Stranger Fruit

LGBT people in science

Onias raises an interesting question (to which I have no answer) in another thread, namely:

I was wondering if any of you folks at science blogs can discuss the issue of LGBT people in science. Apart from Jim Pollack, Alan Turing and a few others, we seem to be underrepresented. Is it due to something essential or innate in queer people? Is it because there is cultural pressure for gay people to work in other disciplines like fashion etc.?

Have at it folks. Any thoughts?


  1. #1 Maria
    April 26, 2008

    Are LGBT people underrepresented in science? The famous “1 in 10” number is an overestimate – the CDC claims 4% of the population identifies as homosexual or bisexual. That’s roughly consistent with the number of LGB faculty in both of the departments I’ve spent enough time in to know who’s openly gay.

    Not everyone is out, and some people who are out are still not vocal enough to get past the default assumption of heterosexuality. Bisexuals in particular are often assumed to be straight, if they have oppposite-gender partners.

    Not sayin’ it’s implausible that LGBT folks would still be underrepresented, but I’d be interested to see survey data.

  2. #2 bad Jim
    April 27, 2008

    Leonardo da Vinci, for one, though he was perhaps more an engineer than a scientist. Isaac Newton may have been gay. How is one to tell?

  3. #3 Lassi Hippeläinen
    April 27, 2008

    Im my field, the best known living example is Lynn Conway.

  4. #4 razib
    April 27, 2008

    the geneticist dean hamer is gay. and evolutionary ecologist joan roughgarden used to be john roughgarden.

  5. #5 Sunflower
    April 27, 2008

    That percentage seems about right for my neck of the woods, too.

    However, despite there being famous LGBT scientists around – one of the top guys in my subfield is openly gay – there aren’t a lot of famously LGBT scientists. Folks like Alan Turing were from an earlier era, when homosexuality counted as a sex scandal, and they suffered (publically) for it. That is no longer true. Now it’s not going to be obvious who’s oriented to what, unless you know the people in question well enough to hear gossip about their love lives.

  6. #6 John Lynch
    April 27, 2008


    Jonathan not John. FWIW.

  7. #7 Martin R
    April 27, 2008

    Not many archaeologists are openly gay. But since the field is variously sorted into anthropology and the humanities, most archaeologists today are loudly gay-friendly by principle.

    Come to think of it, I don’t really know what orientation many of my colleagues have. There’s a lot of sexual banter during fieldwork, but we never ask each other “are you straight or gay”?

  8. #8 Thony C.
    April 27, 2008

    This is a question that has been going through my head for a number of years now. As a historian of science it occurred to me that there are a fair number of people trying to right the wrongs in our received picture of the role of women in science but as far as I know nobody has tried to tackle the thorny question of LGBT involvement in the evolution of the sciences. For my part I would say that Isaac Newton was almost certainly gay but, and here is the main problem, a final proof of Newton’s sexual orientation would probably be impossible. Unless someone delivers a written statement of their sexual preferences it is almost impossible from historical sources to determine them.

    Of pre-modern mathematical scientists I only know of two who were definitely gay the first was the Austrian astronomer and mathematician Georg von Peuerbach (1423-1461) who wrote love poems to his lover who had committed suicide. I myself suspect that his most famous pupil Regiomontanus (1436-1476) was also his lover but when I suggested this possibility in the lunch break at a conference in Nürnberg (where Regiomontanus set up the world’s first ever scientific publishing house) I was basically told to shut up!

    The second was another Austrian astronomer and mathematician Georg Joachim de Porris (1514-1574), better known as Rheticus, the man who brought the manuscript of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus to print. Unfortunately Rheticus’ sexual preferences are known because he was accused and charged with homosexual rape of one of his students. Having fled he was never tried but found guilty of contempt of court for not appearing at his trial and the whole episode was swept under the carpet.

    An interesting question and an interesting theme but I have no idea how one could go about researching it.

  9. #9 Onias
    April 27, 2008

    I was actually discussing this with a physicist friend. I actually had the naïveté to suggest “John Maynard Keynes” before he exploded into a million little balls of fury 🙂

  10. #10 ebohlman
    April 27, 2008

    We’re all forgetting Sir Francis Bacon (yeah, he married a woman, but in his time and for a person of his social class, marriage was all about politics rather than love).

  11. #11 Julie Stahlhut
    April 27, 2008

    I think Sunflower’s got the best explanation so far. I personally know numerous LGBT people in science, engineering, and medicine, but that’s understandable because most of the people I know, regardless of sexual orientation, are in those fields anyway. Most scientists aren’t public figures outside their own fields, so while an LGBT scientist might be out at work, the coming-out simply isn’t as public an event as when the person is a celebrity.

    This is also anecdotal, but in my experience, biologists tend to have a live-and-let-live attitude about love and sex among consenting adults, similar to the attitudes Martin describes among archaeologists. The department where I got my Ph.D. was in a relatively conservative community had out faculty and students, and social events regularly included same-sex couples; the same is true in the department (in a more progressive city) where I’m now a postdoc. I don’t know whether we’re more or less welcoming to LGBT people than other professions are; that’s a question that can only be answered by well-designed surveys. But, maybe since science attracts pragmatic sorts, we tend to consider other people’s love lives to be their own business.

  12. #12 rjb
    April 27, 2008

    I’d have to agree with the sentiment that there are quite a few LGBT scientists who aren’t “known” as LGBT because it’s just not noted. In my experiences at several institutions, I have always had quite a few colleagues who are/were out. But probably outside of those who knew them, no one would know.

    Put it the other way… how do we know that the number of “straight” scientists is overrepresented? I myself have never filled out a survey one way or the other… those pesky “survey of earned doctorate” forms that follow me around the globe never ask.

    BTW, I’m at a smallish school where one science department is 50% gay. Of course, there are only 4 members in that department.

  13. #13 anonfor8
    April 27, 2008

    Having done my time in Chemistry and Math, I think 1 in 10 is about right but many are either heavily closeted and/or call themselves bisexual if they are open, probably again to reduce stigma. Although nobody in these disciplines are generally chest beating heteros, they do tend to be mostly men and mostly beta hetero males, and there is a lot of conservatism about things like other sexualities.

    Also, and this is probably a controversial statement, but the closer to get towards pure math (eg chem -> physics -> math), the more you tend to see a certain archetype of male who is what we would now call either Asperger or autistic. I’ve noticed that many of them do not react to women in a typical way but neither does that make them gay.. for some it’s almost what I would call asexual.

    I think that perhaps math or science ‘genius’ in general, is a type of neurobiological abnormality that affects a lot of other social and sexual functioning, which means that even those who are a- or bi- or homosexual may not exhibit that in expected ways.

  14. #14 Michael Kremer
    April 30, 2008

    Richard Montague (1930-1971), although officially a philosopher, developed an approach to the syntax and semantics of natural language (Montague grammar) which has been influential in theoretical linguistics, as well as making contributions to the foundations of mathematics.

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