Friday, January 11, 2013

Out of breath at the AAS


I'm out of breath for two reasons.  First, I stayed up until 2 AM dancing at the big party at the annual American Astronomical Society (AAS) meeting.  Picture eight hundred sweaty, grinning, goofy scientists bouncing around in a variety of tempos on a packed dance floor.  It's so awkwardly goofy and charming there aren't words.  This may sound corny, but the AAS dance party gives me hope that we are building a better profession, where we want our scientists to make amazing discoveries -- and be happy.

But what really takes my breath away is how quickly the situation is changing regarding the inclusion and acceptance of lesbian, gay, and bi scientists in my profession.

When I attended my first AAS, I was a deep-in-denial undergrad, sublimating my confused passion into problem sets.  In my heart I knew I wasn't straight, but I hadn't realized I could be a lesbian.  I didn't know any gay people, except for one poetry professor (heart).  I knew it was possible, though really hard, to be a successful woman scientist, but I didn't think there were any gay scientists.  All this sounds so unbelievably quaint now, the foghorn of the Titanic may Blwwoooorn any minute.

After I came out in grad school, someone invited me to the AAS LGBT networking dinner.  We were to meet at the registration desk at an appointed hour.  Many of the crowd were regulars -- we just celebrated the 20th anniversary of this dinner!  But for a newcomer it seemed really closed and closety.  Were we ashamed?  Did we need to be afraid of being noticed?  I scanned the crowd.  "Um, are you guys going to, um, the dinner?"  Blank stares, wrong group.  Once I found the right group and walked to dinner, it was wonderful.  I met a scientist whose partner was also in academia.  Their institution recruited them as a two-body hire, and they had domestic partner benefits!  I was at a queer-unfriendly university at the time, so this story sounded like unicorns on roller-skates to me.

That networking dinner was a lifeline.  We bitched about some of the hurtful comments we'd gotten, we sympathized about the difficulty of living apart from partners because we couldn't find jobs together, or couldn't get visas.  We dished about which institutions were "tolerant", and which were hostile.  We bragged about what famous astronomers at our institutions were okay with us being gay.  We lamented that many of the activists for women in astronomy wanted us to go away, because lesbians weren't "real women" in science -- we were an unsympathetic distraction from their goal of enabling the straight woman scientist to raise a wholesome nuclear family.  We also laughed an awful lot, told jokes, mentored, listened, shared.  I don't remember talking much, but I remember inhaling it all.  Here were grad students, postdocs, planetarium and observatory staff, and actual faculty members who were gay and succeeding in science.

In math, an existence proof isn't a general solution, but one that demonstrates that the problem is solvable.  That LGBT networking dinner was my existence proof.  Yes, I could integrate the two intense, simultaneous metamorphoses of my life in graduate school: becoming a real astronomer, and falling deeply love with a woman -- into a whole person, the new me.  An AstroDyke.

This year, for the first time the AAS meeting included an LGBT reception.  It was announced in the conference program, and advertised by bulletin board and business cards.  The turnout was at least 80 at any one time, a happy buzzing crowd, enjoying and building community.  It was the Coming Out party for LGBT inclusion and diversity in astronomy.  Queer students, postdocs, and faculty members attended, as did department heads and the president of the AAS.  Even a few people whom I feel weren't very helpful in the past, were there proudly showing their support now.  Folks sipped wine (sponsored by a defense contractor, sigh), and talked about how to build a more inclusive profession.  Then the queers went off to a fabulous networking dinner, marveling at how times have changed.

The next morning I wandered around the poster hall, wondering if I'd dreamed it all.  Did most of the places where I'd applied to be a postdoc really not have domestic partner benefits?  Was it really true that my advisor, an otherwise great mentor, told me he couldn't help queer couples solve the two body problem, because they weren't married and who knew how long such relationships would last?  Is it really true that my first interaction with the director of my postdoctoral institution had to be asking for them to add DP benefits, so that my partner would have health insurance when she moved to be with me?  (They did, to their credit.)

