Who inspired you to find who you are or who you could be?

“Dear Minister,
I am a twelve-year-old Queer. I want to be a Queer artist like Michelangelo, Leonardo or Tchaikovsky.”

As a child, Derek Jarman, the film-maker, artist and gay-rights activist, knew who his heroes were. He looked up to them because their art spoke to him. It could have been the male form freed from the grip of the marble by the hands of the sculptor, the ingeniousness and charm of the artist-inventor, or the emphatic and dramatic colour of the composer of ballet music, the earnest quality of their work validated his own ambition to be an artist – a Queer artist.

When I was
a child like Derek, it didn’t quite cross my mind that I could be like
Michelangelo, but I too had my heroes, and it happened they were all

Derek Jarman

At the
time, I loved a cartoon on TV that portrayed the lives of scientists and
inventors. I loved all about it: the ideas, the experiments and the quirky
details of the scientists’ lives. I decided I wanted to be a scientist as it
seemed to me no one else had a more meaningful life. There was another, more private,
reason for this choice: like Derek, I was queer too.

admittedly, there were no queer scientists in this cartoon I loved. There were,
of course queer scientists in the real world, but the narrator of this cartoon
forgot to tell that part of the story.

I don’t think it was a deliberate choice on my side, at least at that time, but the inspiration from the cartoon, weaved with my early fascination for the natural world, began to construct this idea of science.

It was the idea that the scientific method could be used to challenge preconceived ideas; it was self-correcting and anti-dogmatic; it was a method that opened our eyes to the external world of phenomena and relied on human tenacity, sometimes in the face of opposition or even discrimination.  

Youth has
ideals and my ideal was science.

When I look
back now, I think it gave me hope to challenge other assumptions in my life,
many of which were shaped by the authorities in my wider community. Despite
this hope, the answers to questions regarding human dignity were to be sought
somewhere else.

The fact
that minority rights are a political and moral issue dawned on me, in a very
embryonic form, one summer afternoon when I was about 12 years old. I cannot
remember how I acquired a copy of Martin Luther King’s biography but a passage remains burnt in my
mind with the vivid sense of sadness it communicated – “As if
the curtain had been dropped on my selfhood”

“Just before
going to college I went to Simsbury, Connecticut, and worked for a whole summer
on a tobacco farm to earn a little school money to supplement what my parents
were doing. […] I had never thought that a person of my race could eat
anywhere, but we ate in one of the finest restaurants in Hartford.

Dr. and Mrs. Martin L. King Jr. led the way into Montgomery, Alabama, during the 1965 march. Photo credit: Spider Martin. Image credit: Spider Martin, courtesy of Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

“After that summer in Connecticut, it was a bitter feeling going back to segregation. It was hard to understand why I could ride wherever I pleased on the train from New York to Washington and then had to change to a Jim Crow car at the nation’s capital in order to continue the trip to Atlanta.

“The first time that I was seated behind a curtain in a dining car, I felt as if the curtain had been dropped on my selfhood. I could never adjust to the separate waiting rooms, separate eating places, separate rest rooms, partly because the separate was always unequal, and partly because the very idea of separation did something to my sense of dignity and self-respect.”

The image of a curtain falling heavy on your sense of self was the trigger for my very sudden empathy for liberation efforts and the fight for equality. Concealment of your own Self has been the hallmark of many LGBTQ+ people as they grow up.

In Italy in the early 40’s, the fascist regime declared that ‘true Italian science’ must be Aryan.

In the book
‘In Praise Of Imperfection’, the Italian biologist Rita Levi
describes the moment in her early scientific career when the
racial laws of the fascist regime barred her both from University and
practicing the medical profession.

In a
climate of mistrust and oppression, a word of advice came to her from a former
collaborator: “One does not get discouraged so easily at the first adversity. You
must set up a small lab and carry on with you research,” citing the illustrious
example of Cajal, who initiated a whole field of exploration working in a small
lab in sleepy 19th century Valencia.

Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini in her lab, early 1960s

She collected
eggs from nearby farms, operating and growing them in a handmade incubator
housed in her own bedroom, while the war was raging around her. She managed to
complete her initial studies on the development of brain circuits in the chick
embryo, which won her the Nobel prize years later.

