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LGBT physicists: The interviews

27 February 2015

Scientists talk about their experiences as sexual and gender minorities.

In the March issue of Physics Today is a story about how the American Physical Society (APS) has put together an ad hoc committee to look into issues relevant to physicists who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT), or other sexual or gender minority. In the interviews below, seven scientists tell what it was like coming out professionally, how their sexual or gender identity interfaces with their careers, and how the environment could be improved in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.

Tim Atherton

From food products to liquid-crystal displays, soft-matter theorist Tim Atherton builds mathematical models to relate the microscopic structures to the macroscopic properties of such materials so they can be optimized for applications. A UK native, Atherton did his undergraduate and graduate studies at the University of Exeter. In 2007 he moved to Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, and in 2011 he joined the physics faculty at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, as an assistant professor. He is gay and a member of the APS ad hoc committee on LGBT issues. “I think if we pay more attention to climate issues, everyone will benefit,” he says.

Tim Atherton.
Credit: Geneviève Du Paul

PT: Why did you go into physics?

ATHERTON: In high school, I was split between English literature and physics. In the end I felt physics made more sense. After undergrad I thought I should get a job. My future PhD adviser called me. He was trying to find one of the other really good students, to offer him a PhD spot. He said, “What are you doing with your life?” I told him I’d actually just got this trainee consultant job at PricewaterhouseCoopers in Birmingham. He laughed and said, “You’re not doing that. You are going to do a PhD with me. Show up next Tuesday.” And I did.

PT: When did you come out professionally?

ATHERTON: For many years, I was quietly out. I didn’t see the two [being gay and being a physicist] as being related. There is something slightly countercultural about being a physicist. Like many physicists, that aspect of my identity was quite strong. I saw my identity as a gay man as somewhat coincidental.

I’ve really shifted my view. What motivated me to become an activist was when I was teaching advanced quantum mechanics at Case. At the end of the semester, one of my students emailed me. He said something like, “Thank you, Professor Atherton, for being an out professor. You’ve given me the courage to stop living in silence.” My first reaction was, What, I’m out? My second reaction was that every student—not just LGBT students—deserves to have empowering experiences from classes. And there are multiple ways we can empower our students. I would say that was a critical event in my life.

PT: Have you experienced bias in the physics context?

ATHERTON: I personally have not really received pushback. I have had threats of physical violence, but not in connection with physics.
There have been occasions where colleagues looked at me oddly, like, Why are you doing that?

When I was doing the visiting assistant professor job at Case, I had a slightly negative interaction with a younger creationist grad student, who was telling me rather frequently that I was going to Hell for being a homosexual.

One of my junior faculty colleagues and I noticed that at social events around the university, he would always be asked about his wife and kids, while no one ever asked if I had a partner. Other faculty would never enquire about my personal life. I’m not sure it’s a bad thing—they might not like what they hear! It’s very subtle, extremely subtle.

I would characterize my experience, when it’s been negative, as the chilly climate story. Actual harassment is the other story. It [happens to] a smaller number of people, but it does exist.

PT: What do you hope the APS committee on LGBT issues achieves?

ATHERTON: We have an idea of the issues, but the question is, are they anecdotal or are they indeed systematic? What I am hoping the committee will be able to do is get a better picture of what experiences are actually like. We may also get a better sense of how many LGBT people are in physics, and whether we are underrepresented or not.

Ron Buckmire

“There is this notion in STEM that your work is the only thing that should matter,” says Ron Buckmire, a math professor and gay man at Occidental College in Los Angeles, California. “But that’s not true, people produce the work.” Buckmire started out in physics, but switched to math because he “really hated doing experiments and things with my hands.” He works on problems inspired by the real world. In 2011 he took a leave from his academic position to serve for two years as a program director in NSF’s Division of Undergraduate Education.

Ron Buckmire.
Credit: Marc Campos/Occidental College

PT: At what stage in your career did you come out?

BUCKMIRE: I was never really not out. I was at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute from 1986 to 1994. In the summer of 1989, between my bachelor’s degree and the beginning of graduate school, I realized I was gay. I started running the gay student group, was elected as a graduate senator, and started writing for the student newspaper. My philosophy was always to be as out as possible.

PT: How does being gay interface with your academic career?

BUCKMIRE: It’s complicated. People think it’s a private thing. But no. If someone has pictures of their wife and kids on their desk, they are automatically advertising their sexual orientation. Advisers have to write letters, the same with employers. I am in the process of working with people to create an LGBT mathematics group. We are talking about things like, Should you be out on your resume? Should you be out with your adviser? Those are complicated things that people have to negotiate themselves.