At dinner following a recent colloquium I gave, a postdoc asked, politely, why we as a profession should worry about LGBT inclusion in astronomy, when the problems of women and minorities are much harder.   He was really surprised by my response, that in my own career, it's been much harder to be a gay person in science than a woman in science.  He had no idea.

That's changing.  At this year's dinner, one of the undergrads, when I asked what the AAS should be doing to promote LGBT inclusion, apologized -- he had nothing to add, because he had no negative experiences being gay and a science major.  "Good," I said. "I want that to be true your whole career."  We're not there yet, not nearly yet.  We're still a profession that favors straight white men.  It's still much harder to be black, or queer, or a parent.  

But it's getting better.  The students at the AAS this year included a gentleman with a foot-long spiky pink mohawk, a young man in a kilt, tons of women, including ones with skirts and nebula-print tights.  I saw quite a bit of blue hair, and a few men leading their young children through the exhibit hall.  I was encouraged to meet African-American, Native American, and Latino students, though their numbers are still far too small.  We are slowly becoming the profession I want us to be.

We are still not an inclusive profession when it comes to LGBT issues.  There are still significant legal as well as policy barriers that trip up the careers of LGBT scientists, and we still sadly encounter unsupportive, even hostile workplace climates.  This stuff's gotta change.  Over the next year, WGLE, the AAS's Working Group for LGBT Equality, will make a roadmap for how astronomy departments can support LGBT inclusion and remove discriminatory practices in their workplace.  If you care about these issues, please join WGLE (1-2 emails per month).  Just send an email to wgle@aas.org.

Oh, and the last wonderful thing is that at the last two AAS meetings, I met a few other queer women to dance with.  G-rated stuff, mind you.  Just goofily grooving to the music, finding community, gaining strength to go back to our own institutions, be our fabulous selves, and succeed in science.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Asteroid Frank Kameny

I'm behind on posting, but this was welcome news:  there is now a minor planet named for LGBT civil rights pioneer and former astronomer Dr. Frank Kameny.  Thanks to amateur astronomer Gary Billings for choosing to name an asteroid he discovered for Frank.

My previous posts about Frank Kameny here, here, and here.

SALLY RIDE

Wait, Sally Ride is dead? 
Wait, Sally Ride was a lesbian? 


Yesterday I was delighted to learn that there are finally American athletes among the gay Olympians (go Megan Rapinoe!)  I was thinking about my own Olympic ambitions*, and about the complex way that adults relate to (or reject) their childhood dreams and idols.

This morning, reading the news, I stopped cold at this paragraph from the end of Sally Ride's obituary:

Survivors include her mother, Joyce; and a sister.  She is also survived by her partner of 27 years, Tam O'Shaughnessy.  The two women co-wrote several books, including "The Third Planet" (1994), which won the American Institute of Physics Children's Science Writing Award.
I had to read that paragraph several times to be sure it said what I thought it said.  Sally Ride was a lesbian?  The Washington Post and New York Times chose language so quaint they could have used the phrase "Boston marriage".  But at least they mentioned Dr. O'Shaughnessy as a survivor, so she's ahead of Annie Leibovitz.  But that's not my point.


My point is that Dr. Sally Ride -- astrophysicist, astronaut, pioneer, inspiration to millions of women of all ages including this astrodyke -- was a lesbian.

Counting backwards twenty-seven years, Drs. Ride and O'Shaughnessy must have begun their relationship in 1985.  In 1985, Dr. Ride was still a NASA astronaut in training for her third mission.  Being gay was still legitimate grounds for dismissal from federal employment.  The president refused to say the word AIDS.   In 1985, there were absolutely no out lesbian role models, except infamously Ride's mentor Billie Jean King, who in 1981 had lost every sponsor after being outed. There are closets and then there are closets.


I am trying to imagine how Dr. Ride must have felt in 1985, as one of the most recognizable women on the planet, when she realized that she was falling in love with another woman. As an intensely analytic person, she must have tallied the magnitude of the potential public scandal.  Can you imagine if she'd been outed in 1987?  I have to wonder if the weight of it didn't accelerate her departure from NASA.

