WGLE interviews: Prof Omer Blaes

Professor Omer Blaes, from the University of California at Santa Barbara, works on theoretical astrophysics, with emphasis on compact objects.

American, Dr. Blaes has an international education, with a B.Sc. from Queen Mary College, University of London; and M.Sc. and Ph.D. from the International School for Advanced Studies, in Trieste, Italy. Before landing his faculty job at UCSB, he did postdocs at the California Institute of Technology and at the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics. He has published 76 referred articles, and advised six Ph.D. theses.

A member of our community, Dr Blaes maintains the outlist of LGBT astronomers. Last week, he kindly gave this interview to WGLE.



WGLE: How did the idea of creating the outlist come about?


OB: I believe that it was actually conceived many years ago by a group of (mostly younger) people who were the same ones who set up the GLBTQASTRO email distribution list. I merely volunteered to host it, partly because I had a permanent job and could therefore provide a stable host location.


WGLE: What do you think are the main problems gay astronomers face?


OB: I cannot speak for everyone, but I think the main problem I had in my own career was the stress and fear in deciding when and how much to be "out", especially when I was on the faculty market and before I got tenure. However, I have to say that my personal experience of both the astronomical and the academic communities at all the institutions I have been at has been uniformly positive. Being a gay man has never been an issue, as far as I am aware. And as I have gotten older and more established in my career, being a gay man has also become a non-issue for me and I no longer worry about it. It's simply a fact, and if it happens to come up in conversation with anyone, then it comes up. And it is never a problem.

In those lucky states and countries where same sex marriage has become a reality, healthcare and benefits are no longer a problem. But of course they remain a very serious and real problem elsewhere. Because our careers often involve stints living in other countries, where one can meet someone and fall in love, having our relationships recognized for immigration purposes is vital.

Also, your question refers to gay astronomers in general, including women. I cannot say for certain, but I strongly suspect that gay men have it easier than lesbians, given the negative climate issues that, unfortunately, still persist generally for women in many institutions involved in the male-dominated physical sciences.


WGLE: Can you tell us a bit about your coming out experience in the workplace? Did you fear that it would affect you professionally?


OB: Oh yes, it was very frightening, partly because it happened at the same time as I came out to everyone in my life, and I had no idea what to expect.

I came out late in life (age 28, 24 years ago), when I was a postdoc in Toronto. I was extremely fortunate in that the staff person who ran the place there took a motherly interest in me and really helped me through it. I owe her my life. As time went on, coming out transitioned from being very frightening to being something I wanted to tell the whole world. Looking back on it, I'm sure it was quite boring for many people around me. And then I slowly went through the process of coming out to all my professional mentors and research colleagues. In some cases that caused me quite a bit of worry and fear but, again, there were no negative outcomes as far as I am aware.



WGLE: Has being a sexual minority impacted your career in any way? Have you experienced peer homophobia or student homophobia?


OB: No, no, and no, as far as I am aware.


WGLE: A study1 suggests students believe that minorities bring political baggage into the classroom; whereas the white heterosexual man is the cool head of objectivity. Do you think gay professors face discrimination from students?


OB: No, I do not, at least not in the "hard" sciences. This is basically because the issue is irrelevant for the material that we teach. Nevertheless, early in my career as a faculty member I was very nervous about coming out to students in my classes for fear of how they might react. Now as I have aged and become established, I simply do not care anymore. If it happens to come up, then it comes up. (E.g. my husband is an engineer, and sometimes I mention various things I have learned from him that happen to be relevant to material I am teaching. I have always found that students are far more interested in what I have learned from him than the fact that my partner happens to be a man.)

It is good for students for their professors to be open about who they are. I still have students who happen to have been struggling with their sexuality at the time they were in my class come to me later and thank me for showing them that a gay man can have a completely normal, successful life.

1: K. J. Anderson and M. Kanner, University of Houston-Downtown, Journal of Applied Social Psychology

WGLE: There's a very interesting video, by chemistry professor David Smith, comparing the professions of the people of the year in the Time magazine, vs those of The Independent's "Pink List". It turns out that among LGBT people there is an excess in media and arts, and a deficit in STEM subjects. Is the stereotype of the gay as a media/art person discouraging young LGBT people from entering sciences?

