APS News

March Meeting Session Highlights LGBT+ Issues for Physicists

By Calla Cofield

At the 2012 March Meeting, APS hosted the first-ever session at a major physics conference on sexual and gender diversity issues. Six speakers and a very vocal audience shared a discussion about the state of the LGBT+ community in physics. [LGBT stands for lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender, while the plus sign includes other sexual orientations or gender identities including intersexed, queer, questioning, asexual or pansexual. Some organizations also list straight and cisgender (anyone who identifies with the gender they were born with) to indicate the inclusion of all sexual orientations and gender identities.]

Speakers presented results from two national surveys gathering information about the experiences of LGBT+ people in physics and academia, providing some of the first data on this subject.

Susan Rankin, Associate Professor of Education and Senior Research Associate at the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Penn State University, co-authored the first study, published in 2010, titled “The State of Higher Education for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender people.” The survey aimed to gather information about the “climate” toward LGBT+ people in academia, and collected information from over 5,000 academic faculty, staff, administrators, undergraduate and graduate students. In her abstract for the session, Rankin demonstrated how that climate can have a negative impact not only on the individual, but on the institution and the field.

“It has long been understood–an understanding that has been well supported by research-based evidence–that institutional “climate” has a profound effect on any academic community’s ability to carry out its tripartite mission of teaching, research, and service,” wrote Rankin. “The research also suggests that a challenging campus climate exists for LGBTQQ students, faculty and staff. Based on the literature, a challenging climate leads to decreased productivity, decreased sense of value to the community, decreased retention, and negatively influences educational outcomes.”

Overall, the study evaluated how comfortable LGBT+ people feel in academia, how negative behaviors can affect them (physically, psychologically and career-wise), and then used that data to identify strategic initiatives to improve campus climates.

At the APS session, Eric Patridge, a postdoctoral fellow at Yale University, and Ramon Barthelemy, a graduate student in physics at Western Michigan University, spoke on behalf of Rankin, who was unable to attend. Patridge is also the founder of oSTEM (“Out” in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), an “LGBT-affirming corporation” that offers support and resources for STEM students and professionals.

Among the non-transgendered faculty who responded to the survey, the highest number of “out” faculty (open about their sexual identity) came from the STEM fields. But because sexual orientation and gender identity are self-reported, and because there are no substantial data sets to which to compare the new results, there is no way to know how the number of LGBT+ people who completed the surveys corresponds to the actual number of LGBT+ people in academia. What is notable about the high number of STEM responders is how drastically it differs from another anonymous study from 2003, which Rankin says received negligible responses from LGBT+ STEM faculty.

The survey results showed a negative correlation between STEM faculty members' level of comfort and their “outness,” or how open the person is about their sexual identity. “Meaning,” said Barthelemy, “the more ‘out’ the faculty members were, the more uncomfortable they were.” LGBT+ STEM faculty who felt uncomfortable in their department were 14.3% more likely to leave their institution.

Elena Long, a graduate student at Kent State University and past Member at Large on the Executive Committee of the APS Forum of Graduate Student Affairs, reported results from what appears to be the first survey to collect data specifically on the LGBT+ community in physics. The new survey, conducted in 2011 and not yet published, was open to anyone working in or retired from physics in academia, but was aimed mostly at graduate students. It asked responders to identify various aspects of their identity including gender and race, as well as sexual orientation and gender identity. The survey received just under 600 responses, nearly 100 of which identified as LGBT+. The study provides a more detailed look at minorities in physics by analyzing overlapping identity factors. For example, gender identity ranked as a top reason for feeling unsafe; Long then proceeded to look at how that statistic played out when broken down by gender, race and disabilities. The results point to the fact that many people in physics may fall into multiple minority categories.

In 2009, Long had searched for resources for LGBT+ people in physics and found next to nothing. The National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals (NOGLSTP) hosts caucuses of chemists and mathematicians, the ACS has a Gay and Transgender Chemists and Allies Subdivision, the American Astronomical Society has the Working Group on Gay and Lesbian Equality, and the LGBT astronomy community hosts an “Outlist” identifying openly LGBT+ professional astronomers. There is, however, no equivalent group, caucus or list for physics.

Long founded a resource and networking website called LGBT+ Physicists. Following the 2011 March Meeting, she and some of the other physicists managing LGBT+ Physicists came together to organize the diversity session, with help from APS Director of Education and Diversity Ted Hodapp, APS Career & Diversity Programs Administrator Arlene Modeste Knowles, the APS Committee on the Status of Women in Physics, and the APS Committee on Minorities.

It is only in recent years that the STEM fields have recognized LGBT+ people as a minority group, in need of the same support as other minority groups. Speakers and audience members noted the importance of the APS session toward that end, calling it “historic.”

“Inclusion of LGBT in science and engineering diversity discussions is new,” said speaker Janice Hicks, Deputy Division Director at NSF, Division of Materials Research. “Knowing when to raise LGBT issues, so that they will be successful, has been difficult. In my opinion, based on what I’ve seen in the past year, LGBT issues are coming up now.”

In approaching LGBT+ issues in physics, speakers and audience members noted that they frequently receive comments such as, “It doesn’t matter what someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity is. Why are you making it an issue?” and “You’re being too sensitive.” But the results of the climate survey and the national climate toward LGBT+ people indicate otherwise. Less than half of all US states explicitly protect against employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, and even fewer protect based on gender identity. LGBT+ people face a daunting list of challenges on issues that many non-LGBT+ people take for granted, including federal spousal benefits, health insurance coverage, partner emigration and immigration, and benefits packages.

As was noted at the session, the APS Policy on Equal Professional Opportunity, adopted by Council in 1994, includes protection for persons based on sexual orientation, but does not explicitly mention gender identity.
Hodapp responded by saying, “Because we’re a member organization and we want to serve the members, we need you to speak, and say, this is the thing we would like APS to do. We are happy to facilitate that, but we want it to come from the members because we feel that it’s much stronger if it comes that way.”

Speaker Michael Ramsey-Musolf, a professor of physics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a former member and Chair of the APS Committee on the International Freedom of Scientists, argued that workplace discrimination toward LGBT+ people, sometimes known as the “lavender ceiling,” is also a human rights issue. Ramsey-Musolf highlighted a section of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights set out by the United Nations, which states that everyone, as a member of society, has the right to the free development of their personality.

The presence of the lavender ceiling, like the glass ceiling, can mean the difference between promotion and stagnation. Ramsey-Musolf then added, “So if we think about those human rights—the social and cultural rights indispensable for free development of one’s personality–that’s the antithesis of stagnation … So the lavender ceiling is an impediment to that basic human right.”

Personal action and support for the LGBT+ community has already had an impact on the growing number of LGBT+ physicists who are willing to step up and share their stories. For as much work as there is to be done, most of the speakers also expressed hope moving forward.

“In my own career,” said Ramsey-Musolf, “despite many moments when I was ready to leave, had it not been for key allies who are not sexual minority members, but who understood my scientific potential and were willing to stand up for it, to put themselves on the line, I would not be here. And so this gives me a lot of hope and optimism about the future in our field, that people who recognize good science are not willing to let prejudice and stereotypes stand in the way.”

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Editor: Alan Chodos