I hate the closet, and have little empathy for anyone who chooses it today.  We all have a duty to come out, to live openly and honestly.  To do otherwise is to lie about who we are and what we value.

I can say that today.  But take a moment and put yourself in Sally Ride's astronaut booties circa 1985.  Can you really blame her for not coming out?  Yes, I wish she'd come out in her retirement.  It would have accelerated our nation's evolution toward respect for its LGBT citizens, and it would have washed away continuing discrimination toward lesbians in traditionally male-dominated professions.

It's hard enough to think back to the attitudes of the 1980s, when Sally Ride was asked at press conferences if she'd wear a bra in space.  But as much as women's rights have advanced, LGBT rights have advanced much further.  In terms of societal acceptance of LGBT people, 1985 might as well have been a hundred years earlier, when Willa Cather was passing as a man at U. Nebraska.  A person can only be a pioneer so many times.

Sally Ride broke down barriers for women in physics, science, space, and government, inspiring and enabling many of us -- gay and non-gay -- to pursue our dreams.  I honor her life and mourn her death.

And I think back to the young girl I was in 1988, when I attended a lecture by Dr. Sally Ride at the local college, and got an autograph that I still have.  In 1988 Sally Ride had been in love with her partner for 3 years.  In 1988 I was a little kid with stars in her eyes, who had heard that women couldn't be scientists or astronauts, but who knew that couldn't be true, because there was Dr. Sally Ride.

Sally Ride was a role model, a scientist, an explorer, a lesbian, an incredible woman.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Seeking scientists for It Gets Better project

I'm a big fan of the It Gets Better project, which reassures queer kids who are getting bullied that life will get better.  That there's a whole gorgeous life waiting for them, if they just survive their teen years and resist suicide.

I've seen Apple Employees, White House staffers, all kinds of neat people make videos for It Gets Better.  Why not scientists?  Anybody interested?

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The accelerating universe: still blowing minds

A few months ago, the wif and I were sipping bad beer in a hole-in-the-wall bar, part of a weekly queer happy hour of friends and friends-of-friends.  I had planned an evening of kvetching about officemates and such, but instead, I got sucked into this intense conversation with a new acquaintance about dark energy.  I tried to keep up with her rapid-fire questions, by explaining about the expanding universe, how it's expanding ever faster and faster, that we don't know why, but blame some sort of dark energy or cosmological constant.  Basically I blew her mind.  Didn't mean to.  Really just wanted to talk about politics or TV or the LA Dodgers ownership fiasco.  But I blew her mind.

This was something she'd never heard of, but was absolutely fascinated by.  And this was a well-read, well-educated, news-following person.

Which made me realize that, although astronomers have (reluctantly) accepted that the concordance cosmology is what our experiments tell us over and over again is true, the public really hasn't internalized it yet.  Even though the accelerating universe was the 2011 Nobel Prize.   Over and over while giving public talks, I'm asked about The Big Crunch.  And I have to say, "That's so 1975!  Not only will the Universe never contract into a Big Crunch, it's flying apart!"

So what's up with that?  Are we just bad at explaining stuff?  Or is the behavior and ultimate fate of the Universe really not something every educated person should know?

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Astronomers to recognize Frank Kameny's contribution

This week is the superbowl of astronomy:  American Astronomical Society (AAS) winter meeting.  Several thousand astronomers will be networking, sharing new results, and awarding prizes for standout contributions to our science.

At the meeting, the AAS will honor LGBTQ civil rights leader and former astronomer Dr. Frank Kameny with a certificate recognizing his contributions to society.  While the grass-roots effort to honor Dr. Kameny got started while he was alive, sadly he passed away before the award could be given.   Several queer astronomers will accept the certificate in memory of Dr. Kameny.

