Diversity in Science Carnival: Pride Month 2011

Test the rainbow? (Flickr: nezume_you.

Diversity in Science CarnivalEven though the queer nerd is a long-established phenomenon, and a pretty common one these days, we’re not necessarily very visible in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics disciplines. Even cutting-edge fields can be surprisingly conservative, and a lot of us end up in industries or academic departments where people are still not asking or telling. And on the other hand, science often has a lower profile within the queer community than it deserves—how many queer scientist types have you seen on TV lately? Yeah, me neither.

(Maybe Willow Rosenberg? But she ditched computer science for magic, and she’s been off the air since 2003!)

As just one example of this, when Alberto Roca and I went looking for science-related videos on the “It Gets Better” project website, where queer adults can post their stories to encourage queer kids who are dealing with bullying, neither of us found much. Big tech companies like Microsoft, Pixar, Bayer, and Eli Lilly are well represented, but search for individuals’ videos labeled “science” and you get … not a lot.

So where are the examples of queer scientists for today’s nerdy gay, lesbian, bi, and trans kids to look toward?

Well, actually, we’re all over the place. For last October’s National Coming Out Day, Steve Silberman and Maggie Koerth-Baker put together a wonderful double feature at BoingBoing, compiling the personal stories of LGBT scientists, and presenting an in-depth interview with endocrinologist Neena Schwartz. Now, for the Pride edition of the Diversity in Science blog carnival, we have another array of voices from across the science blogosphere: queer and allied scientists and science fans, discussing everything from gay history to the science of sexuality to their personal experiences as sexual minorities in scientific workplaces.

The carnival commences after the jump!

Our stories

We’re nerds, so I think we tend to be fairly accepting of variance.
—A respondent to Rick MacPherson’s survey of LGBT folks in ocean science

To kick things off, here’s one notable exception to the lack of science-y personal “It Gets Better” vidoes, and it’s a queer nerdy delight: Borja’s even wearing my favorite xkcd shirt.

Carnival contributor AstroDyke also suggests the IGBP video by Apple employees.

David Kroll highlights an in-depth report on LGBT folks in the chemical sciences, many of whom don’t feel safe to be out at work—as well as recent findings from the Center for Work-Life Policy that making a workplace LGBT-friendly benefits employers as well as employees. Rick MacPherson reports the results of his survey of LGBT folks in the oceanic sciences, covering broad trends and individual responses. Marcelo Vinces—who started a blog just to contribute to this carnival—says that early neurological and genetic studies of same-sex attraction helped him come out.

It gets better in the sciences for a lot of us, but it also gets complicated. EcoPhysioMichelle finds she must “write her own history” as a bisexual and a scientist. Gerty-z explains how coming out at work doesn’t happen just once—it happens over and over again.

For your enjoyment, here is a representative conversation:
person: So, what does your husband do?
me: there is no husband. But, my wife is a [redacted]
person: …
person: OH. *looks awkward*

Sarcozona wonders where the other queer ecologists are, and suggests we should, er, recruit:

I think science should be doing more to recruit young queer students. So many queer students major in gender studies or queer theory because those subjects help us understand ourselves better, validate our experiences, and focus on making the world a better place. But science can do that, too!

Finally, Alberto Roca of Minority Postdoc covers (with coauthor David G. Taylor) the first career summit organized by the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals—an event that both recognized how far we’ve come and how far we have to go.

Our history

Gay history is intertwined with the history of science, sometimes quite closely. Romeo Vitelli recounts the story of Alan Turing, who helped defeat Nazi Germany with groundbreaking innovations in machine calculation, only to find himself sentenced to hormonal “castration” for being gay.

Sculpture of Alan Turing by Stephen Kettle, at Bletchley Park National Codes Centre, UK. (Flickr: Leo Reynolds)

Several of Turing’s colleagues from his Bletchley Park days also supported him. His mentor, Max Newman, and fellow cryptanalyst Hugh Alexander acted as character witnesses during his trial. This was a courageous stand for them considering the “guilt by association” mentality that often tarred anyone who supported convicted sex criminals. Many of Turing’s friends, homosexuals themselves, felt obliged to distance themselves out of fear that they would be suspected as well.

Astrodyke wonders when groundbreaking gay rights activist Frank Kameny will be recognized by his fellow astronomers. And last but not least, in a post with strong contemporary relevance, David Kroll discusses the sometimes uneasy relationship between the Civil Rights movement and the later gay rights movement.

Our science

One of the major challenges of dealing with sexual minorities in a scientific context is that human sexuality means very different things in different cultural contexts. Eric Michael Johnson describes how a 5,000-year-old, possibly-male skeleton buried laying on its left side turned into a “gay caveman” in the retelling—even though he certainly wasn’t a caveman, and probably wasn’t gay.

By all accounts it seems that the UK Telegraph had the dubious honor of being first in this case, and in so doing committed two wrongs in just as many words: “Gay Caveman.” First off, a person living during the Chalcolithic (a period previously referred to as the “Bronze Age”) was not a caveman. This highly inaccurate term is usually used for Neandertals or Cro-Magnon humans, both of whom lived about 35,000 years ago.

In an incisive piece for the magazine Orion this March, Alex Johnson proposed queering ecology to better understand on humans’ relationship with nature. Earlier this year, I discussed the diversity of sexuality Joan Roughgarden found across the animal kingdom, and last week I delved into how natural selection might—or might not—act on human same-sex sexuality. Meanwhile Luke Swenson, a doctoral candidate in virology at the University of British Columbia, has been steadily producing great posts about the latest HIV research at his blog Going Viral since it launched back in February.

And that’s it for the Pride 2011 Diversity in Science carnival. Look for new editions of DiS in the near future!

Thanks to the contributors who sent in all these great posts, and many, many thanks to Alberto Roca at Minority Postdoc, who chose to relaunch Diversity in Science with this Pride Month carnival, and relentlessly rounded up a host, contributors, and a long list of cool resources to include in the Carnival.