To date, no spacefarer has openly identified with the LGBTQ community. We know of at least one nonheterosexual astronaut—a celebrated and influential heroine—who never benefitted from the LGBTQ-tolerant environments we are fighting for today. In the workforce, “coming out” can be a lifelong process. Disclosing one’s identity is associated with better mental health, but with no visible support around them, many find this unachievable.4 For example, an estimated 50% of physics employees remain “in the closet” at work.10 Visibility and support can also enhance human performance by protecting workers from burnout and internalized stigma.15 Who will be history’s first out astronaut?
“We are not yet to a point of universal acceptance.”
—Robert Pearlman on LGBTQ Identity at NASA, 2012
The LGBTQ community is underrepresented in science, and virtually unrepresented in spaceflight.16 Positive role models are essential for motivating LGBTQ youth, but Out Astronaut’s goals reach higher than empowering LGBTQ scientists to become spacefaring ambassadors for STEM; it’s about emboldening the global LGBTQ community.16,18 LGBTQ contributions to human spaceflight have been all but invisible, but the world’s first out astronaut could set a precedent for change.2,29 The public discourse they would inspire could help drive policy changes to protect the civil rights of LGBTQ individuals, which in turn stimulates acceptance in society.
Logically, any discipline would benefit from attracting and retaining all the talent it can—not putting up arbitrary barriers.10,21,23 Furthermore, diversity specifically enhances human performance. Some of the world’s most successful militaries have cited that diversity improves troops’ readiness and performance.21 Having different perspectives tends to lead teams to more creative solutions, so diverse teams are more likely to reach scientific breakthroughs and technological innovations.16,17 Unfortunately, STEM fields have significantly lower retention rates for LGBTQ students, with one important exception: students who feel like they can personally contribute to their field develop a “STEM identity” are even more likely to stick with it than their cis-heterosexual peers.10,16 An LGBTQ-identifying astronaut–ambassador could be more than just a role model for LGBTQ youth to emulate, but an actual role toward which they could realistically aspire.
There’s no doubt: space exploration is a global endeavor. One of the biggest considerations for long-duration spaceflight is that spacefarers will need to be fluent in cross-cultural interactions, capable of working alongside people with different backgrounds, ethnicities, and beliefs.2,7,29 Including diverse perspectives in the workforce isn’t just good for team performance; it broadens the members’ capacity for compassion, adding another dimension of cultural competence.17 Furthermore, international collaboration is a critical ingredient for pushing the boundaries of human knowledge across all disciplines.27 We have to be mindful that LGBTQ culture and policies vary from place to place, and out astronauts could serve as a beacon for LGBTQ rights advocates worldwide.
Outright discrimination is very much alive today; 20% of lesbian, gay, and bisexual physicists reported outright exclusionary behavior at work, as well as 49% of their transgendered colleagues.10 Studies suggest that interacting with real LGBTQ folks can actively reduce people’s implicit biases.6 The first out astronaut will be a positive example for changing society’s explicit biases, and the pride they’ll inspire in the LGBTQ community will ripple even further.
Not only are young LGBTQ scientists less likely to remain in STEM than their cis-heterosexual peers, but (like all LGBTQ folks) they are also vulnerable to well-established health risks resulting from their minority status.18,24 Eliminating the stigma associated with LGBTQ status will directly eliminate many negative health outcomes.28 What better way to combat stigma than by proudly reaching for the stars?
With or without Out Astronaut, whether or not they’ll have to fly under the radar, more sexual and gender minorities will be flying in space in the near future. Survey respondents indicate that 3.5% of the USA’s population identifies as lesbian, gay, or bisexual and 0.6% as transgender, with 7.5% of others reporting nonheterosexual behavior.11,13 On top of sheer numbers, being LGBTQ may be associated with factors that stimulate an interest spaceflight, or even certain aptitudes like resilience—a quality favoring astronaut candidacy.9,14,23,26 As such, sexual health in space and other logistical considerations should be taken seriously, especially with the approach of longer-duration missions and space tourism.17,22,27,30 So far, there is a total knowledge gap regarding the biology and health of sexual and gender minorities in spaceflight, but if we created a tolerant environment for LGBTQ astronauts, they could disclose their demographics, and researchers could begin collecting valuable data to benefit both future spacefarers and the field of human sexuality at large.9,20,22 Having a firmer understanding of the biology behind human nature was an important step in reducing the stigma of mental health conditions.28 This is an analogous situation, especially considering that being transgender was officially considered a mental disorder all the way until 2013.15 The first out astronaut would counteract negative stereotypes on their own while also setting the stage for population health research involving future LGBTQ spacefarers.
Success in space has a profound impact on life on Earth. From global positioning systems to NASA spinoff technologies, the space industry has revolutionized the human experience. Many of these discoveries have improved human health and performance, like medical devices and behavioral models.8 It is in everyone’s best interest to harness the synergy of a diverse and inclusive workforce in spaceflight. This not only enhances team performance, but also allows them to make new discoveries that are more relevant for the general public.
Throughout our time as a spacefaring species, the space industry has grown along a military trellis, with a checkered history of LGBTQ discrimination. From the former Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell policy to the current ban against transgender servicemembers, USA military regulations have mounted hostile positions against sexual and gender minorities.12,19,23 This kind of injustice trickles down through institutions and ultimately stains the fabric of society.1 The silver lining is that interindividual support can still flourish among servicemembers themselves, and military providers express a general willingness to learn how to support their LGBTQ peers more effectively.20,24,25 Discriminatory spaceflight restrictions have specifically targeted candidates who engage in same-sex sexual behavior or are transgender.3,5 Today, the space industry shouldn’t need to mirror the ebbs and flows of military politics; with modern advancements in science and technology, an upsurge of international collaboration in aerospace, and the rise of private space companies, now is the time to forge a more open-minded culture in astronautics.
Bridging LGBTQ underrepresentation in STEM is a complex problem that demands thoughtful social reform. In practice, legal protections for LGBTQ workers are unevenly enforced; official legislation is not enough to bring equity to the LGBTQ community.10 For example, agency-trained astronauts receive comprehensive family support, but what if an LGBTQ astronaut feels unable to disclose whom they love? To achieve real progress, societies must be open to welcoming us. Out Astronaut wants the world to see that LGBTQ scientists are just as capable and deserving of the opportunity to advance human knowledge. Our goals echo the past:
“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too.”
—John F. Kennedy on Space Efforts in the USA, 1962