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It's great if you're straight?


In an ideal world, gender and sexual orientation would be as relevant to academic success as hair colour and shoe size. A general shift in attitudes, as well as legal obligations, has certainly brought equality closer to women in science. But what about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) scientists? It seems that although gay men broadly feel accepted in the academic community, there is still a long way to go before the full spectrum of gender and sexual diversity feels welcomed with open arms.

To start with, here's the legal bit. Since last year, the " Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2003" have been in place in the U.K. to protect all employees against both direct and indirect discrimination, victimisation, and harassment on grounds of sexual orientation. In principle, employees who experiences such discrimination have the right to be heard before an industrial tribunal, where their employers must demonstrate that they did not behave in such a way. The regulations also outlaw discrimination by institutions of further and higher education, which should ensure protection for graduate students as well. Following an E.U. directive, similar standards apply across Europe.

But what is the situation really like on the ground for LGBT scientists? Peter Coles is Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Nottingham. He mostly describes himself as gay and feels no need to be secretive about his sexual orientation. "Most people I have met in scientific settings have either not been interested in what my sexuality is, or have just accepted it," he says. "What they say behind my back does not concern me greatly." Coles certainly thinks his sexual orientation hasn't held back his career, as he became a professor at the age of 35. He advises any LGBT scientists to not worry excessively about the issue, commenting that "the only thing to fear is fear. Scientists are basically nice people, even the straight ones!"

Mike Reading, who recently also became a professor of pharmaceutical characterisation science at the University of East Anglia, has had a similar experience since he became openly gay 8 years ago. "I have never experienced any prejudice," he says, and in fact, "people have gone out of their way to make it clear that they are O.K. about it all." To him, "scientists are amongst the least likely to be prejudiced against someone just because they are gay." He recommends that as soon as they feel able to, LGBT scientists should "'come out'" at work. Otherwise "there is the danger that maintaining a distance between yourself and your colleagues will lead to alienation which, in turn, will make it more difficult to come out in the end," he explains. "The potential for this to become a self-reinforcing problem that blights relationships at work, which could otherwise be very pleasant, is obvious."

The experience of Ajit,* a Ph.D. student in physics and material science at the University of Twente in the Netherlands, suggests that such acceptance from the scientific community is not restricted to more senior career stages. If anything, Ajit has encountered more negativity from the gay community for being a scientist. He comments, "They think you are some kind of alien or an incomprehensible nerd! Sometimes, I feel more comfortable among my colleagues than hanging out with the gay crowd." Still, he has found science-friendly support through the Internet, including networks such as Genius in the Netherlands. As for career prospects, he is  upbeat. "I would like to get into a gay-friendly research company or university, but at the same time I would prefer if they accepted me for my skills and not because of my sexual orientation," he says.

Still, it seems that things get a little more complicated when you are lesbian, as Nicki's* experience as a Ph.D. student in the male-dominated world of physics would suggest. Even though she found some support from the women in the department, most notably a female mentor, and from the University LesBiGay Society, she struggled with the attitude of most of her male colleagues. She found that they were very uncomfortable about the idea of working with a lesbian. "People weren't directly rude to my face, but they would make [homophobic] jokes, assuming I wouldn't be offended although I was."

This open homophobia made it hard for Nicki to maintain working relationships with her boss in particular. "In retrospect, telling my boss was a big mistake," she says. "He never saw me in the same light again, although perhaps I was naïve [in the first place]." Nicki now thinks that "it's probably best never to mix your personal and work life, keeping the two personae separate." However, not everyone can work like this, and Nicki found that she couldn't. "The attitudes I faced, coupled with the male-dominated environment, were probably what drove me out of physics," she says.

Alison* also has a difficult story to tell. As a bisexual male-to-female preoperative transsexual at a prestigious U.K. academic institution, she says the harassment she suffered during her Ph.D. work drove her close to suicide. She explains that daily bullying and intimidation by strongly homophobic people within her department led her to working in the lab at night, while she also claims to have been denied access to equipment and training. She says false allegations of paedophilia were also made against her.

Alison decided to go "to the equal opportunities commission to see if I could take [my claims] to an industrial tribunal." Unfortunately, this was before the 2003 Act, and "they said that the Sex Discrimination Act (1975) doesn't apply to university students." As a consequence, she is currently following the university's internal complaint procedure, along with a female-to-male transsexual student in the same department who also experienced harassment. Ultimately, to the eyes of Alison, the university is unwilling to take a stand against academics who brought in substantial funding and deal effectively with the problem of homophobia.

Alison is now pursuing research elsewhere as a postdoc, even though she cannot be awarded her Ph.D. by the university (despite having passed her viva) until the matter is settled. The complaint procedure has now been going on for nearly 2 years and she says it is still having an impact on her career. "The academic world is a small one, so I have lost out on collaborations since completing my Ph.D.," she explains, "I feel I need to do a lot of catching up."

On a more positive note, Alison has found a new workplace where she feels "there is no prejudice" and as a whole she feels accepted within the academic community. "Sometimes there are a few giggles when people first see you, but after you talk to them they're OK," she says. "At conferences, most academics are fine. So far, I have asked intelligent questions, which probably helps to show I am a scientist first and a transsexual second." Alison would advise other transsexuals "in addition to choosing an LGBT-friendly supervisor, choose a department that is too. Your supervisor can be very supportive, but they are unlikely to stick their neck out if senior members of the department are prejudiced."

U.K. and European scientists struggling with work issues related to their sexual orientation should turn towards local and university LesBiGay groups who offer support and advice. The U.S.-based National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals, affiliated with AAAS, provides information and support for LGBT scientists in all fields of research.

But ultimately, shouldn't it be the responsibility of the entire academic community to eradicate prejudice and value people for their work and ideas rather than their sexual preferences?

* Names have been changed.

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