Celebrating LGBTQ+ Astronomers and Scientists
As it’s nearing the end of Pride month, AstroSoc wants to celebrate the contribution of LGBTQ+ scientists. Diversity is important in all aspects of society, and we should recognise the importance of it within astronomy and STEM.
The first person we would like to highlight is Rachael Padman. Born in Melbourne, Australia, Padman graduated from Monash University with a degree in electrical engineering, with a specialisation in radio astronomy. When she was a PhD student at Cambridge university, she began her transition in 1977. She recalls in her autobiographical essay “Rachael’s Story” (linked below), how easy her transition was through university, and how supportive the faculty were, even though she was only the second out transgender student at Cambridge ever. In 1996 she was the first transgender woman to be elected a fellow at Newnham College, one of the 3 woman-only colleges in Cambridge at the time. There was unsuccessful opposition to this position as some member of the college’s governing body did not believe they should allow trans women into the college, Padman recalls that this opposition, and subsequent outing to the press caused her a great deal of stress, but finds that now she has emerged from that experience a much stronger person. Padman has been at Cambridge since 1984, and now works as the Director of Studies for natural sciences. Her story gives hope to young transgender students, who are worried about being openly trans in academia, as in her own words “intellectuals are so obsessed with other things that they simply don't notice what sex you are”.
Jessica Mink transitioned when she was 60 years old. She is an American software developer and data archivist, and was one of the team that discovered the rings of Uranus. Mink writes regularly for the Women in Astronomy blog, and has spoken at length about her transition and has discussed the benefits and drawbacks of transitioning much later in life. She recalls that she did not have many overt problems from the academic community, mainly because her previous work was of far greater importance than her gender identity. In relation to the general public as well, Mink recognises that her position as an astronomer in particular, along with the fascination of space by many non scientists, has allowed her to be seen as an astronomer first, and transgender second. She says, “my identity as an astronomer overrides my less-understandable and less-accepted identity as transgender.” Despite not having a PhD, Mink is a member of the American Astronomical Society and International Astronomical Union.
One of the most well-known gay scientists is Alan Turing, considered to be the father of computer science and artificial intelligence; he invented the Turing machine which is considered a model of a general-purpose computer. His work for British intelligence at Bletchley Park as a code breaker during the second world war is estimated to have shortened the war in Europe by two years and saved 14 million lives. His work wasn’t appreciated during his lifetime, in part due to his homosexuality. In 1952, he was charged with “gross indecency” and chose to undergo chemical castration as punishment instead of being imprisoned. Two years later he was found dead due to cyanide poisoning, which was ruled a suicide. In 2013, Turing was officially pardoned from his conviction, and in 2016 the government passed what is colloquially known as the “Alan Turing law” which retroactively exonerated all men who were cautioned or convicted under historical laws banning homosexuality.
Dr. Frank Kameny
Dr. Frank Kameny was an American astronomer and gay rights activist. In his astronomy career he conducted observations of variable stars, and in 1957 was hired by the US Army Map service. After refusing to answer questions pertaining to his sexuality, he was fired and never returned to the field of astronomy. He took his case to the US Supreme Court several times. Kameny worked as an activist and urged President Kennedy to end what is known as the Lavender Scare, where many gay men and lesbians were fired due to their sexualities. It is only in 2020 that being fired for your sexuality became illegal across all 50 states in the USA. He was the first openly gay candidate for the United States Congress in 1971, and following his defeat founded the Gay and Lesbian Alliance of Wshington D.C., which lobbied the government on issues of equal rights. Kameny continued to work as an activist until his final weeks in 2011, when he died of heart disease.
Posted by Ru McClure