First Study of LGBT+ Physicists Reveals Red Flags

LGBT+ physicists often face harassment and other behaviors that make them leave the profession, according to a study published this spring in the journal Physical Review of Physics Education Research. The authors found that the two biggest factors that influence a person’s decision to leave are the overall climate of their organization and observing exclusionary behavior.

“LGBT+ people are inherently a part of this field. If you want physics to be a place where anyone can participate, we have to talk about these issues,” says Ramón Barthelemy, assistant professor of physics at the U and co-lead author of the study. 

The study surveyed 324 LGBT+ people in physics, who reported observing and experiencing shunning, homophobia, and harassment at high rates. About 15 percent of LGBT+ men reported an uncomfortable experience, while 25 percent of women and 40 percent of gender nonconforming people reported similar experiences. Women and gender nonconforming people are three to four times more likely to experience exclusionary behavior.

Almost half of participants who identified as transgender experienced exclusionary behavior, compared with 19 percent of cisgender peers. Transgender interviewees encountered face-to-face harassment and institutional barriers, such as discriminatory health insurance plans.

Co-lead author Tim Atherton, associate professor of physics at Tufts University, says physics has lost valuable talent, but he still has hope. “I see a promising vista if we can begin to address these issues.”

The researchers are planning future studies to understand how best to keep LGBT+ physicists in the field. 


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