Queer Physicists Speak Out

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Queer Physicists Speak Out


Rachel Kaufman, Contributing Writer 

Dr. Long installing the solenoid for the University of New Hampshire’s new DNP polarizer. Photo Courtesy of University of New Hampshire.

In 2009, Elena Long attended her first conference as a physics grad student. Long, who is transgender, raised her hand in a Q&A session for women in physics, asking where the resources were for people like her—physicists who were LGBT. "I naively thought they were out there somewhere," she says. "After asking that, the whole room fell silent. And then somebody piped up, saying, 'Uh, we never thought of that.'

"Which was a little bit devastating at the time," she says. But after the session, people came up to her to start sharing, not published resources but names of allies who could help. That led to a listserv and website (http://lgbtphysicists.org), which led to a roundtable, which led to a session at the APS March Meeting at which APS CEO Kate Kirby sat in the front row. And that led to the APS LGBT Climate in Physics report, the first of its kind, published in March 2016.

The survey underpinning the report reached over 300 physicists who identified as belonging to a gender or sexual minority. The results? Not surprising to the survey leaders. "A lot of the data is depressing but not entirely surprising, " Long says. Transgender people were misgendered by their colleagues frequently (40 percent of the time); more than one in five (22 percent) of respondents reported experiencing exclusionary behavior; and over a third (36 percent) considered leaving their institutions, a consideration strongly correlated with an uncomfortable workplace climate and the observation of exclusionary behavior.

In fact, "observation of harassment was a stronger predictor of someone considering leaving their department, workplace, or major than experience of harassment," says Ramón Barthelemy, APS/AIP sponsored AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow and a coauthor of the report. "When people are being harassed and it's seen, it affects everyone around them. From a policy standpoint, that's sort of a crucial thing to know. Harassment doesn't affect just the percent of people that say they are being harassed actively, but just observing has an impact."

That’s a huge problem for physics departments that want to hire and retain the best professors and students. If simply seeing someone else experience harassment is enough to drive away talented people, then physics departments, professors, and SPS chapters have even more motivation to make everyone feel welcome.

The importance of having this data can't be overstated. "Particularly for trying to get buy-in from other physicists who want to become allies, a number of [people] have said, 'There's no data on the issue, so obviously there's no problem,'" Long says. The new survey belies that claim.

The report itself was also a bit incendiary, just for reporting the results, Barthelemy says. "We received tons of harassment when the report came out. But we turned that around and said 'Look, this is what happened.' A lot of physicists who had said [discrimination] isn't a problem, [then] said, 'I just never knew.' It's my feeling and hope that most people…just needed the data to turn them. True physicists will listen to data."

So the data show that harassment of LGBT physicists is, in fact, a problem. So what do we do, as a community, about it?
Luckily, another effort spearheaded by the same group of LGBT physicists is available to help: the Best Practices guide, a free document showing physicists what they can do today, tomorrow, and over the long term to make an LGBT-friendly climate. The Best Practices guide can be found at: http://lgbtphysicists.org/files/BestPracticesGuide.pdf. Sample "today" ideas include using gender-neutral language, like "bring your spouse or partner" rather than "bring your wife," paying attention to climate in classrooms, and adopting a policy barring offensive language. Longer-term suggestions include lobbying for adding "sexual orientation" and "gender expression or gender identity" to the university's nondiscrimination policy and creating a trans-friendly bathroom policy.

This guide "has been the most important thing we've done," Long, now a postdoctoral research associate at the University of New Hampshire, says.

Through it all, most (but not all) of the work putting together resources and guides for departments that want to be LGBT friendly has been done by members of the LGBT physics community itself. "It's definitely been a massive amount of work," Long says. "It would have been nice to just have [these resources] and not have to do it all, but…I chose to step up to survive in the field—and I just wanted to know I wasn't the only one.

"I want there to be more LGBT physicists, and I don't want young people to look at this career and find people telling them to never be themselves at their job. I don't want anyone else to have to go through what I did," she says. 

The APS LGBT Climate in Physics report can be downloaded at www.aps.org/programs/lgbt/. Image courtesy of the American Physical Society.

Honored in late 2016 as one of “Nature's 10: Ten people who mattered this year" for this work, Long says, "It's one of the best things I've ever done, because it means that the next generation of LGBT physicists is not going to be as isolated as all of us have been." //

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