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LGBTQ+ People in the Space Industry | Pride Month

The arrival of June means it's time to celebrate LGBTQ+ Pride Month — and there's plenty to celebrate. LGBTQ+ people have made invaluable contributions to every field of science, from Alan Turing's war-ending Bombe machine to Sara Josephine Baker's pioneering disease education programmes to Alan Hart's life-saving medical breakthroughs.

While today, the work of these LGBTQ+ scientists is appreciated and celebrated, this was not the case during their lifetimes. Despite the significance of their work, they were more often than not subject to horrific prejudice and discrimination.

There have been pioneering LGBTQ+ scientists in various fields throughout history; but what about space? During Pride month, we at Sent Into Space wish to celebrate the contributions of LGBTQ+ people to the space industry. As well as this, however, it's important for us to examine the industry's historical treatment of LGBTQ+ people, and to think about how we as an industry are going to change going forward.


LGBTQ+ people in the space industry

although there have been over 600 people in space, there has never been an openly LGBTQ+ astronaut. Historically, openly LGBTQ+ people have been excluded from a multitude of spaces — given aerospace is already such an exclusive one, there are very few known LGBTQ+ people present in the space industry.


LGBTQ+ Astronauts

The historical discrimination against LGBTQ+ people means that many people who are not cisgender and heterosexual have either stayed away from public-facing jobs or simply kept their identity a secret. As a result of this, there is only one known LGBTQ+ astronaut thus far, an American woman named Sally Ride.

Going to space as a NASA astronaut in 1983, Ride was the first American woman and the third woman ever to go to space. She was a physicist who became an astronaut after applying for NASA's training programme in 1977. Her application was one of over eight thousand, only thirty-five were successful; a mere six people in her class were women.

Sally ride wearing NASA uniform in front of USA flag and model of a rocket
Sally Ride

Ride's only public relationship was her five-year marriage to fellow astronaut Steven Hawley, from 1982-1987. After her death, however, it was discovered that she had been in a relationship with writer and tennis player Tam O'Shaughnessy for twenty-seven years, from 1985 until her death in 2012.

The fact that Ride's sexuality was only known after her death reflects the issue that historically, the space industry, like most industries, has not been a space open to and safe for LGBTQ+ people. If we want more people who are members of the LGBTQ+ community to make it as astronauts, there are clearly some changes that need to be made.


Out To Innovate's LGBTQ+ Scientist of the Year

Out To Innovate previously known as the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals (NOGLSTP), is a "global community of LGBTQ+ students and professionals in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics". According to their mission statement, they set out to "empower lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer individuals in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics by providing education, advocacy, professional development, networking, and peer support".

Jane Rigby with telescope in background
Jane Rigby

Out To Innovate hosts a yearly Recognition Awards ceremony where they celebrate LGBTQ+ people in science, engineering, and technology. One of their awards is the LGBTQ+ Scientist of the Year, an award for those who have made a significant contribution to their field. Multiple recipients of this award have been scientists in the space industry, including the award's most recent winner, Jane Rigby.

Jane Rigby is a lesbian and astrophysicist who was Deputy Operations Project Scientist at the James Webb Space Telescope, and whose team at NASA worked collecting data from the Keck and Magellan Observatories, as well as the Hubble Space Telescope. Interestingly, she said in an interview with the American Astronomical Society that it was Sally Ride that made her realise that girls can study physics, and that astrophysics was a job she could have at NASA.

Nergis Mavalvala standing in front of scientific apparatus
Nergis Mavalvala

Nergis Mavalvala, astrophysicist and MIT Professor of Physics, was 2014's recipient of the LGBTQ+ Scientist of the Year award. Mavalvala is a lesbian who has been publicly out for much of her career.

As well as her prestigious role at MIT, Malvala worked on the Laser Interferometric Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO), an observatory which detects cosmic gravitational waves and is working on adopting gravitational-wave observations as a tool for observing astronomical phenomena.

The fact that Out To Innovate's awards even exist demonstrates the need for LGBTQ+ acceptance in the industry but also marks our progress in getting there — it's great to celebrate pioneering LGBTQ+ scientists but it's important to remember why this celebration must exist in the first place.


Why aren't there any gay astronauts?

Evidently, LGBTQ+ scientists in the space industry have made significant contributions to our understanding of astronomy and to space science in all forms. What's equally evident is how few LGBTQ+ space scientists there actually are — but why? Well, there's a multitude of factors, and a lot of history there.

Most space agencies and organisations throughout history have been Western governmental bodies, which have reflected the anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment of Western governments and societies. The US government specifically has a huge impact — over half of the people who have been to space have done so with NASA. This means US laws and policies on LGBTQ+ rights have a direct impact on the space industry.


