Gay And Lesbian Scientists Seek Workplace Equality

Sidebar: How AIDS Has Changed the Nature of Research Sidebar: Security Clearance Delays Hamper Gays' Careers While more institutions move to accommodate homosexual researchers, many gay activists still complain of bias Last September, the business world focused its attention on Lotus Development Corp. when it became the first large firm to offer health and other benefits to the "spousal equivalents" of its gay and lesbian employees. "The intent is to make us the employer of choice," says Rus

Mar 2, 1992
Barbara Spector

Sidebar: How AIDS Has Changed the Nature of Research

Sidebar: Security Clearance Delays Hamper Gays' Careers

While more institutions move to accommodate homosexual researchers, many gay activists still complain of bias

Last September, the business world focused its attention on Lotus Development Corp. when it became the first large firm to offer health and other benefits to the "spousal equivalents" of its gay and lesbian employees. "The intent is to make us the employer of choice," says Russ Campanello, vice president of human resources at the Cambridge, Mass., software company.

In altering its benefits policy to treat gay couples equally with married heterosexuals, Lotus joined a handful of smaller companies and nonprofit organizations--fewer than a dozen--that have already done so, plus a few municipalities.

Of the firms and nonprofits that have made benefits available to gay partners, a sizable percentage are employers of scientists, including Montefiore Hospital in Bronx, N.Y.; the Washington, D.C.-based American Psychological Association (APA); and Greenpeace, whose United States headquarters is in Washington.

"In terms of large corporations recognizing diversity, we have made tremendous strides," says Rochelle Diamond, a research biologist at the California Institute of Technology and chairwoman of the Pasadena, Calif.-based National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals (NOGLSTP). "And scientific companies like Lotus are leading the way."

While most high-tech employers have not yet demonstrated a readiness to grant benefits to gay partners, many have instituted other measures to make homosexuals feel more welcome in the workplace. Numerous institutions, including at least 145 universities, have written policies prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. And at several firms--such as Digital Equipment Corp. of Maynard, Mass., and the RAND Corp. of Santa Monica, Calif.--gay and lesbian support groups meet on company premises and sponsor company-wide diversity-education programs.

But life for gay scientists in professional careers or in graduate school is not uniformly a utopian one. Few scientific societies have established caucuses or committees dealing with the concerns of gays in their respective fields, although such groups are now commonplace in the social sciences and humanities. Some researchers contend that a bias against projects focusing on gay-related issues exists among peer reviewers, journal publishers, and funding agencies. And some scientific employers remain reluctant to formalize policies of nondiscrimination against gays, lesbians, or bisexuals. Consequently, thousands of gay scientists throughout the U.S. have not disclosed their sexual orientation to their bosses or faculty advisers for fear of reprisals.

"You have to be pretty nave to think that you couldn't lose a job in the sciences because of it [homosexuality]," says Kerry Sieh, a professor of geology at Caltech.

And for scientists, jobs aren't the only things at stake. "We have to go out and get funds for our research," says Cate Heneghan, a member of the technical staff at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "If someone doesn't like it that you're gay or a lesbian, they can simply not fund your proposal." Homophobia in such cases can go undetected, she explains, because those making funding decisions can claim that the failure to fund the research was due to an insufficiency in the proposal rather than the homosexuality of the applicant.

Isolated cases of bias notwithstanding, gay scientists are very much a presence in the workplace, even though they may be trying hard to keep themselves invisible. Because so many of them are convinced of the necessity of remaining clos- eted, it is difficult to calculate exactly how many of them there are. But last November, Overlooked Opinions, a Chicago research firm, released a study of 8,031 gay men and lesbians, with study subjects chosen to be demographically representative of the homosexual population nationwide. From the survey results, the firm predicts that in a group of 1,000 U.S. gays and lesbians, 2 would be chemists, 35 would be computer scientists, 9 would identify themselves as "scientists" or "researchers," 6 would be research assistants, and 9 would be lab technicians.

"The reason I became a scientist was because the scientific realm was the only part of the world I felt comfortable in," says Sieh, noting that he "spent the first 15 years of my professional life" as a closeted gay. "Rocks and strata were friendly; I could study them without having to lie about anything."

Evading the truth becomes a way of life for many gays in industry because "people have the stereotype that companies are going to reject them if they mention their sexuality," says Lee Fischer, a research chemist at the Du Pont Co.'s facility in Rochester, N.Y. "The hardest issue for people to face is coming out of the closet." Gay people's true identity, Fischer says, "needs to be integrated into their whole life, including work." This is especially true for scientists, he says, because "scientists spend so much time at work--perhaps more than other people."

