February is LGBT History month and this year I pledged to make even more effort to showcase and represent even more diversity on Soph talks science and that includes the LGBTQ+ community. So to celebrate LGBT History month on Soph talks science, I asked the wonderful Ive V to write a guest post for me after spotting her incredible scicomm when she took over The STEM Squad Instagram account recently. And I was delighted when she said yes!
Ive is a science communicator and YouTuber. A neuroscientist by training, she recently completed her B.Sc. at McMaster University. Now, Ive communicates science through writing, storytelling, and YouTube! Her channel tackles quirky science questions like “Why is candy crush so addicting?” and “Do birds pee?” She is an advocate for women in STEM and actively works to make science a more inclusive space for everyone. One day, Ive hopes to host her own science TV show. She is always up for an adventure, from hiking, to dancing, to rock climbing! But for now she is her to tell us all about the Untold History of LGBT+ Scientists!
I’m Ive. I’m a queer scientist. When I was first coming out, I looked for prominent figures in the history that I was now part of — queer history. I started to realise that on most lists of queer historical figures, there are few or no scientists. On lists of historical scientists, none of them are queer.
When I asked on Instagram, the only queer scientist that my audience knew – without Googling – was Alan Turing. He was a pioneering mathematician and subject of the 2014 movie The Imitation Game. While he is an important figure in history, he can’t be the only one. Did queer scientists pop out of nowhere in recent decades? Or have we always been around?
Before we explore these questions, let’s get the basics down.
LGBTQ+ is a term that encompasses a range of identities, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer. The plus symbol (+) acknowledges groups that often aren’t included in the short short initialism, including intersex, asexual, non-binary, pansexual, and two-spirit. Queer is another term that some members of our community use as an umbrella term to describe the queer community, queer events, and so on.
Labelling Historical Figures as “Queer”
Within the queer community, we often say that all you need to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, or any other label is to identify yourself that way. That poses an obvious challenge when it comes to historical figures. People who lived decades or centuries ago very likely didn’t use these labels for themselves. There are many reasons for this.
Many labels in the LGBTQ+ intialism may not have existed at the time. Even if they did, using them openly might have led to ostriciation, imprisonment, or death in the society they lived in. Many kept their identities private, denouncing them publicly. As I share the stories of queer scientists throughout history, you’ll realise that many of their identities are still up for speculation today. Rampant homophobia throughout history has forced many queer folks to go undercover — but hopefully I can unravel some of that history for you today.
A Few Things To Note
In an effort to recognise the contributions of queer scientists throughout history, I’ve compiled a list of several LGBTQ+ scientists throughout history. You may recognise many of these names, but chances are you weren’t aware of their – potentially – queer identity.
This list is an acknowledgement of the many queer figures that contributed to science. It is not an endorsement of the beliefs they held. History is complicated. As I’m sure you know, many famous people in history were racist, sexist, ableist, and had scores of other problematic viewpoints. As important as it is to talk about queer scientists, it’s also important to remain critical and open-minded. The folks on this list are no exception!
Famous Queer Scientists
Without further ado, here are some historical queer scientists! They span a range of identities and time periods — enjoy!
Leonardo Da Vinci (1452–1519)
Da Vinci was an Italian inventor, painter, sculptor, architect, mathematician, and scientist. We’ve all heard of him. He is considered one of the greatest painters of all time, and designed inventions such as the parachute, helicopter and tank.
Court records in Florence, Italy show records of da Vinci and three other young men being charged under sodomy laws – laws that defined certain sexual acts as crimes, often including homosexuality – in 1476. Historians have since written extensively on his presumed homosexuality and its role in his art. Da Vinci has multiple erotic art pieces depicting men.
Francis Bacon (1561–1626)
Bacon is known as the Father of Empiricism and the scientific method. He argued that scientific knowledge should be based on careful observation of events in nature. While his own Baconian method did not last in practice, his influence on the scientific method served as a turning point empirical research.
Many historians describe him as being primary being attracted to men, and that his colleagues at the time were aware of this. Since it was unsafe to be openly gay at the time, Bacon denounced homosexuality in his writings and public life.
Sally Ride (1951–2012)
Ride was an astronaut, physicist, engineer, and the first American woman in space. She remains the youngest American astronaut to have flown into space, having done so at age 32. She flew twice on the Challenger space shuttle, was a physics professor at the University of California San Diego, and served on the committee investigating both the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters.
Ride was extremely private about her personal life. After her death in 2012, her obituary revealed that her partner of 27 years was science writer, professor, and author Tam O’Shaughnessy. Sally Ride is now known as the first LGBTQ+ astronaut.
Florence Nightingale (1820–1910)
Nightingale is hailed as the founder of modern nursing. She rose to prominence as a manager and trainer of nurses during the Crimean War. Nightingale was a skilled statistician who conducted comprehensive statistical studies of sanitation in rural India, working to reform sanitation and sewage treatment in the country.
Nightingale opened the first secular nursing school, which trains nurses to this day. Her training standardised many medical practices — many of us wouldn’t be alive today if it weren’t for her innovations.
