering are things that LGBT people do not do or do not care about. It’s isolating enough to work in a lab by yourself all day. It only makes it worse when the community that’s supposed to support you doesn’t seem to care about you, or is baffled that you exist at all.

In this environment I often found myself asking “Do other LGBT scientists exist?”.

Given the LGBT’s historic push for visibility it’s baffling to me that people in STEM are being left invisible. Sure LGBT people are normal people but we’re also doctors, scientists and engineers; we’re just as driven to curiosity and discovery as everybody else. There are many LGBT scientists and engineers both historically (I’m looking at you Alan Turing and Marget Mead) and contemporarily.

With organizations like NOGLSTP and oSTEM ready and willing to provide names the lack of attention is unjustifiable and negligent. The scientific community is now one of the stanchest allies in the normalization and acceptance of LGBT people.  Birth order investigations and genetic studies have served as ammunition in the fight against the “it’s a choice” and “it’s unnatural” arguments against them. We owe it to ourselves and to our scientists to stand with them and acknowledge what our scientists have done for us. We owe it to future generations to provide a diversity of LGBT role models.

Where are the LGBT scientists? They’re right were they always have been. It’s up to you to see them.

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  1. Not sure if you were trying to find historical examples of LGBTQ scientists or just complaining about the overall lack of attention, which is certainly an issue.

    However, Keith Sterns Queers in History (which generally has the same problem you mention about focusing on celebrities over more other categories) lists the following under the profession of scientist:
    Georg Joachim Rheticus
    Isaac Newton
    Alexander von Humbolt
    Count Justus von Liebig
    Sophia Kovalevsky
    Alfred Kinsey
    Andrey Nicolaevich Kolmogorov
    Alan Turing
    Kate Hutton

    If we broaden this to the social sciences and other academic fields Stern also lists the following:
    John Maynard Keynes
    Evan Davis
    Harry Stack Sullivan
    Anna Freud
    Sebastian Sprott
    Ruth Benedict
    Margaret Mead
    Johann J. Winkelmann
    Ralph Adams Cram
    Philip Johnson
    Charles Moore
    Art Historian:
    Anthony Blunt
    Jay Brown

  2. I think I was being pretty clear that my problem was with the lack of attention paid to contemporary LGBTQTIA scientists, engineers, social scientists, mathematicians, and medical professionals. The problem I have as a gay scientist is that the community keeps people like me from the public eye, creating an impression that lgbt people don’t do STEM.

    You’re right that the problem extends to erasure of historical LGBTQTIA people in those professions too. It’s almost like the lgbt community is doubling down on its erroneous reputation for celebrity obsession.

  3. I was more than a little weirded out by this when I started graduate school, and even more so when I went from dating a man to dating a woman and coming out became a very pressing, immediate decision. When I started talking to people about it, I realized there were quite a few queers in my institution if less so in my department, and it just… never got talked about. It was a pleasant surprise that being out has essentially been a non-issue thus far, but at the same time, the invisibility really grates.

    I don’t have a profound point here, except that I experience this daily, and I hear you.

    • Exactly. The silence on the issue is deafening. I know that in science your orientation isn’t supposed to matter but never bringing it up at all makes it feel like the university and the lab aren’t safe spaces. I know that one of my committee members has a gay/genderqueer son; I’ve even met him. I know that my committee member doesn’t have a problem with his son but at the same time it’s never brought up. No “safe space” stickers on the door to his lab. Nothing.

      While LGBT people are being silent in their labs they’re being ignored by the LGBT community. I think it would take an out Nobel Prize winner to shift us into the spotlight but given the way that scientists and academics treat their own sexualities this doesn’t seem terribly likely.

      • Yeah, orientation “isn’t supposed to matter” about like gender and race aren’t “supposed to matter.” Science is a true meritocracy, amirite? >.>

        The impression I got from the few (all two of them) queer faculty I’ve met was that they all think it’d be great to have more LGBT activism from within the scientific community, but no one wants to be the hero and possibly have it impact their academic career.