During her time at Washington University St Louis, Rita joined the protests of the civil right movement. She met Dr King and kept a poster of his picture in her lab, which was still hanging there when she died in 2012. A female scientist, a Jew, marching for the rights of people of colour: this was intersectionality ante litteram.

In England
in the late 80s, the AIDS epidemic reached the UK and the Government of the
time introduced Section 28 in the 1988 Local Government Act, banning the
intentional promotion of homosexuality in any form or through any type of
material. A period of harsh violence, both physical and emotional, engulfed the
LGBTQ+ community.

An early career researcher in cosmology, Peter Coles, decided to take to
the street to protest against the repressive measures made legal by Section 28. He also decided that he would not let any further comments
pass. In his words:

“ I think it only took
a few intercessions in the tea room or Falmer Bar for it to become widely known
in the Department that I was gay. That was how I came out in astrophysics, and
thereafter almost everyone just seemed to know.”

Repeal of
the infamous Section 28 came in 2003 and the last decade saw the legal
recognition of same-sex partnership and marriage. Trans people received legal
recognition of their gender in 2004. As a society we have yet to fully recognize
other conditions that affect the well-being and rights of LGBTQ+ people and put
adequate supportive policies in place. 

January 2019. The lecture room at the Institute of Physics is filled with
scientists at various stages of their career who are listening to Professor
Peter Coles, charting the progress over the past 30 years in his field
of research and the equally momentous changes in societal acceptance experienced
by the LGBTQ+ community.

I am here
too and I feel at home. How can one explain this feeling of empathy?

I hear one
of the organizers mentioning how important it was for them to come and live in
a big city like London, which facilitated meeting other LGBTQ+ people. Another
adds how being in a conference like this gives the same positive validation.
We can feel like a majority, for once.

It is a
meeting of excellent minds.

The talks
are filled with great science and abundant in humour. You can be yourself here,
you can feel relaxed and own your queer presence on stage. I leave and I am
determined not to let this positive feeling slip.

scientific community is looking within itself and sees how far more it needs to
go to invite the best minds in, irrespective of their social class, ethnicity,
sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, religion, neurodiversity and
another number of attributes.

societies like us have a role to play. It matters to us that the most passionate
individuals, with their unique combinations of life histories and
characteristics, should gain fair access to study, teach, research and promote
the value of biological sciences.

A recent report looked at the climate experienced
by a subset of LGBTQ+ scientists working in the physical sciences. In it, there
is a set of recommendations for individuals, institutions and scientific societies.

The recommendations cover strategies to create a welcoming environment, such as explicit support and encouragement from senior managers, active promotion and support for LGBTQ+ conferences, events and networking.

It also suggests policies to make the principles of inclusivity effective e.g. recognition of EDI committees; the use of pronouns and titles; safeguarding mechanisms; clear bullying and harassment policy and associated guidance and support.

The report also stresses the role individuals have in positively affecting their environment. As an LGBTQ+ person, you don’t have any obligation but being yourself, as long as this is safe and does not threaten your physical and mental well-being.

Allies are
powerful supporters of the community: they can advocate for change, use their
social capital for the good of fellow LGBTQ+ scientists, project inclusivity
and amplify support. We must all do our best to be active bystanders and
respectful advocates.

recommendation of the report suggests the value of building a visibly welcoming
community. The RSB promotes the LGBTSTEMinar
for scientists of all fields who can come together to talk science and be open
about what it means to be a LGBTQ+ scientist today. In the coming months we
will also look at additional ways to bring our own community together to
support LGBTQ+ scientists and allies working in the biosciences.

Saturday, members of the RSB will meet in London to march at in the Pride
Parade. I hope this day of celebration will spark conversations, build
friendships and lead us to an exciting new chapter for LGBTQ+ visibility and

This year’s banner for RSB marching in Pride

20 odd
years after that early fascination for science, I found my new heroes. They are
not drawn on paper but made of flesh and bones. They may have had quite
different lives from me but I am bound to them by a mutual understanding and
recognition of the difficulty they have experienced with being accepted for who
they are.

Today is your day. I have told
my story but I am sure there are plenty more interesting ones out there. If you
feel like sharing them, we are here to listen and learn
from each other.


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