"The biggest problem gay and lesbian people face is a consequence of their invisibility," says Douglas Futuyma, a professor in the department of ecology and evolution at the State University of New York, Stony Brook. "People in heterosexual society may not be aware that they ever met a gay or lesbian." To help counteract this problem within his own institution, Futuyma says, "I try to present myself as a visible model of a respectable scientist and teacher, to stand as an example of gays and lesbians who are otherwise invisible."

Indeed, many openly gay scientists say they've found that the best way to counteract prejudice is through professional excellence. "From early childhood, I have adopted a strategy of being an overachiever," says John Whyte, the director of brain injury research at Moss Rehabilitation Hospital in Philadelphia and an associate professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Temple University School of Medicine.

His qualifications have enabled him to negotiate with employers from a position of strength, he says, noting that he has been able to obtain benefits and acceptance for his partner. In both his current and previous jobs, Whyte says, "I have made it clear that I expect him to be treated like a spouse," receiving invitations to department functions and other courtesies extended to husbands and wives of heterosexual employees.

Scientists are in a prime position to ask for and receive partner benefits because their skills are in high demand, employers and gay activists agree. In most cases, "we have the latitude to pick and choose our jobs," says Josie Klapper, a master's candidate in marine microbiology at the University of Maryland, College Park, and the coordinator of Washington Area Gay And Lesbian Scientists (WAGALS).

Because the motivation behind employee perks is to "make the workplace appealing for recruits," says James D. Marks, a New York lawyer who has helped gay researchers win partner benefits, "tailoring [benefits] to the actual needs of the people who work there makes a lot of sense." But Marks cautions that the struggle to obtain partner benefits may be hindered by a phenomenon that has been affecting heterosexual employees in recent years--the nationwide "trend toward getting rid of spousal benefits because they're so expensive."

Even if a company decides it cannot afford partner benefits, gay scientists say, it can demonstrate its receptiveness to hiring homosexuals by instituting a policy prohibiting discrimination against them. Upon the request of its members, WAGALS will send a form letter to a company inquiring whether its nondiscrimination policy covers sexual orientation; the answer can be helpful, for example, to a gay scientist trying to decide whether to take a job at that company. The firm's response helps gay scientists "find out if a company is friendly or not without having to expose themselves," says Klapper. In addition, she says, the letters enable WAGALS "to do some consciousness-raising for companies that would like to be friendly, but don't realize they aren't."

Such consciousness-raising is necessary, says NOGLSTP's Diamond, noting that executives at many firms mistakenly believe that the word "sex" in a nondiscrimination policy is interpreted legally as covering sexual orientation in addition to gender. "Personnel directors don't understand; there's an educational gap," she says. "We want to reach out and work with these people to promote a better understanding of our needs as well as what we can contribute to their companies."

Not all employers are rushing to amend their nondiscrimination policies to formally forbid bias on the basis of sexual orientation, however. Darwin Liverance, director of personnel services at Auburn University in Alabama, says his institution has not changed its policy because "there's no compelling reason to do so"; he says that no constituency within the university has ever requested such a policy change. If a member of the Auburn community felt he or she had been the victim of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, Liverance says, "we would deal with that on an individual-to- individual basis. They would be free to entertain a grievance on that basis."

Discrimination against gays can take several forms: not only reluctance to hire or promote a homosexual investigator, but also devaluation of research focusing on gay-related issues, some gay scientists say. "Lesbian and gay faculty who conduct research on lesbian and gay topic areas may be considered biased, since they are a member of the group they are studying," writes Esther D. Rothblum, chairwoman of APA's Committee on Lesbian and Gay Concerns, in an article entitled "Lesbians and gay men in academia: Examples from the social sciences," portions of which have been submitted for publication in the APA Monitor and Feminism and Psychology. However, writes Rothblum, a professor of psychology at the University of Vermont, "this concern is not raised when heterosexual researchers study heterosexual topics such as birth control, abortion, or divorce."

The main issue, says James Weinrich, an assistant adjunct professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, is "who determines what the center of interest in a field is? If it's heterosexuals who determine what's interesting, then gay professors may find their research declared less interesting. On the other hand, most gay- related research I've seen isn't going to be cited a whole lot, because it doesn't have broad-based appeal." A scientist whose work focuses on such issues, Weinrich says, would do well to "make it clear to the powers that be that a big-scale, wide-interest research question is addressed by the particular finding."

Bruce Voeller, a molecular biologist and physiologist who is the founder and sole employee of the Topanga, Calif.-based Mariposa Foundation, an AIDS prevention research organization, agrees that "if a gay does research in [a gay- related] arena, they're somewhat suspect--even if their data's right." Yet Voeller notes that not all gay-related research is pristine; studies focusing on gay issues are not immune to "dubious data collection and dubious slanting" aimed at making results come out "politically correct for the minority involved."

