Today marks the five year anniversary of the LGBT CERN group, a group which aims to look out for the interests of queer people from across the world, while they work at or with the world’s biggest laboratory. As founder of the group I’m proud to say that we have come a long way since we first met in the main restaurant on a cold, snowy December evening. At the very beginning it was a challenge. I’d been involved with LGBT+ rights campaigns on and off for about ten years, but this was my first time creating a new group from nothing. How exactly do you do that? Do you just stand up in the main atrium and shout “Hey! Queer people, come over here!” or post a polite notice and hope people show up? There’s no way to identify someone who is L, G, B, T, or any other letter just by sight, or even talking to them for hours on end. Making an invisible group visible was the first hurdle, but luckily we had some allies from the start. A colleague from my days at SLAC had already arranged a gay friendly event the week before, and was thinking of setting up an LGBT+ group around the same time. The mailing lists for the younger people at CERN (Young@CERN and UK students at CERN) were more than happy to make an announcement for us. So me and a friend sat down at a table with signs and waited for people to arrive. We were not disappointed! In our first meeting we had about a dozen people show up, which is more than enough to get a group up and running. We asked what they wanted from the group, how they felt about CERN, and what we could do to make things better.
The answers seemed to come down to meeting more people outside of the lab. I was talking to people from North America and Western Europe, who had enjoyed LGBT+ groups at home and wanted to find the same at CERN (it was only later that we picked up people from parts of the world that don’t have such a good time in their home countries). They wanted to find like-minded people outside of the CERN bubble, and the LGBT+ group was one of the best places to do this. It’s one of the few group that unites people from across the world, from all ages, genders, backgrounds, professions, and any demographics you can think of. We are more than just LGBT though, and from very early on I was delighted to welcome a married polyamorous couple, who helped extend our reach far beyond what most people consider “queer”.
With a firm start the next two steps were vital for our long term success. We needed to grow the group, and we needed recognition from CERN. Over the past five years the group has grown slowly but surely to a point where it’s now stable enough for smooth running. Becoming recognised by CERN was a bit more tricky, as we didn’t seem to fit in anywhere in the CERN structure at the time, and the bureaucratic nature of the institution did not make things easy. CERN is split between the administration and the Staff Association, which acts as a union for its members. To make matters more complicated most of the people who work on-site are “users”, who are not employed by CERN at all. We needed to find a place in the structure for a group that appealed to all demographics across the whole lab, and that had a large social role to play. We approached CERN and the Staff Association separately and both independently declined to recognise us for different reasons. At this point we, and CERN, had a problem. We got in touch again and said that it’s untenable to not have a space for LGBT+ people at the lab, and (to CERN’s credit) they rearranged their internal structure to make that space for us. Their solution was to introduce “Informal Networks” where self organised groups can come together to discuss the issues which affect them at the lab. In one move, CERN went from having no structure to accommodate our group to finding a very modern structure that would accommodate so much more.
That was in 2012, and since then we’ve had a great deal of support from CERN. It takes patience work with such a large organisation, but we have seen significant improvements over the past few years. There are issues which affect queer scientists that don’t affect the rest of the population, and for the first time we can express these. Have you been invited to a conference in a hostile place? Do you have to choose between advancing your career and your personal safety while abroad? It wasn’t until our group raised these issues that people knew there was a problem. Partnership rights are a very complicated topic, and CERN is taking a very modern approach.
At the same time as raising these issues we have also exposed the presence of bigots at CERN. In a lab of thousands of people from all over the world and of all ages it is not surprising to find a small minority of people who have a problem with our group. They have always been at the lab, the difference is that now they are making themselves known. CERN is fully behind us in facing up to this bigotry and taking action, and takes its legal and ethical obligations to fight bigotry in the workplace very seriously. Even the Director General has stepped in on occasion to offer his support.
Thankfully most people at CERN are supportive of our group. When you work in academia it’s important to respect different points of view and to challenge accepted norms. To oppose the activities of an LGBT group is to say that you are uncomfortable with new ideas, or that you cannot handle anything which contradicts your own view of the world. On the other hand, accepting LGBT+ people at the lab, and allowing them to self organise makes their time at the lab more enjoyable. It’s not easy for anyone to move across the world away from family and friends, and settle into a heavy and difficult workload while dealing with a foreign language. If we want people to go back and tell their friends and colleagues to go to the lab they need to have a reason to sings its praises. The LGBT CERN group helps make the lab a better place, so that we can attract the best people and count on their support long into the future. Five years ago, if a gay grad student asked me where to go for research I would have said SLAC, which is a short distance from San Francisco, probably the the most LGBT+ friendly place in the world. I’m glad to say that today my attitude has changed, because people no longer have to choose between following LHC research interests and acceptance, they can choose both. we are no longer invisible at CERN, we meet up, we face up to the challenges of working in an international lab in the 21st century, and we make friendships that span continents and last lifetimes.
Although we have made a lot of progress in the past five years we’re not finished yet. We still have a long road ahead of us to improve the lives of LGBT+ people in high energy physics. The changes we make at CERN will spread across the world, to other labs and other fields. Other groups will look to us to see the issues that face LGBT+ STEM people and how to respond to them. The hard part is done- we are now a well established and recognised group at CERN that’s healthy enough to last long into the future. The next five years (and beyond) will be about using the resources at our disposal to continue the discussions that affect us, to bring about changes, and to help change the culture at CERN to make it a more tolerant and respectful place for everyone.
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