Today’s the UN’s International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (you might be seeing a fair bit of #IDAHO flashing across Twitter for that reason), and this year it falls in the UN’s International Year of Light. As a gay astronomer, both these things are very close to my heart.
This isn’t the first time I’ve written about being gay, but it is one of the first times. I’ve tended to hold back from it because I didn’t want to be seen as anything other than my primary identity: a human. That human also happens to be a scientist, and that scientist also also happens to be gay. I’m really at peace with all these identities – probably now more than at any time in my life so far. But I’m paid in the public domain, research and teach at UCL, and it’s a job requirement for me to publish my scientific results, plus there’s Twitter; you can quickly tell I’m a scientist. As for being human: seriously, only the weirdest of A.I. projects would produce something that yaps like me, so you can probably safely assume I’m homo** sapiens. And third of all: I’m gay. But it’s not on my business card, and that’s always presented an interesting sort of problem when it comes to the overlap with my first two identities: is it in my interest, or anyone else’s, to talk about it at all?
(**if you giggled, we might just become friends)
I actually think it doesn’t matter that I’m gay. I think it matters that I’m a bit different. That’s why IDAHO[TB] and awareness efforts like it are so important: there is no such thing as a Standard Human, and the sooner we get past this, the sooner we’ll be able to let everyone in our communities flourish. This is also kinda important for the survival of our species: we have some really, really scary problems banging on our door, fellow humans, and we’re going to need every brain we can have, operating at full capacity, to solve them. If they’re worrying about being scape-goated, demonised, beaten up, or barred from being a real member of society (yep, that’s a lot of what people worry about), they won’t be doing what we need them to do.
A few things have happened in my life recently to make me think it was worth speaking up. Most recently, they’ve included the incredible support in Ireland for removing the second-class status of same-sex couples, in the run-up to the Equal Marriage referendum. Now, I’m from ‘The North’ (i.e., Northern Ireland), but most of my extended family and many of my friends are in or from the Republic. As a result, my sample of the internet has been filling with some pretty wonderful articles, videos, tweets and Facebook posts. Colm Tóibín’s public lecture at Trinity College Dublin, this week, contained a gently powerful argument for visibility (the 5th paragraph in the Irish Times coverage, but the whole thing is really worth reading). And I warmly recommend David McRaney’s excellent podcast on how disclosing your circumstances as a victim of prejudice is a vital tool in getting people to see you as human (rather than ghetto-ising, or existing in an overlapping but never-touching world).
Now, I’m in a safe situation where I can say I’m gay, and that safety’s important. Telling people you’re ANYTHING other than straight carries a risk if you’re somewhere where it is illegal, not accepted, culturally taboo, rejected by your family, or any number of things that could land you in trouble. So I’m NOT advocating that everyone reveal their sexuality so we can instantly live in Fluffy Bunny Magical Luck Dream Joy Wonderland (if that’s an actual place, I’m sorry – I couldn’t find you on Google, and I needed a metaphor). The fact is that I feel like I can, and I’m lucky that’s true. (Oh, and I’m otherwise in the hyper-priveleged majority. Like, HYPER. So there’s that…)
There’s a final aspect to all this for me, though. One of the greatest joys of the multi-dimensional continuum of LGBTIQ+++ (helpful explanation of those terms, and more) is that it reveals that for so much of our history, our thinking was too simple – just as much as when we thought the Earth was flat, or that all humanity had the same skin colour as us and our neighbours, or that everything revolved around the Earth. All the observational evidence tells us that there is so much more to life, and we learn, every single time we find evidence that breaks the old models, that we adapt our understanding, and that we reach a new and more revealing view of our existence as one species of ape on this pale blue dot.