When I was a graduate student, I met the then chair of Occidental College’s mathematics department because me and my boyfriend had attended a gay men’s movie night with him. He said, “When you are done with grad school, you should think about coming to Oxy. We have a minority postdoctoral scholarship, where you can check us out for two years, with a reduced teaching load. And it comes with a rent-free house.”

“Rent-free house” stuck in my mind. A couple of years later I did apply, and I got the job. That position switched to tenure track—without the rent-free house—and I’ve been here ever since. The network that I have because of different aspects of my identity included someone that did lead to a job, which often happens; in my case it was based on sexual orientation.

When I came to Oxy in ’94, domestic partner benefits did not exist, but within a year we had them. I advocated with human resources, saying this is something you should do for your employees. They did it.

PT: Have you experienced bias in the academic context?

BUCKMIRE: Not that I am aware of. The only thing, I had issues in some of my [teaching] evaluations. Students put bizarre comments that were related to my sexual orientation, like, “Why does he have to be so gay?” That complicated my tenure process.

PT: Is there anything else you would like to mention?

BUCKMIRE: We don’t even have the data to know if LGBT people are underrepresented in STEM. I think out-LGBT are, but I suspect that LGBT are overrepresented. There are many gay people who overachieve in many areas and spend so much time and energy focusing on that, they sublimate their sexual orientation. That is what I was doing. I was a chess champion at 14, flying around the world playing in chess tournaments. Because of this sublimation, I suspect LGBT people are probably overrepresented in STEM fields.

Someone’s identity, which may be considered socially marginalized—sexual orientation, race, language, ethnicity—should not negatively impact their potential to participate in STEM. The fact that institutions are starting to realize that out-LGBT are another group that needs to be acknowledged is encouraging.

Savannah Garmon

Savannah Garmon is a trans woman and theorist who studies open quantum systems in condensed matter and quantum optics. After earning her PhD at the University of Texas at Austin in 2007, she did postdocs in France, Denmark, and Canada before heading to Japan in 2012. Her first stint there was as a postdoc in Tokyo, and then last April she joined the faculty at Osaka Prefecture University. When she was harassed by colleagues in one of her postdoc groups, she “just toughed it out, and then left. It created a huge distraction.” Garmon shares her story and thoughts here.

Savannah Garmon.
Credit: Weng Feliciano

PT: At what stage in your career did you come out as transgender?

GARMON: I came out kind of at the end of my graduate student career. And I became open with everyone, not just people I knew, when I went to Copenhagen [as a postdoc]. That’s when I began to live outwardly as a woman.

PT: How has being trans influenced your professional decisions?

GARMON: On the whole, I have tried not to let it influence things. There was one institution where I was uncomfortable, and I left. At one point I was a bit hesitant to come to Japan, not because of any specific concern, I just didn’t know what to expect. But I decided that this is where the best opportunity is for me right now.

I actually knew my present head professor because I’d met him through my PhD adviser. He knew me pre-transition.

What’s most important, I feel I have good collaborators here, scientists I can work with, that I feel supported by, and that are interested in the things I am working on.

PT: Have you experienced bias from other physicists because of being trans? How did it affect your work?

GARMON: I have been in situations [as a postdoc] where people thought they were saying things amongst themselves, and they thought that had no impact, but actually it did, it definitely did. It went deeper than feeling shut out. It felt like I didn’t belong, like I shouldn’t be there.

I felt I didn’t have anyone to talk to about the work environment. And maybe that also played into me being hesitant to engage in physics conversations with some of the students. Sadly, that could mean a missed opportunity for collaborations, and maybe that’s an opportunity for good science that gets passed up. It also hurt on an emotional level.

There were days when I wanted to engage more strongly with my colleagues, but the environment as a whole just felt so deteriorated that more so I just wanted to leave. Those are missed opportunities too. It’s unpleasant to think back on.

I’m glad to say that I also had some really great postdoc experiences. Particularly I value the relationships I’ve had with my mentors in Toronto and Tokyo.

PT: What do you consider the most pressing issues for LGBT physicists?

GARMON: From a general LGBT perspective, there is above all a need to avoid making assumptions. For example, to make sure that the partner scenarios are inclusive, and dual-career scenarios can be accommodated in a way that isn’t making assumptions.

Also, in the career of a physicist, there is the postdoc period, which I think in many ways is a particularly vulnerable period. You work at the whim of your mentor. So a good practice to implement at a department level—and this is in the best practices guide [by the group LGBT+ Physicists]—is to assign postdocs an alternate mentor, someone to keep tabs on them, and give them advice on approaching the job market. Then, if someone feels some uncertainty, and feels they can’t talk to their primary mentor, they automatically have someone else to talk to. This could be helpful for all postdocs, not just LGBT people.

