Skip to content

When you choose to publish with PLOS, your research makes an impact. Make your work accessible to all, without restrictions, and accelerate scientific discovery with options like preprints and published peer review that make your work more Open.

PLOS BLOGS PLOS SciComm

We’re Here and We’re Queer: A Retrospective of LGBTQ Individuals in STEM 

By Elizabeth Fusco, edited by Andrew S. Cale

Pride Month is a celebration of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer+ (LGBTQ+) community. Every June, this celebration honors the brave individuals who stood up for LGBTQ+ rights at the Stonewall Riots, which sparked the gay rights movement all over the world.  Being a queer scientist I would like to celebrate this Pride Month by spotlighting several famous scientists from the LGBTQ+ community. 

1. Dr. Alan Turing 

Image credit

"Enduring Turing #cdyf" by Dunk [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/mark/1.0/)]  Available at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dullhunk/52372679917

Let’s start with Dr. Alan Turing, the gay British mathematician who is considered the father of computer science. Turing was born in London, England in 1912. He developed an interest in STEM at a young age and later pursued a degree in mathematics at The Kings College, followed by a PhD in mathematics and cryptology from Princeton University. Just before the onset of World War II, Turing returned to Cambridge where he joined the Government Code and Cypher School. Turing and his colleagues designed the code breaking machine called the Bombe, which supplied the Allied Powers with military intelligence during World War II. “In 1942 Turing also devised the first systematic method for breaking messages encrypted by the sophisticated German cipher machine that the British called ‘Tunny.’” When World War II ended, Turing received the high honor of being made an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire for his code-breaking achievements. 

After the war, Turing was arrested for gross indecency (being a homosexual). He was offered the choice of imprisonment or hormone replacement therapy. He chose the latter but could no longer work for the government communications headquarters due to his criminal record. Turing died of unknown causes on June 7th, 1954, but is believed to have died by suicide.  He remained a criminal in death until 2013, when he received a royal pardon from Queen Elizabeth II. Three years later, “the British government announced ‘Turing’s Law’ to posthumously pardon thousands of gay and bisexual men who were convicted for homosexual acts when it was considered a crime.” You can learn more about Turing’s life and his work as a code breaker in the 2015 movie The Imitation Game

2. Dr. Sally Ride 

Image credit

"Sally Ride (1984) – Public domain photograph" by Wikimedia Commons [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/mark/1.0/)] Available at: https://picryl.com/media/sally-ride-1984-68bb8f

Our next scientist, Dr. Sally Ride, is an American physicist and astronaut renowned for being the first American woman to journey into outer space. Ride was born in 1951 in California. After graduating high school, Ride enrolled at Stanford University, where she received four degrees, including a doctorate in physics. She applied for NASA’s 1978 astronaut class, where she was one of six women in a class of 35 individuals. She spent five years training before her historic flight into outer space in 1983. After traveling to space one additional time, she joined faculty at the University of California (UC), San Diego, where she taught physics and served as the director of the UC’s California Space Institute.

In 2001, Ride founded her company, Sally Ride Science, “to pursue her long-time passion of motivating girls and young women to pursue careers in science, math, and technology.” Following her passing, the program was relaunched by UC San Diego in 2015 to focus on making “science, technology, engineering and math education more accessible to young women and historically underrepresented students.” 

Sally Ride passed away of pancreatic cancer in 2012. As a very private person, the news of her passing was a shock to many. Additionally, her obituary mentioned her partner of 27 years, Tam O’Shaughnessy, outing Ride as a member of the LGBTQ+ community and making her the first gay person to travel to space. A documentary on her life and relationship with O’Shaughnessy was recently announced by National Geographic

3. Dr. Ben Barres 

Image credit

"Dr. Ben Barres" Myelin Repair Foundation, [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)] via Wikimedia Commons. Available at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dr._Ben_Barres.jpg

Finally, Dr. Ben Barres is a revolutionary in the field of neuroscience and was the first transgender individual inducted into the National Academy of Sciences. Barres was born in New Jersey in 1954 and knew he wanted to be a scientist by age five. Barres received a BSc in life sciences from MIT, a MD from Dartmouth, and a PhD in neuroscience from Harvard. He founded his lab at Stanford, where he discovered the importance of glial cells in the nervous system.

Barres completed most of his scientific training pre-transition, which made him acutely aware of the gender inequalities present in STEM, often citing an incident in which a professor accused him of having a boyfriend complete his homework assignments for him. Even after transitioning, he dedicated much of his professional life towards training female scientists and is considered a champion for women in STEM. Barres was incredibly well liked within the scientific community. Even before his death, Barres ensured all requested letters of recommendation were submitted on his behalf before his passing

In 2017, Barres died of cancer at the age of 63. He posthumously published a memoire titled, “The Autobiography of a Transgender Scientist.” Shortly before his death he stated, “I have zero regrets and I’m ready to die, I’ve truly had a great life.” 

Final Thoughts

While improvements have been made in recent years, we still have a lot of work left to do to create equal opportunities for LGBTQ+ individuals in STEM. In a study that collected data from STEM professionals between the years 2017 and 2019, it was found that LGBTQ+ respondents “were 22% more likely to have felt nervous or stressed from work, 31% more likely to have felt socially excluded by colleagues, and 32% more likely to have thought about leaving their job.” In addition to this, the political landscape in the US has become very anti-LGBTQ+, with over 250 anti-LGBTQ+ bills being introduced to state legislatures in 2023 alone.  

However, there are still beacons of hope. 500 Queer Scientists is a “A visibility campaign for LGBTQ+ people and their allies working in STEM and STEM-supporting jobs.” What started as an initiative to highlight 500 queer individuals in STEM has blossomed into an overwhelmingly large campaign, collecting over 2,000 stories and counting. You can read more about this campaign here. Additionally, Cell, an extremely prestigious scientific journal, has recently brought on Dr. John Pham as their new editor and chief. Pham is an openly gay man who has been very vocal about his sexuality while in this position and is dedicated to making this journal more inclusive. 

As Sally Ride once said, “The stars don’t look bigger, but they do look brighter.” With all the progress we have made, the future is looking brighter and brighter for queer individuals in STEM. 

Image credit

"Waving Rainbow Flag - Twin Cities Pride Parade (9178644107)" by Tony Webster from Portland, Oregon, United States, [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. Available at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Waving_Rainbow_Flag_-_Twin_Cities_Pride_Parade_%289178644107%29.jpg

Related Posts
Back to top