As February is LGBT+ History month; to celebrate and remember the history of all those within the LGBT+ community, here at Shencoh, we want to take this time to highlight LGBT+ individuals that made or are making their mark within STEM fields.
The question may arise of why LGBT+ scientists’ matter. Why does the sexual orientation or gender of scientists, researchers, developers and inventors’ hold any importance? The answer is if we actively omit these individuals (or passively exclude them) their knowledge, expertise, skills and important perspectives will be lost to science and technology. Without diversity in these areas, science and technology are in danger of losing their innovativeness to solve cutting edge problems that face us as a society. A second reason is that LGBT+ people deserve a safe place within our communities, including STEM communities so that they can flourish and continue to make significant contributions in their field.
Perhaps the most well known example of LGBT+ contributions to STEM fields is Alan Turing (1912 – 1954), a brilliant mathematician who played a crucial part in the allied victory in WW2. Who, due to attitudes toward homosexuality at the time, was labelled as a security risk by the British Government, underwent chemical castration, and tragically committed suicide at age 41. Alan Turing’s life and legacy is a prime example of what is in danger of being lost when LGBT+ individuals are excluded from science and technology.
Thankfully, attitudes towards LGBT+ have changed and still are changing. Just under ten years ago the Equality Act 2010 was passed through Parliament. This sets out a legal framework for the protection of LGBT+ from discrimination at school, work, and as a customer when buying or renting. This legal framework and other shifts in governmental and societal attitudes towards LGBT+ are a welcomed advancement in terms of human rights and equality. Perhaps these shifts led to Alan Turing being granted a Royal Pardon in 2001, and to an increasing number of people openly identifying as part of the LGBT+ community in the UK. (Click the links to learn more about LGBT+ experiences in science and technology.) Some of the most influential LGBT+ individuals in science and technology are outlined below.
Polly Arnold (1972 – Current) – Is a professor at the University of Edinburgh, where her work focuses on synthetic chemistry and theories of bonding and reactivity, with her research providing a pivotal aspect in understanding the chemical behaviour of nuclear waste. She has also won the Rosalind Franklin Prize for her achievements as a female scientist as well as the University of Edinburgh Chancellor’s Prize (and is also openly bisexual).
Alan Hart (1890 – 1962), A Yale-trained public health researcher, who was at the forefront in the fight against tuberculosis which was, at the time, the leading cause of death in the USA and Europe. Alan Hart was also one of the first female-to-male, transgender people in the USA, to undergo a hysterotomy.
Ben Barras (1954 – 2017), who was a Stanford University professor of Neurobiology, researched development and diseases within the brain concerning glia (the most numerous types of brain cell) and was transgender.
Sally Ride (1995 – 2012)- The first American women in space, and subsequently the Director for the Californian Space Institution. In 2001, started a non-profit charity that encourages children to be interested in maths and science – Sally Ride Science. Sally Ride’s partner, Tam O’Shaughnessy, continues her legacy as the current director of Sally Ride Science.
Clyde Wahrhafting (1919 – 1994) – An American Geologist and Environmentalist, worked as a senior geologist in the US geological services (1943-67 and 1982-94) he was also a Professor of Geomorphology at U.C. Berkeley (1967-82). He was also the recipient of the prestige Geological Society of America’s Kirk Bryan Award for Geomorphology.
The achievements of the individuals here represent a small proportion of LGBT+ scientific and technological accomplishments. The contributions made and the changing attitudes towards LGBT+ are cause for celebration. However, in 2015, a paper by Yonder and Mattheis conducted an online survey of 1,427 LGBT+ working in STEM fields. 57% reported they were not ‘out’ in the personal sense. Of those that did disclose they were part of the LGBT+ community, they were more likely to describe their workplace as safe, welcoming and providing support for specific LGBT+ needs. Another study conducted by the human rights campaign foundation (2014) found similar results. These studies show that there is still more to be done before the LGBT+ community is completely accepted in STEM fields.
A goal we can all work actively towards, for example, is the use of inclusive language; having visible and transparent inclusion strategies; outlining the support offered for LGBT+ staff; and being open about approachability, inclusivity, and the universality of company benefits. The extension of family friendly policies to LGBT+ can help people feel more valued in their roles at work. These are just a few ways to create positive spaces for the LGBT+ community. However, if you would like to know more ways, as an individual or company, to make a more inclusive environment, the following institutions and articles can act as a great starting guide; Stonewall, Diversity at work.
By Karendeep Sidhu