Sources are conflicted when it comes to her sexuality. Nightingale never married, and some say she may have remained celibate throughout her life. She had close relationships with women, describing them with language that we would read today as overly romantic. The language of the Victorian Era, as well as the strict religious prudence of the time, makes it challenging to understand Nightingale’s sexuality. However, there’s no doubt that much of her lifestyle would today be perceived as queer — she rejected the gendered sexual politics of Victorian marriage, and she chose to live with other women on her own terms.
Alan Hart (1890–1962)
Hart was a doctor, radiologist, author, and pioneer of tuberculosis screening. He created the practice of using x-ray photography to detect tuberculosis, and implemented screenings that saved thousands of lives. He also wrote many works of fiction, including novels and short stories.
While Hart was assigned female at birth, he started presenting as a boy in early childhood. He enjoyed dressing in clothes, playing games, and choosing toys that were traditionally for boys his age. As he grew older, he began using the name Robert Allen – or simply Allen – among his friends and in his writings. During his university years, he had a romantic partner named Eva Cushman. Upon reaching adulthood, Hart sought doctors that would help him medically transition. He underwent a hysterectomy – removal of the uterus – and legally changed his name.
While Hart’s life reads today like the life of trans man, historians debate his identity to this day. Some say that the stigma against queer women at the time was so strong that Hart may have adopted a male identity to safely love his romantic partners, who were women. Hart also never used the term “transgender” to describe himself, or even the older – and now largely obsolete – term “transsexual.” These terms only came into use towards the end of his life, so the language may not have been there for him to use it. Even if it was, he likely kept his identity secret throughout his adult life, for his own safety.
Don Shirley (1927–2013)
Shirley was a classical and jazz pianist and composer. He wrote organ symphonies, piano concertos, a cello concerto, three string quartets, a one-act opera, and countless other works for organ, piano, and violin. While he isn’t well-known for his scientific endeavours, Shirley earned a PhD Music, Psychology, and Liturgical Arts — definitely worth a mention on this list of queer scientists!
The story of his life is portrayed in the movie Green Book, in which only one scene depicts a gay sexual experience. The movie’s portrayal has been compared to Bohemian Rhapsody in its erasure of the main character’s queer identity.
John Nash (1928–2015)
Nash was a mathematician who won the Nobel Prize for his pioneering work on game theory in 1994. His theories are widely used in economics, as they give insight into factors that govern change and decision-making in everyday life. For nearly a decade, Nash was an instructor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
In the later half of his life, Nash struggled with mental illness. He was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, and spent time in and out of psychiatric hospitals.
In 1954, he was arrested in a targeted police raid of a “men’s room” intended to catch gay men. After his arrest, he was fired from his job as a consultant at the corporation he worked for at the time. While Nash denied “gay” or “bisexual” labels, he had a range of relationships and experiences with both men and women. The movie “A Beautiful Mind” is based on him, and has been criticised for leaving out many significant aspects of his life, including his experiences with partners of different genders.
Ben Barres (1954–2017)
Barres was a neurobiologist and chair of the Neurobiology Department at Stanford University School of Medicine. His research focused on the interaction between neurons and glial cells – the brain’s supporting cells – in the nervous system.
Barres transitioned to male in 1997, and became the first openly transgender scientist in the National Academy of Sciences in 2013. He wrote a book titled The Autobiography of a Transgender Scientist, writing about his life and how he was treated when others perceived him as a woman or as a man.
This list is anything but exhaustive. Its purpose is to help you realise that queer scientists have existed all throughout history, including quite a few names you already knew!
When I share lists like this on blogs or social media, I am always met with surprise. There are always countless responses that say, “I had no idea this famous scientist was queer!” This comes as no surprise.
In the UK, Section 28 of the Local Government Act (1988) banned schools from providing or funding educational materials that might “promote homosexuality.” This prevented young people from accessing books, websites, and resources to help them feel accepted and understood. This ban was not repealed until 2003, meaning that many young people today grew up without seeing any queer representation in schools. This is only one of many laws and restrictions that actively erased queer history around the world. It’s no wonder we don’t know many queer scientists — our education system intentionally left them out.
Luckily, we are working to change that. Queer communities are popping up in schools and communities to celebrating LGBTQ+ identities throughout history. Online communities like 500 Queer Scientists and Making Gay History share stories of scientists and activities around the world.
To my fellow queer scientists, this piece is for you. I hope these stories can help you feel a little more represented in your field.
Huge thank you to Ive for taking the time to write this piece for Soph talks science. I highly recommend going and following Ive on Instagram, go check out her YouTube channel and she has also launched a podcast called ‘Science Sucks’ recently too – so there is plenty for you to check out and even more to learn!
Did you know any of these famous scientists were potentially LGBTQ+? Do you have any more to add to the list? Make sure to give a shout out in the comments to your favourite LGBTQ+ scientists so we can all follow them and listen to more diverse experiences and opinions! I encourage you to also share this post with all your family and friends and more so they can learn about under represented groups in STEM too.
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