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Much To Be Proud Of

by Tom Welton
February 15, 2016 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 94, Issue 7

The following is a guest editorial by Tom ­Welton, professor of sustainable chemistry and dean of the Faculty of Natural Sciences at Imperial College London.

Two years ago, I was asked to write an article for the British newspaper The Guardian on why I thought that lists of the most influential LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people seem to never contain any scientists. The expectation was that I would write about the difficulties that scientists face when coming out as gay. They were in for a disappointment.

I live in central London with Mike, my now-husband and partner of 24 years. At the ripe old age of 52, I can look back at more than 30 years of being openly gay in both my personal and professional life. The U.K. of 30 years ago was a very different place for LGBT people. Discrimination was legally sanctioned under a particularly pernicious piece of legislation known as Section 28 (finally repealed in 2003), there was no recourse in law if you were fired from your job for being LGBT, and there was a broadly hostile culture. Not surprisingly, many people chose to remain “in the closet.” This all stands in very stark contrast to my experiences.

I was a Ph.D. student when I first told people that I was gay. I chose to not distract myself by pretending to be who I am not, but instead to put my energies into getting on with my life and my work. This turned out to be one of the more sensible decisions of my life.

My adviser at the time, Ken Seddon, was supportive, but was frankly more interested in my latest results in the lab. This positive attitude characterizes the vast majority of my interactions with chemists over the years. People are very friendly—Mike sometimes accompanies me to conferences where he is welcomed alongside other people’s partners—but again they are most interested in my work. This is just as it should be, but this was not typical of those earlier times. The chemistry community and profession have much to be proud of in this regard. At a time when much of the world outside and other professions were hostile to LGBT people, chemistry provided me with a safe place to be me and to get on with my work. I truly believe that being openly gay has had no adverse effect on my career in any way that I can see.

Perhaps my experience is highly unusual. I studied at the University of Sussex, a socially liberal university in a socially liberal town, and I have spent almost my entire working life at Imperial College London, in possibly the world’s most cosmopolitan city. Imperial’s external reputation is anything but liberal, but it is a powerfully performance-driven institution and what one does in one’s personal life is of no significance whatsoever. And I have colleagues from other universities and places who also feel that they have not been held back by being open about their sexuality.

I often hear from scientists who are not out about their fears of the consequences that it might have for their careers. I always tell them about the positive experiences that I have had. What is surprising to me is how surprising this is to them. Their expectation is that they will experience prejudice, if not hostility.

If, as a community, we did more to celebrate our inclusivity, we would go some way to being able to allay these fears. After all, all you need to be a full member of our community is to love chemistry, with all else being secondary. For example, many of us landed our current jobs after replying to an advertisement that had a diversity statement as part of it. Why shouldn’t we see something similar prominently displayed on posters for conferences? Simple acts like this would take little effort and make a big difference to all sorts of people, not just LGBT chemists.

I do need to say that I have presented a very Western view of the world. There are countries where being LGBT is not only illegal, it is currently punished with the death penalty. There are others in which repressive and corrupt regimes publicly vilify LGBT people who live in genuine fear. If the attitude of the chemistry profession provided a haven for me, when anything that I was facing pales into insignificance in comparison to these, imagine what it has to offer these people.

As to why lists of the most influential LGBT people seem to never contain any scientists—if you have a selection committee of actors, artists, journalists, and lawyers, guess who they pick.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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