For trans people there are some specific issues. Name changes in relation to your publication record is one. And making sure that medical support is available is also very important.

In the context of larger climate issues, it would be good if physics departments would think about the issues, and talk openly about them, so that people create an inclusive environment. We don’t want an office environment that is completely sterile, but there is a difference between collegial banter, and things that border on someone being isolated. That message can be communicated in a lot of subtle ways, and the person communicating it may not even be aware that’s the message they are sending out.

Leslie Kerby

Leslie Kerby was a stay-at-home mom of five kids when she realized she was a lesbian. She upturned her life and is now finishing her PhD in nuclear engineering at the University of Idaho in Moscow. “I stand out in this field just because I am a woman,” says Kerby. “So being gay, you add that to it, I just stand out more.”

Leslie Kerby.
Kerby (center) with her two oldest daughters, Emily (left) and Alison, at an event where students from the University of Idaho, Idaho State University, and Idaho National Laboratory presented research. Credit: Julie Jacobsen/University of Idaho

PT: How did you happen to go into physics?

KERBY: I had heard physics was the most mathematical science. I loved math, but didn’t want to go straight into math. So I tried physics, and I loved it. And I still love it.

I married young, and finished my bachelor’s in physics, and basically was a stay-at-home mom for about 12 years. During that time, I taught physics classes as adjunct faculty at Brigham Young University—Idaho.

PT: You came out during a 12-year break between your undergraduate and graduate studies.

KERBY: Yeah. I was at a break in my career when I came out. I grew up in a conservative religion. What you did was you went and got married and had kids. So that is what I did. To me, I just couldn’t be gay. It was not even a thought.

The realization was gradual. Part of it was Proposition 8 [which in 2008 banned same-sex marriage in California], actually. That kind of brought the discussion to the table. My religion was highly involved in that, against same-sex marriage. But one day, I was resting, and it was like, all the sudden, something unlocked in my head and the sky opened. And I thought, “I’m gay.” And my response was, “Oh, so much makes sense now.”

I left my marriage and my religion all at the same time. It blew up my social circle. I really just started an entirely new life. I went back to science. I just want to mention that without the M. Hildred Blewett fellowship [for women returning to careers in physics] from the APS I am not really sure I could have finished my PhD.

PT: Have you experienced bias in the physics community?

KERBY: Both at school and work—some of my research has been at Los Alamos National Laboratory—I have had very little bias. There are a couple of people I can tell are uncomfortable, but I am fine with that. I figure that as they get to know me, they will get to know me, and that will kind of melt away. I am not necessarily a flamer, that’s just not my personality type, but I am not hiding.

PT: Has being lesbian influenced your physics decisions?

KERBY: I don’t think it’s necessarily been a factor in what I study. But I am about ready to finish my PhD, so I am looking for jobs. One of the really important things to me is that I have an employer that values diversity. So if they are not comfortable with me, then I am not going to be very comfortable with them. That could have an impact on where I work or the future field that I work in.

PT: Is there anything in particular that you hope the APS ad hoc committee on LGBT issues accomplishes?

KERBY: I think the more visibility we have the better. If the committee helps LGBT scientists be more visible, that is one of the things that makes the most difference. I think there are two ways a difference is made. Policies and laws are one way. The other is person to person. It’s slow, but I think it’s very deep. I have seen people really change their minds.

The other thing I’d like is for the committee to just find some data. Like, how many of us are there? That can be hard to find.

Rachael Padman

Rachael Padman grew up in Australia and moved to the UK in 1977 to do a PhD in radio astronomy at the University of Cambridge. She was admitted to what was then an all-male college at Cambridge, and became its first female graduate student when she transitioned in 1981. After a fellowship at the University of California, Berkeley, she returned to Cambridge as faculty, and has been there ever since. She tells her own story here. “I am not an activist,” she says, “but I am prepared to speak about things openly. I am happy to be a role model.”

Rachael Padman.
Credit: Warren Gunn Photography

PT: Why did you go into physics?

PADMAN: My father was a scientist—he was actually an army officer, but he went in as a scientist. He enjoyed showing us [kids] science tricks and toys. And I was good at it. I was fascinated by it way before I understood about careers. I remember when I was at primary school, we got asked what career we were thinking of doing. So I know that in 1961 I said that I wanted to be a computer technician.

PT: What were the challenges to openly transitioning?

PADMAN: The challenges were personal. They were mine. You are terrified about what people will think and say, and whether you are going to find yourself cut off from the human race. I wasn’t. People were just incredibly understanding about it.