Voeller, who was a cofounder and first executive director of the National Gay Task Force (now the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force) before starting the Mariposa Foundation, says that when he reviews gay-related research papers, "even I would want to look closely [to ask the authors], `Did you do a proper job of science?'--as I do when reviewing papers by all authors. If they did, dynamite."

"There certainly is homophobia out there," says SUNY's Futuyma, the author of Evolutionary Biology (2d ed., Sunderland, Mass., Sinauer Associates Inc., 1986), one of the most widely used textbooks in the field. The book "includes a passage on whether sexual orientation has a genetic basis--and, of course, one can't help talking about the social implications," the author says. In 1985, when the manuscript of the second edition was sent around to reviewers, "one of the people who reviewed the manuscript anonymously wrote that it was ludicrous that I should be defending homosexuality," Futuyma recalls.

In recent months, one scientific society has become a battleground of sorts over the issue of recognition of a gay and lesbian subgroup. In December, the American Statistical Association (ASA) created a Committee on Gay and Lesbian Concerns in Statistics. A separate group, the Gay and Lesbian Statisticians' Caucus, has been gathering at ASA annual meetings since 1985, although it has not been an official ASA committee.

Creation of a committee will make ASA funds available for gay-related projects. It will also afford gay and lesbian statisticians the opportunity to work in an official capacity with the association's president and board of directors to accomplish the group's goals: "to raise visibility within ASA, stimulate research in areas of interest to gays and lesbians, and let gays and lesbians know that statistics is a comfortable profession to work in," says committee chairman David Wypij, an assistant professor of biostatistics at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Not all ASA members are comfortable with the idea of a gay statisticians' committee, however. At ASA's annual meeting last August, Bruce Barrett, an assistant professor of statistics at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, inaugurated a new caucus, Statisticians Opposed to Homosexual Activism (SOHA). "I am strongly opposed to the homosexual agenda" because traditional Christianity forbids homosexuality, says Barrett. According to Barrett, about 15 people attended the SOHA meeting in August. In addition, he says, he has received "a number of calls and letters from people who could not attend the meeting but voiced their support."

Gay and lesbian statisticians were troubled by the fact that in the July 1991 issue of Amstat News, ASA's newsletter, meetings of both SOHA and the Gay and Lesbian Statisticians' Caucus (the committee had not yet been created) were publicized on the same page. Says Barbara Bailar, ASA's executive director, "When we discussed this in the office, we did not know any way to do it other than to put them on the same page," demonstrating that "we weren't trying to show any favoritism by putting one at the front of the book and one at the back."

Barrett says his ultimate goal is the abolition of SOHA as well as the gay and lesbian committee: "It is my strong contention that neither organization belongs [as an ASA constituent]; both should be thrown out because they have nothing to do with statistics."

Despite the lack of unanimity among ASA members on the issue of whether a committee on gay and lesbian concerns is meritorious, the association is one of the few scientific societies with such a committee.

Stanley Matek, a past president of the American Public Health Association (which has a gay and lesbian subgroup) and current executive director of the New York State Podiatric Medical Association, says he thinks the difference between groups that are receptive to instituting gay divisions and those that are not is a matter of whether they are "organizations that deal with social issues vs. organizations that deal with technical issues."

In 1989, NOGLSTP applied to become an affiliate organization of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), but the group's application was not forwarded to the AAAS council because it was not registered as a 501(3)c nonprofit organization as defined by the Internal Revenue Service, according to Ruth Campbell, administrative coordinator at AAAS. In December, Diamond says, NOGLSTP was incorporated in the state of California and is now filing the papers necessary for nonprofit status; the group intends to reapply to AAAS once the paper-work goes through.

"I'm hoping" that submitting proof of nonprofit status to AAAS will lead to affiliation with the society, Diamond says, "because it was my understanding that that was what was holding us back. I think our chances are good because we've participated at national [AAAS] meetings and have been given meeting space before." AAAS affiliation "is our biggest goal," she says, because "we want to be considered an educational group, and not a political group."

David Hull, a philosopher of biology who is Dressler Professor in the Humanities at Northwestern University, says he makes a point of educating the societies of which he is a member about one particular problem facing gays. While president of the Philosophy of Science Association in 1985 and of the International Society for the History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology in 1991, Hull was instrumental in the establishment of policies prohibiting the sponsorship of meetings in any state in which sodomy is illegal.

In addition, Hull says, "I don't go to states that have sodomy laws to present papers or anything. When people ask me to present papers [in those states], I write back and say, `I don't go to states where I'm a criminal.' It may be impolite to raise these issues, but once they're raised, I've found, people are willing to go along with it."

Gay scientists' efforts to educate their colleagues and employers can go a long way toward "bringing humanity back in the workplace," says NOGLSTP's Diamond.

"We relate to the same issues as other scientists do; we're just a microcosm of the general scientific population."