APS News

A Year of Progress for LGBT+ in Physics

By Calla Cofield

At last year’s March Meeting in Boston, the APS hosted the first session at a major physics conference to focus on issues facing LGBT+ persons in physics. That session drew over 100 audience members. At this year’s March Meeting, organizers of the volunteer-based group LGBT+Physics hosted an evening roundtable discussion session attended by roughly 40 people. At the session, the organizers reported on progress that has been made in the last 12 months to address some of the issues brought up in last year’s session.

Both the 2012 session and the 2013 roundtable discussion were organized by members of the Networking Subgroup of LGBT+Physics. The group partnered with members of the organization oSTEM, which is an organization that supports career development of LGBT+ students in the STEM fields.  

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 heterosexual and cisgender (anyone who identifies with the gender they were born with) to indicate the inclusion of all sexual orientations and gender identities.

At the 2012 APS session on LGBT+ issues, organizers asked attendees to fill out a survey asking them about their experiences in physics and what actions they wanted to see taken to improve support for and visibility of LGBT+ persons in physics.  The results of that survey were published on the website arXiv.org in a paper titled “Gender and Sexual Diversity Issues in Physics: The Audience Speaks.” In early March, the LGBT+Physics group published a “Best Practices Guide” on its website (lgbtphysicists.org, which the group identifies as the first website for LGBT+ physicists). The guide makes recommendations for “how to make the physics workplace more inclusive for LGBT+ scientists,” and is aimed mainly at academia. It offers specific recommendations at the individual, department and university level. These include actions that can be adopted immediately, such as using inclusive language and adding sexual orientation and gender identity to non-discrimination policies. The guide goes on to offer long-term suggestions, such as increasing networking opportunities for LGBT+ persons.

The guide’s suggestions aim to improve the general “climate” for LGBT+ persons in physics, which can be influenced by how accepted and supported those persons feel by their colleagues and their institution. Similar issues face women and racial and ethnic minorities in physics. Research has shown that a negative climate toward minority groups can negatively impact individuals, which can lead to larger negative consequences for the department and the institution.  

A second major step was the creation of an “out list” for physics, where LGBT+ members of the physics community may publicly identify themselves as such. There is also a list for ally physicists (persons who openly support the LGBT+ community but do not identify as LGBT+ themselves). There is an out list for professional astronomers hosted by the University of California Santa Barbara website, and some universities have made their own public out lists.  

Tim Atherton, one of the roundtable session organizers and an associate professor in the physics and astronomy department at Tufts University, said in an email, “We hear again and again from people that perhaps the biggest problem is the lack of visibility of LGBT+ people and their allies in physics. The out list and ally lists are our attempt to directly address that. These lists help create a better climate by helping to alleviate the isolation that all minorities feel and also recognizing the important contributions of LGBT+ people to Physics. We’d like everyone to join!”

Atherton also stressed that LGBT+ physics is looking for more volunteers, and that some of the group organizers are allies and not LGBT+ themselves.

During the session at the 2012 March Meeting, speakers pointed out that 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. APS Director of Education and Diversity Ted Hodapp, who was in attendance, responded by saying that APS would like its members to initiate such changes to policy. At this year’s roundtable discussion leaders handed out copies of a petition that calls on the APS to adjust the policy. Participants were encouraged to take the petitions back to their home institutions to gather signatures, which are being compiled by LGBT+Physics organizer Elena Long.

Atherton noted that the session was also organized with the help of APS’s Career & Diversity Programs Administrator Arlene Knowles, and the Committee on the Status of Women in Physics and the Committee on Minorities. In addition, APS Executive Officer Kate Kirby sat in on part of the session, and remarked that she was impressed with the work of the organizers. In a statement to the attendees she added that, “I am committed to making APS an inclusive and diverse organization.”

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Staff Science Writer: Michael Lucibella