Breaking the Code of Science’s Last Taboo

We will have all at some point during our lives heard someone reminisce about the good old days – a simpler time, where things were so much easier. A perfectly acceptable concept when considering the innocence of youth or a time when the BBC made decent programmes, however for those who identify themselves as anything other than heterosexual, the ‘good old days’ are something of a misnomer.

Indeed, throughout history homophobia has been rife in all walks of society – from sporting venues to the workplace – but its existence within the scientific community is often understated. A person’s scientific reputation is based upon their published research, yet during the 1980s the working environment was a hostile place for ‘out-and-proud’ LGBT scientists. This was partly a result of Section 28; an amendment to the Local Government Act which made the discrimination of LGBT people in the work place completely legal. So although homosexuality had been legalised, ‘coming out’ could very likely be detrimental to your career.

It was this homophobia within the scientific workplace which acted as the catalyst in establishing nationwide groups, such as the National Organisation of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals (NOGLSTP), to advocate, educate and support LGBT students and professionals in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Organisations like the NOGLSTP have helped increase the communication between LGBT scientists through an array of networking and mentoring schemes, certainly resulting in more gay-friendly work spaces today. Nevertheless, the visibility of LGBT scientists to the wider public is still a hurdle to be cleared.

The Independent’s Rainbow List – formerly the Pink List – is an annual celebration of the 101 most influential lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people in Britain. Although a fantastic way to recognise and celebrate the pioneers of LGBT equality, the last two years has seen a distinct lack of scientists represented on the list. Why are scientists not influencing the LGBT community?

A lot has changed since the likes of Alan Turing – the pioneering British computer scientist and Nazi code cracker – was prosecuted for homosexual acts. However, the scientific world is still littered, perhaps inadvertently, with archaic notions and levels of both positive and negative discrimination. Engineering, for example, has had constant struggles in casting aside the preconceptions that it is a male dominated subject. Charities such as the Women’s Engineering Society have worked hard to remove the barriers which halt females entering the profession, yet nearly 100 years have passed since women were allowed to vote and we still struggle to achieve gender equality. And this is before we even throw sexuality into the mix – it’s certainly understandable why an LGBT scientist or engineer would choose to keep their sexual preferences to themselves.

The question therefore arises; Does this all matter? Should sexuality – whatever the preference – play a role in science? Do LGBT scientists need to shout out ‘loudly and proudly’ about who they really are? Well, there should be no need for a scientist to divulge their sexuality; it in no way impacts upon their ability within their chosen fields of research. But if by doing so it increases the exposure of their positive contributions to society, of which I’m sure there are many, then it should be openly advocated. We need positive role models – the next generation of athletes, politicians, and yes, the forgotten scientists, should never let fears over sexuality stop them from bettering the world.


Dougie Phillips


Image courtesy of NOGLSTP.

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