By Jackson Howarth, Freelance Writer, British Science Festival 

The British Science Festival has always been eager to train a scientific eye on the heritage of its host cities, and with curious events like ‘Sussex heritage in the digital age’, and ‘Dead and buried: an anthropological tour of Woodvale Cemetery’, Brighton 2017 will be no exception.

Of course, no picture of Brighton’s heritage would be complete without reference to its position as the unofficial LGBTQ+ capital of Britain. At the British Science Festival, events like ‘Out Thinkers’ — where six LGBTQ+ scientists will present their fascinating research, while discussing LGBTQ+ experiences in academia — will also present an exciting opportunity to reflect upon Brighton’s history.

Attitudes within scientific communities largely reflect the cultures of the society they are embedded within. As such, LGBTQ+ researchers have suffered in their attempts to reconcile their sexuality and their science. In 2015 The Imitation Game illuminated this struggle, portraying code-breaker Alan Turing’s 1952 prosecution for homosexual acts, and his subsequent chemical castration and suicide. Turing was pardoned in 2013, but progress has been remarkably slow since his death. Until 2003, discrimination in the workplace was perfectly legal, and kept many LGBTQ+ scientists in the closet for fear of damaging their careers.

Recent legislation, most notably the 2013 Marriage act, has given the impression that discrimination is a thing of the past, but a homophobic legacy still haunts many scientific communities. I recently spoke to Kath Browne, professor of Human Geography at Brighton University, about the limits of equalities legislation. Kath will present: ‘LGBTQ legislation: a measure of progress?’ at this year’s British Science Festival.

Kath was sceptical of using legislation to judge LGBTQ+ progress. Instead her team relies on the participation of activists and other LGBTQ+ individuals, using their experiences to explore ‘what makes lives liveable or more bearable’.

I asked Kath about whether LGBTQ+ scientists’ lives have recently become more liveable, and she replied ‘Yes in Brighton, some have been lucky, but I don’t believe that people elsewhere aren’t struggling and having to prove themselves more than their heterosexual colleagues.’ Kath also explained how discrimination can impact research. For example, in the social sciences, heterosexual men are often favoured as observers because they are seen as the most objective, and free from sociological bias, which can skew results.

Alfredo Carpineti, organiser of ‘Out thinkers’ and founder of Pride in Stem, agreed with Kath. “Things are quite bad”, he lamented, pointing to two studies. One, from 2015 revealed that 43% of the LGBTQ+ workforce is closeted [1], and another from 2009 suggested that only 38.6% of LGBT staff are out, and of that group, a third have experienced discrimination [2].

To combat this, Alfredo explained, “departments of every university need to make sure that the research and the work environment is welcoming, independent of having an LGBTQ+ person or not.”  However, he also emphasised the need for other strategies: “picking LGBTQ+ events for the BSF and having representatives attending Brighton pride is helping to deliver science to a community which is often not targeted by science programs.”

He added, excitedly, that the events at this years’ Festival are a “wonderful show of commitment to the diversity and democracy of science by the BSA”.

For progress to continue, Alfredo insisted that “we all need to contribute to a continuous effort.” 

Gladly, I was able to reassure Alfredo that the inclusion of events like ‘Out Thinkers’, and ‘LGBTQ legislation: a measure of progress?’ are at the core of the British Science Festival’s values. The BSA’s mission pushes for a democratic science, where everybody is able to engage in the scientific processes now so influential in our lives. 

Alfredo admitted that “involving the wider LGBTQ+ community in science is an ambitious goal”, but in the past LGBTQ+ communities have provided inspiring examples of how citizens can shape scientific processes. Philosopher of Technology Andrew Feenberg has written about how in the 1990s, LGBTQ+ AIDS patients organised and were able to improve procedures for experimental treatment [3]. Likewise, Kath Browne explained that her research has been shaped by the eager participation of LGBTQ+ activists.

The participation of LGBTQ+ communities in science is therefore not only an issue of equality, but also vital for a diverse science. LGBTQ+ communities, despite discrimination, continue to demonstrate how a democratic science might work in practice.

Book your free tickets for the British Science Festival at: Follow us on Twitter, @BritishSciFest 

 [1] Jeremy Yoder, 'Queer in STEM: Workplace Experiences Reported in a National Survey of LGBTQA Individuals in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Careers', in Journal of Homosexuality, (2015)

[2] Jill Valentine et. al. 'The experience of lesbian, gay, bisexual and  trans  staff and students in higher education', Equality Challenge Unit, (2009)

[3] Andrew Feenberg, Critical Theory of Technology (Oxford University Press, 1991)