I wish Frank had lived to see the ceremony, or that astronomers had gotten their acts together to honor him earlier.  After Frank was fired in 1957 from US government astronomy job for being gay, he walked away from astronomy.  After all, he had no recourse -- homosexuality was considered a psychosis. Frank played a key role in changing all that, and those of us who live openly and honestly owe him big time.   But I wonder if he missed his former profession --  taking data on the mountaintop, analyzing it late at night in the lab, going to lectures, trying to figure out how the Universe works.  Anyone know if Frank talked about this?  Would he be satisfied to be be recognized by his former profession?

The kind folks at AAVSO will be bringing their signed copy of Frank's astronomy PhD thesis, as a sort of physical memory of Frank, to be there when his citation is read.  Not sure if that's cheesy or profound, but I like it.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Will astronomers recognize Frank Kameny's contributions?

Dr. Frank Kameny is the most famous former astronomer that astronomers don't know.  Within the gay rights' community, he was a pioneer:  co-founder of the Mattachine society (an early gay rights organization); a scientific conscience that challenged the American Psychiatric Association's classification of homosexuality as a disorder as grounded in prejudice rather than science; an agitator to remove the ban on gays from serving in the government or holding security clearances.  Moreover, Dr. Kameny was a moral force who led by example, showing that gay people didn't need to hide in the shadows, grateful not to be beaten up.  Rather, we could stand up and demand fair treatment and equality.  For most of the last 50 years, that was a radical notion.

Dr. Kameny was fired from government service in 1957 for being gay.  In 2009, the White House formally apologized for his firing.  While this was a big deal in the gay rights' community, it didn't get much noticed by astronomers.  I find that very curious.  After all, the 2010 Decadal Survey (our every-ten-year examination of our profession's priorities) notes that "not all highly capable students" who are "trained in astronomical research" "will take up long-term positions in astronomy" (what a wishy-washy statement on the job market!), and that therefore students should be "educated and exposed to issues of public policy."  So, students: go read about Frank.  Professors:  include him in your "exploring career paths" workshop.  (You have one, right?)  

Two new Facebook groups seek to recognize Frank's accomplishments.  You can buy him a drink to thank him for his activism (actually it helps pay his utilities, but who's counting?), or you can support the creation of a Frank Kameny prize by the American Astronomical Society. 

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Geeky Apple employees explain why It Gets Better

I've enjoyed several videos from the It Gets Better project, but so far, my favorite is this one from Apple employees.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Milky J is back

In the next installment, Milky J, the Hubble-obsessed rapper from the Jimmy Fallon show, learns about the James Webb Space Telescope and what it can do that Hubble can't, by visiting the cleanrooms at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.  NASA was tickled to have him.  Two behind the scenes rundowns, the former with links to Milky J's other Hubble episodes.

I like the Milky J saga in part because it wasn't NASA's idea.  G(enerally anything with "NASA" and "rap" in the title will be a cringe-worthy attempt by a mission's PR department.)  But this emerged organically, and NASA is embracing it after the fact by letting them film on location.

Also, I was pleased to see two women among the NASA engineers whom Milky J meets.  It's not commented on in the piece -- they're just astrogeeks doing their job, trying to convince Milky J that JWST beats HST by spouting sensitivity limits and science cases.  But I noticed it for the following reason.

Last month, two of my colleagues visited an inner-city summer program for African-American elementary school kids.  As you would expect, the kids drowned these "real live astronomers" in questions about black holes, planets, aliens, the works.  Several of the kids were truly incredulous that women can be scientists, and blown away to meet a real-life woman scientist.  So for the sequel (they have so many more questions!) we're sending two women astronomers, one of them me. I can't wait -- I love that kind of spontaneous Q&A with kids.  (Last week at friends' house, their older kid asked me, "So, what is space inside of?"  I mean, that's GR right there.)

I would have thought that pathologists-in-labcoats TV shows would have gotten kids used to women as scientists.  But then I go to classrooms, and one of the many things that the kids are blown away by is that I'm a woman.  There's a standard classroom activity for young kids, where you ask them to draw a scientist.  Without any prompting they draw a bearded white man in a labcoat.  Which is a jumping-off point to talk about what scientists do, what clothing they wear to do science, famous women and minority scientists, etc.

Monday, August 2, 2010