        • I think what that attitude fails to address is how much race and gender and sexuality actually do matter in terms of the calculus of success, especially in academia. The more hardship you encounter the less likely that you’re going to end up performing at the level that science wants. The more “strange” you appear to those awful, on-site NIH or NSF grant review meetings the less likely it is you’re going to get funded.

          I wouldn’t call that impression inaccurate. Scientists are turning into sharks because of the funding trouble with granting institutions. They can’t sit still. Always gotta chase that money. They can’t do much besides grant writing, institutional obligations and manage grad students (not to mention benchwork). Activism is hard to squeeze in. It’s even harder to manage when it doesn’t have a positive impact on career.

          All of this is terrible and needs some dire course correction; I think we agree. The question is who is going to try to correct the course. I’m trying here. I’ll be doing writeups of LGBT scientists and academics from time to time. Hopefully it’ll start making some kind of dent.

          • Exactly.
            I had a conversation with one of my best friends today about the concerns my lab has been facing (I work for a new professor who would be going up for tenure this year if he and his wife hadn’t just recently had two kids) – my advisor, who is *wonderful*, has publication worries because he’s historically been opposed to the idea of the Least Publishable Unit, instead wanting to make sure there’s a good, solid story to tell before putting out papers. Which is a great attitude in theory, that I completely agree with. But when the tenure clock is 5-6 years from when you walk in the door, and you can pretty much write off the first year to getting the lab set up in the first place, the demands of survival and funding say that principles are great and all, but you can’t afford them right now.
            We definitely agree re: course-correction, and I’m grateful to you for airing the issue here. My own hopes are, initially, to take a proactive role in mentoring when I become a professor (and hell, nothing saying I can’t start that as a post-doc), so fewer queer students will have to ask the Women’s Resource Center to put them in touch with LGBT faculty because they don’t know of any at the institution. Beyond that… I want to do more, and hopefully I’ll be able to find a stable enough place to allow me to do it.

  4. (For whatever reason it wouldn’t let me reply to your reply)

    I completely agree. The tenure cycle and the rush to publish are definite factors here. When you consider this dataset ( about the employment prospects of biology PhDs it looks even more dire. A potentially infinite postdoc holding pattern, 8% tenure 10% unemployment among postdocs, it’s a tone poem of underemployment and financial woe. If the alternative to tenure is uncertain and bleak in our contemporary funding ecosystem it only exacerbates the invisibility problem by rerouting your energy into keeping your job.

    My fear is that this climate will make our problem worse. No time for advocacy. No time for being “Out and Proud”. Not enough space in academia for young scientists who *want* to be LGBT mentors. I applaud your arc. I agree with your sentiments. I just feel like science is going through a catastrophic shift from one “stable state” to another and I fear that the shift will push us more to the margins.

    • I definitely think that the current funding climate is having and will continue to have a deleterious impact on progress on… really all diversity fronts. Lacking the ability to stop the environmental shift, my guess is that our best bet is the further development of auxiliary programs at institutions that support the kind of visibility and activism the faculty themselves don’t have time or extra energy to spearhead. I previously referenced having to have the Women’s Resource Center put me in touch with LGBT faculty as a negative thing, but the other way of looking at that was that there was, in fact, a place I could go and comfortably seek counsel.

      My institution (I’m at GA Tech) is tepid in its overall support, but I know a decent chunk of schools in more progressive areas are putting some real effort toward creating a warmer environment, and there’s (I think) in general becoming at least a bit more space in academia for professionals who aren’t necessarily researchers, who instead focus on other functions. Aside from whatever I can contribute myself, that’s where my hopes are placed for greater visibility and support structure. Here, at least, it’s working from the standpoint of (binary) gender and racial diversity, so maybe it can do the same for sexual orientation, eventually.

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