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LGBT+ History Month

Photograph of the LGBT+ pride flag.

Image credit: Benson Kua/CC-SA.

First published on 26th February 2018 by Dr Helen Klus

It is LGBT+ history month in the UK. To celebrate, the Institute of Physics (joined by the Royal Astronomical Society and the Royal Society of Chemistry) will hold an LGBT+ networking event on Thursday 1st March in London, UK. This is open to everyone and you can register here.

STEM fields may be gradually becoming more accepting, with more people identifying as LGB+ in the Royal Astronomical Society’s latest demographic survey than in the general population (it did not address trans or non-binary people)[1].

However, the workplace can still be a dangerous place, with a quarter of LGB+ people and nearly half of trans people unable to come out at work[2]. No one should be complacent about living in such a world, particularly scientists, who praise themselves on objectivity.

Homophobia, transphobia, and sexism may all stem from the idea that people can be easily categorised. If there are only two genders that can be identified from birth, and everyone with the same gender acts the same way, then a world of 7 billion people seems less daunting.

This is a childish fantasy. People from cultures all around the world have identified as genders other than male and female, as genders other than their sex, and as sexualities other than straight throughout recorded history[3][4]. And we now have overwhelming scientific evidence that confirms sex[5], gender[6][7][8], and sexuality[9] all exist on a spectrum.

No one ever likes the idea that they’re wrong, particularly if they have benefited from their beliefs, and so some people find this threatening. They lash out. They make the world a more dangerous place and they hold back science.

The worst offenders should now realise their views are not welcome in the workplace, but this shouldn’t make us complacent. Studies have shown that people of all genders and sexualities hold unconscious bias that leads to negative effects like disparity in pay and employment rates[10][11][12]. Not to mention the effects on mental health for people who have to hide intrinsic parts of themselves for extended periods of time[13].

Scientists are notoriously bad at recognising unconscious bias[14][15]. This is because they think they have been trained against it, and so think the problem does not affect them. However, experimental bias and cultural bias can be very different.

Scientists also tend to think that their personal prejudice does not affect their work, and so it may not be immediately clear that preventing people of specific genders or sexualities from participating equally in society has held science back. But there are many examples of this happening.

Firstly, the fact that straight cis men have been used as the default model in most research has led to numerous examples of preventable deaths. For example, pregnant people are more likely to be injured in car crashes because female crash-test dummies were not mandatory in car safety evaluations until 2011[16]. Homophobia has stalled research into HIV[17] and caused epidemics throughout the world[18][19][20][21], and hetero and cis-normativity has affected research into psychology, sociology, anthropology, and animal behaviour[22].

Segregation has also directly held back astronomy and physics by denying the best minds access to research. Alan Turing is the most obvious example of how society turned its back on progress for the sake of bigotry. The British government apologised for their treatment of Turing in 2013, but this phenomenon is not over, and gay and trans people are still persecuted by their own governments in 75% of former British colonies[23].

If this is not reason enough to address this, many scientists are now funded by members of the public, either through taxes, student fees, or the products they buy. The majority of people are not straight cis men, and so, like all other publicly funded enterprises, we cannot allow ignorance to be an excuse anymore.

We can address these issues immediately by making sure people of all genders and sexualities have equal opportunities to participate in the scientific community. One obvious thing to do is address unconscious bias at the employment level, there are numerous courses that can help with this.

Another is to consider representation. Wherever applicable, make an effort to ensure that straight cis people are not the only people representing science, something that should be universal.

Finally, if you are straight and/or cis learn how to become a good ally.

Many STEM institutions now hold annual seminars for LGBT+ people to meet and discuss both their research and experiences. The next is at the Institute of Physics on Thursday 1st March in London, UK and you can find out more about this here.


  1. McWhinnie, S., Oxford Research & Policy, 2017, 'The Demographics and Research Interests of the UK Astronomy and Geophysics Communities 2016', last accessed 26-02-18.

  2. Stonewall, 'LGBT facts and figures', last accessed 26-02-18.

  3. Nonbinary wiki, 'Gender-variant identities worldwide', last accessed 26-02-18.

  4. Allen, M., 2008, Bilerico Report, 'Transgender History: A 6 Part Series', last accessed 26-02-18.

  5. Ainsworth, C., 2015, Nature News, 'Sex redefined', last accessed 26-02-18.

  6. Marantz Henig, R., 2017, National Geographic, 'How Science Is Helping Us Understand Gender', last accessed 26-02-18.

  7. McCarthy, M. M., 2015, The Scientist Magazine, 'Sex Differences in the Brain', last accessed 26-02-18.

  8. Zhou, J. N., Hofman, M. A., Gooren, L. J., and Swaab, D. F., 1995., 'A sex difference in the human brain and its relation to transsexuality', Nature, 378, pp.68.

  9. Kinsey, A., Pomeroy, W., and Martin, C., 1948, Kinsey Institute, Indiana University Bloomington, 'The Kinsey Scale', last accessed 26-02-18.

  10. Hudson-Sharp, N., Metcalf H., 2016, National Institute for Economic and Social Research, 'Inequality among lesbian, gay bisexual and transgender groups in the UK: a review of evidence', last accessed 26-02-18.

  11. Greenhalgh, H., 2017, Financial Times, 'LGBT pay gap demands attention', last accessed 26-02-18.

  12. Spero, J., 2017, Financial Times, 'Down and out: why so many homeless youths are LGBT', last accessed 26-02-18.

  13. NHS Choices, 'Mental health issues if you're gay, lesbian or bisexual', last accessed 26-02-18.

  14. Uhlmann, E. L. and Cohen, G. L., 2007, '“I think it, therefore it’s true”: Effects of self-perceived objectivity on hiring discrimination', Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 104, pp.207-223.

  15. Monin, B. and Miller, D. T., 2001, 'Moral Credentials and the Expression of Prejudice', Journal of personality and social psychology, 81, pp.33.

  16. Shaver, K., 2012, 'Female dummy makes her mark on male-dominated crash tests', last accessed 26-02-18.

  17. Nordling, L., 2014, Nature News, 'Homophobia and HIV research: Under siege', last accessed 26-02-18.

  18. Halkitis, P., 2012, 'Discrimination and homophobia fuel the HIV epidemic in gay and bisexual men', Director, 202, pp.6176.

  19. Cain, M., 2017, The Guardian, ' How homophobia feeds Russia’s HIV epidemic', last accessed 26-02-18.

  20. Human Rights Watch, 2004, 'Hated to Death: Homophobia, Violence, and Jamaica’s HIV/AIDS Epidemic', last accessed 26-02-18.

  21. Roehr, B., 2010, 'How homophobia is fuelling Africa’s HIV epidemic', British Medical Journal, 340.

  22. Innovate Us, 'What is "Heteronormative"?', last accessed 26-02-18.

  23. Mohdin, A., 2015, 'Homosexuality is still a crime in 78 territories—and most are former British colonies', last accessed 26-02-18.

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The Star Garden is a science news and science education website run by Dr Helen Klus.

How We Came to Know the Cosmos covers the history of physics focusing on space and time, light and matter, and the mind. It explains the simple discoveries we made in prehistoric times, and how we built on them, little by little, until the conclusions of modern theories seem inevitable. This is shown in a timeline of the universe.

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