OB: I do not know whether it is discouraging young LGBT people from entering sciences. My experience over the years is that the oft-quoted ~5-10% number of people who are lesbian, gay or bisexual is roughly representative of the situation in the sciences.

Having said that, I have to say that I have been very annoyed by these persistent stereotypes. And it is not just Time magazine - these stereotypes are also reinforced by gay media such as the Advocate and Out magazine. You would think from reading these magazines that the only LGBT people on the planet are celebrities, artists, or people working in the fashion industry. Grrr....


WGLE: In 2008, nearly 80% of California voters turned to the ballot, with nearly 53% voting to eliminate the rights of same-sex couples to get married. Proposition 8, as it was called, was a serious blow to the perceived advancement of LGBT rights in California, and in the USA as a whole. You contributed financially to the fight against Prop 8. Can you tell us more about other active roles you took in this battle?


OB: I don't know how you know that I contributed financially to the anti-Prop 8 campaign, but yes, I did. We also had a "Vote No on Proposition 8, Equality for All" yard sign and bumper stickers. I also remember re-erecting anti-prop 8 campaign signs that had fallen (or been uprooted?) around the town where we live. Beyond that, I remember just talking to a person who I happened to know who was on the fence on the issue, largely for religious reasons. I tried to explain how important this was for me. I do not know if I convinced him.

This was a terrible and eye-opening time in California: all those "Yes on 8" groups that congregated at various places and the fact that the proposition actually passed was very depressing for a state that has typically led the rest of the country on these and similar issues. But even then it was clear that it was only a battle, not the war, that had been lost, because polls were obviously trending more and more in our favor.

My husband and I actually got married during the window prior to Prop 8 passing, and I'm happy to say that we therefore belong to the exclusive club of couples whose marriage licenses remained valid despite the change in the state constitution. Thankfully, this is now all history.



WGLE: How do you view the recent political turn of events for LGBT rights in the world? On the one hand we have marriage equality in many developed nations, whereas on the other hand BRIC countries continue to bash its LGBT population - Brazil has a powerful evangelical lobby that blocks LGBT advances, India has recently recriminalized gay sex, Russia under Putin has passed a number of anti-gay laws, China recognizes neither same-sex marriage nor civil unions. Considering many astronomy students and scientists in the US come from BRIC or even more conservative countries, would this harm the LGBT-friendliness of our departments?


OB: I view the events that you mention as significant bumps in the road to eventual equality, but that is all they are. We are trying to change deeply rooted cultural and religious belief systems, and it will take time. I am actually more impressed at the extreme rapidity of the progress that has been made on same sex marriage in the US, Canada, Western Europe, Latin America (including Brazil!), South Africa and New Zealand. I view the India supreme court decision as their Bowers v. Hardwick, which upheld a Georgia anti-sodomy law in 1986 - less than 30 years ago! Things *will* get better in India. The fact that Russia is demonizing LGBT people is the oldest (and very frightening) trick in the book - but they are being roundly condemned and isolated by the international community. I anticipate that China will evolve toward equality as it continues to engage with the rest of the world.

Will this harm the LGBT-friendliness of our departments as people from these more conservative regions join us? No - quite the contrary - this will be one of many ways in which we will influence more positive changes in these regions. We as the international scientific community are very much in the vanguard of advancing human rights throughout the world. This is partly because we are recognizing that great science gets done by all sorts of great people all over the planet. But perhaps even more importantly, the international nature of the modern scientific enterprise creates huge avenues for cultural exchange. We are helping create an international community with a truly international culture.



WGLE: Any further advice to the younger generation?


OB: Don't get hung up on labels. Embrace who you are as an *individual*, and follow your own star. That is the secret to happiness in life in general, and it is also the secret to making your own distinctive mark in science.


WGLE: Professor Blaes, thank you very much for the interview. You are surely an inspiration to young LGBT astronomers starting their careers.


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