As part of her regular contact with scientific colleagues, Rochelle Diamond, a research biologist at Caltech, says she hears stories about mild-mannered, objective scientists turning into name-calling bigots when it comes to homosexual co-workers.
"Scientists are perceived by lay people as intelligent, learned and objective," she said. "Yet irrational fears and intolerance of homosexuals can be found everywhere, including among scientists and their institutions."
Diamond wondered why--so she and other members of the Organization of Women at Caltech organized a conference on "Homophobia in the Sciences."
Although Diamond said no figures exist on the number of gays in the scientific community, she knew there would be interest in the conference among the 150 members of the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Scientists, which she co-chairs, and 350 members of the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals, which she chairs. Some of the 700 homosexual scientists organized in the Silicon Valley might also want to attend.
On Tuesday night Diamond and four other panelists--two engineering graduate students, a technical staff member at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a Caltech secretary--urged gays to publicly reveal their sexual preference, when possible, and to educate co-workers about homosexuality.
"Visibility is a crucial issue," Diamond told the sympathetic crowd of 125 in a Caltech lecture hall. "The more visible we are, the more people will begin to relate to us and think about the issue. Dealing one to one with a visible gay is the best way of breaking down stereotypes. Most homophobic people have never interacted with a gay person in a positive environment."
But Diamond cautioned that in order to reveal their sexual preference, gays must feel safe.
"In academics," she said, "the first level of protection is tenure. Even if you have tenure, you might be reluctant to come out because of funding. Your functioning laboratory is dependent upon your peer-group review of your grants."
Diamond added that in science labs outside a university where there is no tenure, "you will be reluctant to be out there at all because your livelihood is in jeopardy in the wrong circles."
The managers of labs that are not associated with a university "are going to be more likely to write bad recommendations and job reviews because they do not like to work with you." These independent labs, Diamond said, need to include sexual-orientation clauses in their equal employment opportunity provisions.
Diamond said that more than 100 academic institutions and companies have established this kind of protection. UCLA has such a provision; Caltech does not. ("But as a matter of practice, Caltech does not discriminate on the basis of sexual preference," a Caltech spokesman said.)
Diamond and the panelists agreed that homophobia, an irrational fear and intolerance toward homosexuals, reveals itself in many ways in the scientific community:
* Homosexuals frequently feel uncomfortable confiding in physicians.
* High school students rarely receive accurate information about homosexuality in biology courses.
* Historians of science continue to ignore or misinterpret the role of homosexuality in the lives and accomplishments of some great scientists, including Leonardo da Vinci and Sir Francis Bacon.
* While some scientific professional organizations address sexual orientation with anti-discrimination policies and gay support groups, others are "not ready to deal with the issue of sexual orientation" or believe there is no "problem" because there are "no homosexuals" in their workplace.
Four of the panelists said revealing their sexual orientation improved their work situations.
Mike Green, a doctoral candidate in electrical engineering at UCLA, said he disclosed his sexual orientation several years ago when he decided that hiding his homosexuality was taking too much energy.
"I'd prefer to concentrate on the job I'm doing rather than worrying about things like changing pronouns in my conversations," he said.
"If someone had asked what I did this weekend, I might have been tempted to say my girlfriend and I spent the weekend in the wine country. But if people know, I can say a man and I went away for the weekend.
"And I'd prefer not to worry about people seeing what books I'm reading during lunch hour or people overhearing my phone conversations and all those other things that straight people just don't think about."
Green, who was working in Silicon Valley designing integrated circuits when he revealed his homosexuality, said his announcement worked well.
"I didn't hear any little gay jokes or gay comments anymore," he said. "It didn't seem to affect my job reviews at all and I noticed . . . I didn't have to worry about people asking me questions about do you have a girlfriend, are you married--all that stuff."
Green said that he announces his homosexuality without fanfare.