Academically, for a short period, it made me shy of pushing myself out there, [of] giving talks and drawing attention to myself.

PT: How has being trans affected your career decisions?

PADMAN: There might have been an incentive to stick with people I knew, and not push myself out into another group of strangers. But it’s also true that from a place like Cambridge, there are not that many places you would go to and regard as being really a huge step up.

PT: Do you experience bias in the physics context?

PADMAN: I am not conscious of any bias on account of being trans, or at least that I can distinguish from straightforward gender bias. There have been times when people have ignored me, or where I’ve been passed over for something I thought I ought to get. I would not be surprised if people were looking for something more traditional—silverback males. I see this silverback behavior all the time—it’s entirely unconscious on their part. It’s an alpha male thing. They are good themselves, and they take it for granted that the sort of person who is good is someone like them. It’s very deep-seated. People always rationalize their decisions with something else that makes superficial sense.

PT: What can be done to improve things for LGBT scientists?

PADMAN: It seems to me that part of what has to be done is to give individuals confidence that the rest of the world doesn’t care. It’s down to the individuals. The way to normalize things is to have role models—a number of people who don’t mind that when people look at them they say, “She’s really great, and by the way, she’s trans.” People do know in my case, so when they say, as someone did recently, “We’d like to hear from you, you’ve been an inspiration to students in Cambridge,” it’s very flattering, but also that means that I have some responsibility. It seems like a cop-out to refuse to help with that normalization. I’ve had half a dozen or more students and a couple of junior staff come to talk to me. What they take from that is that in Cambridge it’s possible to be trans and to prosper.

PT: Is there anything else you would like to add?

PADMAN: Britain takes forever to do things, but when it does pass legislation, it passes very generous legislation. It’s a surprising country. In the UK we benefit from three remarkably generous acts of Parliament. There was the 2004 gender recognition act that provided a clear route for individuals to change genders officially. The 2010 equality act protects trans people as one of nine characteristics you absolutely cannot discriminate against. And then last year same-sex marriage was legalized. Once something is legal, it’s amazing how quickly public opinion comes to regard it as normal.

Michael Ramsey-Musolf

Michael Ramsey-Musolf is a theoretical physicist. He is also a gay man and an Episcopal priest. Before joining the faculty at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2013, he left three tenured and tenure-track positions due in part to unwelcoming environments. “There are still barriers, what people call the lavender ceiling,” he says. “I think it’s really important to break through those. Despite the barriers, it is possible to be successful and to thrive as a scientist and a person in this field.” He tells his story here.

Michael Ramsey-Musolf.
Credit: Roberto Amezcua

PT: What attracted you to physics?

RAMSEY-MUSOLF: My eleventh-grade physics class. Until then, I hated science. I had a fantastic teacher and got captivated by, particularly, modern physics, quantum physics, and relativity. It was so compelling that it was what I had to do.

PT: You came out during graduate school. How was that?

RAMSEY-MUSOLF: As with many gay and lesbian and sexual minority people, it’s a question of self discovery and courage and confidence level. My coming out came in the context of my religious life, and my prayer experience, where I found my courage. It was the late ’80s when I was at Princeton that that happened.

There is a mental energy that goes into figuring out who you are and being comfortable with it, and finding friends and community that are supportive of it. And remember that the late ’80s was in the thick of the AIDS epidemic, so it was a fraught time. And so the mental energy that some of my student colleagues would have been putting into their physics, for me went into learning to be comfortable with myself, and figuring out what it meant to be openly gay.

There are lots of anxieties anyway [for graduate students], and then add to that, Are people going to reject me? Am I going to be isolated? Am I going to be able to have a future in this profession? I didn’t know any out gay physicists. It was even more complicated for me, because I was also in the ordination process—was the church going to accept me? But thanks be to God, it worked out very well in the end.

PT: Has being gay affected your physics decisions?

RAMSEY-MUSOLF: I have moved a lot, some of it has been because of issues I have encountered because of my identity. I am not sure everyone in the physics community has been ready to have a successful openly gay physicist.

My first job was in southern Virginia. I left the South because it was not a place I could be sustained as an openly gay physicist and a priest. I don’t know if it was overt, or unconscious different treatment, but—to give one example—one day I came into my office at Old Dominion [University], and my computer was gone. I asked one of my colleagues there, and he said, “We needed it for the experiment, so if you need to use a computer you will need to get in line after one of the graduate students.” I was an assistant professor at the time. I left a tenure-track job to go to a non-tenure-track position in Seattle. I was there 1995 to 1998. I met my husband Darrel there.