Historical discrimination: governmental organisations and the Lavender Scare

McCarthyism and the Red Scare are well-known facets of American history, where huge numbers of suspected communists were investigated, lost their jobs, and some were even imprisoned. Another lesser-known scare, known as the 'Lavender Scare', happened between the late 1940s to the 1960s, and focused on removing homosexual people from government employment.

In less than twenty years, thousands of government employees lost their jobs due to homosexuality or allegations of homosexuality. One of the most notable cases from during this time period is that of Frank Kameny, astronomer and significant gay rights activist. Kameny was working for the US Army when he was arrested and subsequently fired in 1957; he went on to become a prominent gay rights activist.

As a government agency, NASA was not exempt from the purging and many employees were dismissed on grounds of homosexuality. A man called James Webb was NASA's second administrator during this time, from 1961 to 1968.

A few decades later, it was announced that the Hubble Space Telescope's successor would be named after him. In the time leading up to the James Webb Space Telescope's launch, the telescope was at the centre of a controversy as to whether it should be renamed.

NASA, however, released a report in November 2022, almost a year after the James Webb Space Telescope was launched, which found that "no available evidence directly links Webb to any actions of follow-up related to the firing of individuals for their sexual orientation ". As a result, they did not change the telescope's name.


James Webb wearing a suit
James Webb

While it is not known if Webb himself had anything to do with it, we do know that the Lavender Scare had a lasting impact on American society, creating a government and societal culture of LGBTQ+ non-acceptance — a culture which we can still see the effects of today.

While the Lavender Scare was a US event, it reflects an anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment felt across almost all countries worldwide. The US government is not the only one to persecute LGBTQ+ people. In the UK, homosexual activity was completely illegal until 1967, and the government has still not enacted a total ban on LGBTQ+ conversion therapy.

As the world's biggest space agency, the Lavender Scare's impacts on NASA can't be understated; just sixty years ago, you legally could not be openly gay and work for NASA. In light of this, it is logical that there are still so few LGBTQ+ people in the space industry today: it was not until 2003 that homosexual activity was fully legal in the US.


The US Military

One of the primary reasons that there is only one known LGBTQ+ astronaut is that NASA often recruits from the US military, which also has a history of discrimination against LGBTQ+ people. Gay people were not allowed to join the military until 1993, when the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy was introduced.

Don't Ask Don't Tell prevented the military from investigating or discovering lesbian, gay, or bisexual service members — but still banned openly LGB people from joining. Openly gay, lesbian, or bisexual people were not allowed to join the US military until Don't Ask Don't Tell was repealed in 2011.

Similarly, trans people were not allowed to join the military until 2016, where they could serve as their identified gender only after completing transition. However, this changed during the Trump administration when it was ruled that a trans person could not enlist in the US military if they had transitioned, and members of the military could only serve as their assigned gender at birth. This was again changed in 2021, so there are now no restrictions on transgender people when it comes to military service.

Given that it's only in 2011 and 2021 respectively that gay and trans people have been able to join the US military, it's no surprise that we still haven't seen many LGBTQ+ astronauts.


Other factors

There are other, more nuanced structural factors which also may have contributed to the lack of LGBTQ+ people in the space industry. Whether a scientist or astronaut, most people have an academic background or, in the latter case, a military one. We've covered the military element already, but when it comes to academia, many astronauts, astrophysicists and astronomers have at least a Master's degree, but many also have a PhD.

Going to university costs money — a lot of money. In the US for example, the average undergraduate bachelor's degree costs $35,551 per year, with most undergraduate programmes lasting for four years. LGBTQ+ people are more likely to experience poverty and homelessness, which means that they are less likely to have the money to get the degrees needed to enter the space industry.

Even if they do have the money for a Master's or PhD, LGBTQ+ scientists are more likely to experience harassment and career limitations than straight cis ones, and it has been estimated that LGBTQ+ people are up to 20% less represented in STEM than in other sectors. This adds yet another barrier for LGBTQ+ people who want to join the space industry.

These factors may seem less obviously tied to being a member of the LGBTQ+ community, but the systemic oppression of LGBTQ+ people throughout history means that LGBTQ+ people are disadvantaged in a multitude of ways — some more explicit than others.


Going forward

As we have discovered, LGBTQ+ people have to hugely beat the odds to find success in the space industry. But things are changing quickly — as they have been throughout the last few decades. There are many organisations which have been set up specifically to support and encourage LGBTQ+ people in STEM, and the space industry specifically.

Out Astronaut, for example, is an organisation set up to address the underrepresentation of LGBTQ+ people in space sciences. They provide grants to students who are pursuing space-related careers. Similarly, NASA set up their Special Emphasis Programme in 2016, which focuses on opportunities and career advancement for LGBTQ+ employees.

It seems that while we have come a long way, we still have a long way to go. But there is change happening, and hopefully, there will soon be more opportunities for LGBTQ+ people in the space industry than ever before.

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