Thursday, November 15, 2012

LGBT History Month 2013 Prelaunch Debate

Solarised Badge

LGBT History Month takes place every year in February in the UK.

(A similarly named event takes place in October in the United States).

The UK version of LGBT History Month was started by Sue Sanders and Paul Patrick of Schools Out.

Paul sadly died in May 2008, but Sue is still a major driving force, backed these days by Tony Fenwick.

I interviewed Sue for the Just Plain Sense Podcast in April 2008, shortly before Paul's death.

Personal Support

I have personally supported LGBT History Month since the very first event was suggested in 2004. The first actual month of activities followed in February 2005 and, from the start, it has been traditional to pre-launch the following year's month with an event in November.

I wrote a great deal of content for the original web site in 2004/5, I've always promoted the events and, in 2010, I was honoured to accept the invitation to become a patron.

That year I released a video supporting the launch because I couldn't make it in person. Another year I presented a special historical museum tour in collaboration with the Wellcome Collection and, in 2012, I presented a talk marking the Twentieth Anniversary of the founding of Press for Change.

Maths, Science and Engineering

As 2012 is the centenary of the birth of the now famous gay mathematician and scientist Alan Turing, the theme of LGBT History Month in 2013 will be Mathematics, Science and Engineering.

And, to reflect that theme, the prelaunch (at the wartime code breaking centre, Bletchley Park) included a special debate questioning, "This House Believes Science has been the Enemy of the LGBT Community".

I was asked to present the argument in favour of the motion, seconded by Linda Bellos OBE. The argument against the proposition was put by Annika Joy, Head of Audience Research and Advocacy at the Science Museum, and the event was chaired by the award winning trans journalist Paris Lees.

And this is the full transcript of my argument...

This House Believes Science has been the Enemy of the LGBT Community

Good afternoon Ladies and Gentlemen. Before I begin I should explain that I approach this topic with mixed feelings.

By training … and at heart … I am a scientist.

It was science that I specialised and did well in in at school.

At University I studied Computer Science. Indeed, I was taught by some of the peers of Alan Turing … people like Professors Tom Kilburn and Dai Edwards, who built the Manchester Mark 1 Computer in 1948 … the world's first stored program computer.

Because of that background I'm acutely aware of the contribution, for the better, which science makes to our lives on a daily basis.

Science as benefactor

I'm aware how so much that we take for granted would not exist were it not for the scientific discipline of observing the mysterious, postulating theories, constructing experiments to verify those theories, and drawing conclusions. … Conclusions which are only ever provisional … until a better theory, a better experiment, closer understanding.

Not least I'm aware that without the help of Science I could not be me.

Society as a whole has reasons, therefore, to regard science as a friend. However, even the best of friends has flaws.

You would tell a good friend where they are wrong … where they have B.O. perhaps. And that is the spirit in which I approach today's debate.

My arguments

I intend to show first that science does not have a free pass when it comes to culpability. Second that Science is historically associated with the negative pathologisation of LGBT people. Third, that by commission and omission, science has failed LGBT people. That it has allowed itself to be an accomplice in controlling LGBT lives … and sometimes the lead oppressor.


The scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer, who led the scientific invention of the Atom bomb had this to say about the consequences of that work, in a speech to the American Philosophical Society in 1946:

"[W]e have made a thing, a most terrible weapon, that has altered abruptly and profoundly the nature of the world. We have made a thing that, by all standards of the world we grew up in, is an evil thing. And by doing so, by our participation in making it possible to make these things, we have raised again the question of whether science is good for man, of whether it is good to learn about the world, to try to understand it, to try to control it, to help give to the world of men increased insight, increased power. Because we are scientists, we must say an unalterable yes to these questions; it is our faith and our commitment, seldom made explicit, even more seldom challenged, that knowledge is a good in itself, knowledge and such power as must come with it."

Oppenheimer is therefore acknowledging that Science can set hares running. In this and other speeches, however, he appears to place the responsibility for catching those hares with others. Politicians perhaps? Activists?

Bertrand Russell thought otherwise, however. Writing on "The Social Responsibility of Scientists" he began thus:

"Science, ever since it first existed, has had important effects in matters that lie outside the purview of pure science. Men of science have differed as to their responsibility for such effects. Some have said that the function of the scientist in society is to supply knowledge, and that he need not concern himself with the use to which this knowledge is put. I do not think that this view is tenable, especially in our age. The scientist is also a citizen; and citizens who have any special skill have a public duty to see, as far as they can, that their skill is utilised in accordance with the public interest."

Then there is Alfred Nobel...

Alfred Nobel invented high explosives. The annual prizes endowed by his fortune reflect a realisation on his part that his work had negative consequences for mankind as well as the positive ones. Explosives make industrial scale mining possible. But they also facilitate mass killing.

So how does this relate to the relationship between science and LGBT people?

At first sight you might think it's a rather positive one. Medical science has produced the drugs which help control AIDS. It hasn't produced an out and out cure for HIV yet. But scientists are undoubtedly working hard on the case.

Pharmacists also isolated and identified the sex hormones Testosterone and Oestrogen, and the hormone blockers, which trans people rely on to physically transition.

Pretty good huh? Well, let's dig a bit deeper…

Creating a basis for stigma and pathologisation

For much of recorded history societies had a rather different attitude towards homosexuality and gender variance than we know today. It wasn't called 'homosexuality'. That's a scientific term placed on us later.

Sexual relationships between men were common in Ancient Greece. Native american tribes revered men who expressed female identities … 'Two Spirits' … they held respected positions in tribes.

Although the Church of the middle ages encouraged the idea that homosexuality was linked to disease in some way, they really didn't have much to back that up, other than hearsay and opinion.