Next I took a job at the University of Connecticut. I was tenured. There were some issues there that got to a legal level; there are restrictions on what I am allowed to say about it. But from my standpoint, my sexual identity was part of why what happened happened. Even though the department as a whole was supportive, it cost a lot of money, and a tremendous amount of stress.

So when there was an opportunity to go to Caltech, I went. I was there from 2001 until 2007. That was an outstanding place for me, but it was on soft money. When there was a downturn in federal funding, Darrel and I decided it would be wise for me to look for a tenured faculty job again.

I was hired as a full professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. That was again a mixed experience. There were incredibly supportive colleagues, and some whose behavior I later learned was homophobic. At the time Darrel was a PhD student. When he finished it was time to think about a permanent situation. He was offered a position at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and I was offered a position as full professor and as director of the new Amherst Center for Fundamental Interactions. This has been a very happy move for us.

PT: There is sometimes a sense that physics can be a good home for, say, socially awkward people, or really, anyone who does good physics. That is, it doesn’t matter who you are, only how good you are at physics.

RAMSEY-MUSOLF: Well in the end, for me, the caliber of one’s scientific work is what really matters. That’s why, I think, in spite of my experiences, I’ve been able to advance in my career.

PT: How does being an Episcopal priest fit in?

RAMSEY-MUSOLF: For me the work I do in the church has focused largely on at-risk youth. The way I see it, whether I am doing physics, or I am in the church, it’s all about understanding and appreciating the mystery of God and creation. Physics is addressing how the universe works, what are laws of nature, how do they give rise to the phenomena we observe? The religious question is, What is the meaning?

PT: Is there anything you’d like to add?

RAMSEY-MUSOLF: I think the vast majority of my physics colleagues want to do the right thing. But as with other gender and minority issues, there are parts of the community that are not all in that place, or people are not always aware, so there is a need to raise awareness and educate our colleagues about what the reality is for sexual and gender minorities. You never know when you might encounter prejudice. You can still worry whether it is safe to be out. But I am hopeful the environment is changing and that the next generation of LGBT physicists will not have to contend with the lavender ceiling. I hope to have somehow contributed to this positive change.

Julia Salevan

Julia Salevan is a third-year graduate student in mechanical engineering at Yale University. Their research is in experimental fluid dynamics and granular matter. Salevan identifies as genderqueer or nonbinary, and says they are “lucky to know other queer grad students, and other queer physicists of my age.”

Julia Salevan.
Credit: Robert Blum

PT: First, could you explain what genderqueer or nonbinary means?

SALEVAN: For me it largely means I just don’t strongly identify with gender. I spent a long time thinking of myself as a tomboy. As a girl interested in science and tech fields, I got lumped into that group, and it seemed like a fit for a long time. Over the past few years, as I was exposed to more and more people who were trans or genderqueer, I started realizing that maybe one of those identities was a better fit.

PT: How does your identification as nonbinary interface with being a physicist?

SALEVAN: It doesn’t usually. I’m not explicitly out in my lab, or among my colleagues, largely because it is kind of awkward. I can basically hide that I am queer—it’s called “passing privilege.” I am not comfortable with that, and it’s frustrating that it’s the easy choice.

I am gathering up the chutzpah to ask people to use different pronouns for me. I have friends who use more obviously genderqueer pronouns like xe, ze, and ey. I would prefer they/them for myself. It seems like they/them is both nongendered and not very obvious. It doesn’t make every time someone refers to me a radical act.

It bothers me that there are not gender-neutral facilities on the campus. I don’t want to have to make awkward decisions about bodily functions when I could be thinking about the experimental problem I am trying to solve.

PT: Have you experienced bias in physics contexts?

SALEVAN: I have never had a hostile work environment. And I’ve never been threatened in the workplace. No one has been disrespectful as far as sexual orientation or gender identity when I have talked about it.

But I do feel there is an implicit assumption that I am both female and straight. It feels like there is a barrier preventing me from contradicting that. It’s sometimes really uncomfortable to challenge the assumptions.

PT: Would you choose to be out when job hunting?

SALEVAN: That is a hard question. You don’t want to hurt your chances, but I don’t hide my activism. I think I would prefer to be completely out.

If I were to go into industry, and I may well, there are much larger and more visible queer communities in industry than in academia. Tech companies have been on the forefront of providing support for their queer employees.

PT: Is there a message you would like to get across to the broader physics community?

SALEVAN: I think it’s important for queer people in physics to know to whom they can safely talk about it. The physics community is majority heterosexual male, and it would be helpful if people assumed less about their peers.

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