LGBTQ+ Legends in STEM

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Since it began in 1994, LGBT history month has been an opportunity for us to celebrate the contributions and remember the sacrifices of queer individuals. STEM subjects at Universities in the UK are on an incredible trajectory towards inclusion, with the representation of those in the LGBTQ+ community improving year on year, but it hasn’t always been this way and there is still a long way to go. Many great scientists in recent history have been forced to hide their identity in order to be accepted and many still feel the need to do so. Here we take a look at some of the contributions and hardships of LGBTQ+ scientists.

One of the most well-known LGBT scientists is Alan Turing, who lived between 1912-1954 and is widely considered the founding father of theoretical computer science.  Turing was famously instrumental to the allied forces’ decoding of Nazi communications, but also made significant contributions to the coding of early computer programmes including a chess playing programme considered to be the precursor to the Artificial intelligence we see today. 

Though recognised in the modern age as a hero, with a Hollywood biopic released in 2014 and the new £50 note set to feature his face, Turing suffered enormous prejudice and hardship in his lifetime as a result of his sexuality. When Turing’s relationship with another man was discovered in 1952, homosexuality was illegal in the UK and he only avoided imprisonment by agreeing to submit to life-altering hormone treatment and give up his government roles. The hormones left Turing impotent and feminised his body. Two years later Turing committed suicide.

It’s difficult to believe that this cruelty happened in such recent history but in reality, whilst  homosexuality was decriminalised in 1967,  the LGBTQ+ community is still struggling for equal rights in the UK and homosexuality is still criminalised in 72 countries. The recent pardon of Turing is a huge step for LGBT celebration in the UK and paves the way for the next generation of LGBT scientists, but we cannot forget the suffering of those who came before us and those in other parts of the world who continue to have their voice silenced.

Sally Ride achieved a great number of firsts in her life; she was the first American woman and remains the youngest person, at 32, to travel in space. She was also the first known LGBT astronaut. As well as her momentous achievements as an astronaut and physicist with NASA, she co-wrote seven children’s books that encouraged an interest in space.

Only after Ride’s death in 2012 was it revealed that she had been in a 27 year relationship with her co-author and childhood friend Tam O’Shaunessy. Sally’s sister confirmed this and explained that Ride’s desire for personal privacy had motivated her not to talk about her relationship publicly. Ride’s passion for educating children about science was her cause in life and she believed that her sexuality would be a distraction. 

Sally Ride’s desire to be appreciated for her work and contribution to science rather than for her sexuality is not a difficult one to understand and shows us that, though views were changing, those in the LGBT community still felt they needed to hide who they were for their gifts to be valued the scientific community.

Ben Barres was an American neurologist who made huge contributions to the study of Microglia (supporting cells in the brain), he also became the first openly transgender member of the National Academy of Sciences in 2013. Barres spoke openly about his experience of the academic world before and after his transition in 1997, noting that those of his peers who were not aware of his transition respected his research more when he presented as male. 

Barres also struggled with the lack of role models in science ‘I thought that I had to decide between identity and career. I changed sex thinking my career might be over.’ Barres continued to contribute to neuroscientific research and wrote on sexism in science as well as speaking out as a transgender role model for others in STEM. 

These inspiring individuals represent a fraction of the broad scope of what it means to be LGBTQ+ in STEM. They give us the hope that today’s aspiring scientists have a more diverse range of role models. It’s important to remember that many more brilliant minds and world changing ideas were never appreciated due to the world’s failure to accept who they were and who they loved. This LGBTQ+ history month let’s be thankful for the amazing contributions of LGBTQ+ individuals in STEM and the progression of the scientific community to a kinder and more accepting place.

image source: Getty Images/Wired