The Bible doesn't have much, on its own, to ostracise homosexual or trans people.

Joan of Arc was burned at the stake for Heresy in 1431. Technically the reason was her refusal to wear women's clothing. But her trial was mainly a political one. Her real sin was being an effective leader of French forces in the hundred years war. Clearly her gender variant behaviour wasn't any social impediment to that.

Likewise the Chevalier d'Eon (1728-1810) spent 49 years as a man and 33 as a woman; had a place as the latter in the Court of King Louis XV; and was evidently not an outsider in any recognisable sense.

There is a correlation, however between the rise of science and the pathologisation and stigmatisation of LGBT people.

The rise of scientific influence

Science began its rise in the 17th and 18th Centuries. The Royal Society was founded in 1660. People like Isaac Newton laid the foundations for mechanics and was an important mathematician. Along with his contemporaries the disciplines we recognise today were established. Scientific Method gives the natural sciences their authority.

Science's role as an enabler of the industrial revolution cemented its role in the nineteenth century as the 'go to' authority for things that needed explanation. Scientists in turn were only too happy to place themselves in the service of society to label and categorise behaviours as normal or deviant.

To be fair, I don't want to imply that this process was necessarily conscious (the scientist providing proofs on demand for rich sponsors). I would argue that scientists are often simply unaware of the subjectivities they import into their work.

Men's eyes

Historically, science was a largely male preserve. The exceptions to this in the nineteenth century were truly exceptional. Think of Marie Curie … and then who else? Hands up who knows the contributions of Ada Lovelace?

So masculine science saw the world through masculine eyes. What we regard as normal female behaviour these days was marked as deviant using such terms as "Nymphomania" and "Hysteria".

In the victorian era women were classified as mentally ill for nymphomania if they were a victim of sexual assault, bore illegitimate children, "abused themselves" (i.e. masturbated), or were deemed promiscuous.

Even today the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10) has a category for "excessive sexual drive" and female sexual behaviour is more likely to be labelled this way than for males.


Strip away the authority conferred by science, however, and what you have is a lop-sided moral relativism. The famous sex researcher Alfred Kinsey put it best:

"A nymphomaniac is someone who has more sex than you".

And that's the point. Science has too often allowed itself to be used to 'other' people as deviant.

Labelling difference as deviance

One of the researchers who led the way on this was a German-Austrian psychiatrist named Richard von Krafft-Ebing. In 1886 he published 'Psychopathia Sexualis', naming and classifying virtually all non-procreative sexuality.

At about the same time all male homosexual acts were made illegal in Britain by Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act … the so-called Labouchère Amendment.

I'm not suggesting causality here. One event did not necessarily lead to the other. However, when you examine the scientific consensus of the time (which we now know to be wrong) and the socio-political zeitgeist there is no doubt that the two were supportive of one-another.

Scientists are not as objective as they fancy

As I say, in matters social, scientists are not nearly as objective as they like to kid themselves and their peers. A scientist who presents a view that runs against the tide is likely to have a bumpy career. Scientists hunt in packs. And others can simply be unaware of their biasses.

One of the most influential scientists of all time, Charles Darwin, as part of his work on 'Natural Selection' produced a less well known theory on 'Sexual Selection' … of males competing for female sexual partners.

Sexual selection depends on an assumption of heteronormativity in nature. In a circular fashion, it also leads to assumptions that homosexuality is unnatural.

Few have ever challenged the assumptions embodied here. Ironically it has been down to a transsexual biologist, Professor Joan Roughgarden, to point out the flaws … the sheer number of species in which homosexual behaviour is rife.

Science as oppressor

It is science, too, that produced Eugenics … a social theory dressed in scientific drag … popular in the early part of the twentieth century.

We know where that led … and LGBT people were among the victims.

"Oh but that's all in the past" you'll cry. You may point to the fact that the American Psychiatric Society declassified homosexuality as a mental illness in 1973. Or at least the STARTED the process. In fact it wasn't until 1992 that the World Health Organisation … a scientific body … followed suit globally.

And during those 20 years the scientists made up for depathologising homosexuality by starting to pathologise gender variance.

The first gender reassignment operation took place in 1930 … so it was a strange piece of social control for the medical science of psychiatry to suddenly lay claim to the process after 50 years.

The battle to undo the harm created by that classification … and it IS harm … is currently in progress.

The corruption of evidence-based science and peer review

That kind of pathologisation is driven by a small cadre of men (it is always the men) who set up a scientific publication that sounds impressive, to receive and peer review each other's learned papers, arguing why science should continue to endorse the stigmatisation of women like me.

And I can't leave that topic without a brief mention for the way another crackpot set of scientific ideas were inflicted on both LGB and trans people … ECT and aversion therapies which had the veneer of being evidence based but, we now know, were everything but.

These practices have also provided a legacy to the zealots who offer gay cures or believe they can talk and bully trans people out of being themselves. Take a bow Sigmund Freud too.

In summary

I contend, therefore, that whilst science has undoubtedly benefitted wider society on balance (even counting the better faster ways to kill people) it has shamelessly facilitated a century and a half of marginalization of LGBT people.

It has done this not once but repeatedly.

It has been slow to relinquish that grip.

It has legitimised charlatans, by failing to draw clear dividing lines.

And it is very rare that you will ever hear scientists collectively apologising.

A possible exception is the very late apology by Robert Spitzer for lending legitimacy to the gay cure industry in a poorly conceived 2003 paper.

At the end of his career, aged 80, Spitzer wrote this year, "I believe I owe the gay community an apology"

And with that I rest my case.