A History of Queerness in STEMM

By Dr Mohammad Taha and Dr Chloe Mackallah
National Co-Convenors of QueersInScience

The assumption that working in STEMM exists outside the influence of identity is a misconception. How might the challenges of belonging, faced by LGBTQIA+ (queer) scientists, shape their unique contributions? Why do we continue to erase their histories from the narrative of scientific discovery?

Projects like QueersInScience’s exploration of queer STEMM history in Australia aren’t simply about the past. These aren’t dusty stories to stick back on a shelf. Uncovering hidden figures combats the ongoing lie that only a narrow few can do great science. They offer role models, a sense of belonging, and a powerful counter-narrative to the myth that science is the domain of only straight, cis men.

Hidden figures

Unearthing the history of LGBTQIA+ scientists is a fight against erasure. Unlike straightforward birth and death certificates, records about personal identity often don’t exist. When LGBTQIA+ identities were criminalised, people hid what made them unique to survive. 

It’s not just words missing from files – it’s whole lives scrubbed from history, and stories of individuals changed to suit contemporary views.1 This ‘silence’ in the archives wasn’t accidental – it reflects the systematic erasure of LGBTQIA+ lives and their contributions.

The power of terminology

The terminology used to refer to people was hazy, shifting with the times. As part of this project, the QueersInScience team found that the word “queer” was one of these terms, used differently to its current meanings.

Queers in Science members at the 2023 Midsumma Pride March. Image: Kim Kwan.

“Queerness” was expressed in varied ways throughout history, and so our team has searched for the impacts of its usage beyond modern labels. 

Despite the variations, “queer” was consistently used to refer to people whose gender identity and/or sexuality did not conform perfectly to the ideals of the time. This didn’t just mean someone who was LGBTQIA+ – in different settings, it seems to have been used to describe women who supported feminist ideologies.2,3

Collaborating with historical experts allows us to navigate the nuances of past language and cultural contexts. Most importantly, the team acknowledges the emotional weight of unearthing stories overshadowed by discrimination and marginalisation.

Women overshadowed

Ruby Payne-Scott (1912-1981) was a pioneering Australian radio astronomer, who worked for the CSIRO. She is also an example of how women who didn’t conform to contemporary values were questioned and overlooked.4

While her name may not be widely known, her contributions were nothing short of ground-breaking. Working on solar observations and military radars between 1945 and 1947, Payne-Scott and her collaborators studied solar flares – sudden and violent explosions in the Sun’s atmosphere that occur once every half-hour or so on average, and which are the most powerful form of explosion in our solar system. She discovered three of the five categories of solar bursts originating from the corona (the upper layer of the Sun’s atmosphere), fundamentally altering our understanding of the Sun.5

But her impact goes beyond discovery. In 1946, Payne-Scott and her colleagues pioneered the aperture synthesis technique. This method allows for the combining of data from multiple similar telescopes, a technique that is now a cornerstone of modern astronomy, as seen in such projects as the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) radio telescope in Western Australia. Ruby was the first person to ever conduct radio interferometry.5

Despite her brilliance, Payne-Scott faced significant discrimination due to the scientific sexism of her time.3,4,5 This, unfortunately, adds her to a long lineage of overlooked innovators in STEMM, who were marginalised and labelled for their non-conformity to contemporary values – and relative ‘low status’ in a patriarchy.6

Moving forward (while looking back)

Though Payne-Scott’s time was marked by prejudice, organisations like QueersInScience are actively changing this legacy. Their LGBTQIA+ STEMM Day celebrates contemporary role models while connecting them to this hidden history. Initiatives like the Scott Johnson Awards honour advocacy and achievement, while also providing mentorship opportunities to early-career LGBTQIA+ professionals. This fosters a much-needed support network, combating the isolation that often drives promising talent out of STEMM. Additionally, QueersInScience actively partners with First Nations STEMM advocates and organisations, recognising shared history of erasure and the need for collaboration in building a more inclusive and equitable future.

QueersInScience recognises that the landscape of LGBTQIA+ STEMM is far too complex for a one-size-fits-all story. Ruby Payne-Scott faced discrimination, stemming largely from sexism within a mostly straight field. LGBTQIA+ people of colour navigate a far more treacherous path. They’re hit with racism, sexism, AND the constant fear of exposure due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. This forces large amounts of unseen labour – advocacy, mentorship, community organising, and fighting for basic respect – that goes unappreciated and unrewarded. It’s the burden of being a trailblazer in a field that treats you like you don’t belong.

The pressure to “play it safe” to survive hits even harder for First Nations and queer/trans/intersex People of Colour (QTIPOC) in STEMM. Their experiences are erased, not just due to old-fashioned bigotry, but because institutions don’t even track the data that would prove their existence. Not only does this rob them of rightful recognition, but it also deprives future generations of QTIPOC STEMM professionals of a true reflection of their community. How can you dream of being something you’ve never even seen?

This systemic invisibility cuts deep. It’s one thing to be overlooked, but quite another to have your struggles dismissed because they don’t fit the neatly packaged narrative of “diversity” that institutions want to promote. True inclusivity means lifting up ALL marginalised voices, particularly those that have been silenced the longest. QueersInScience is committed to amplifying these voices, prioritising equity, and fighting for a STEMM landscape where every exceptional mind is not only seen, but celebrated.

QueersInScience recognises the link between the damage done to queer history and the ongoing suppression of Indigenous knowledge systems within STEMM. It’s the same toxic mindset at work. First Nations scientists, engineers, and knowledge holders possess a unique perspective that enriches our understanding of the world. However, their contributions have long been dismissed or appropriated within Western scientific frameworks. QueersInScience seeks to honour and amplify these voices, fostering a more holistic and inclusive approach to Australian STEMM.

The past, present, and future of Australian STEMM are undeniably queer. QueersInScience is forging an inclusive tomorrow, carrying this legacy forward by prioritising visibility, advocacy, community, education, and intersectionality. Their work champions LGBTQIA+ professionals and ensures the next generation thrives. By unearthing forgotten stories, challenging systemic bias, and amplifying diverse voices, they ensure the Ruby Payne-Scott’s of today find acceptance and platforms for their genius, ensuring a brighter future for STEMM and society as a whole. Yet, this work relies on the support of everyone who believes in the power of science to uplift, innovate, and solve our world’s greatest challenges. Whether through donations, allyship in the workplace, or simply celebrating queer brilliance, you can play a vital role.

Dr Mohammad Taha is a researcher at the Melbourne School of Engineering. Dr Chloe Mackallah is a climate scientist at CSIRO. They are the National Co-Convenors of Queers in Science.


  1. Brownworth, Victoria A. (October 19, 2018). “Lesbian Erasure”. Echo Magazine. Archived from the original on February 22, 2021. Retrieved April 2024. web.archive.org/web/20210222122932/https://echomag.com/lesbian-erasure/
  2. Walton, E. J., Walker, C. R., Freeman, E., O’Hanlon, C., Mackallah, C., & Taha, M. (2023). The Queer History of Physics: A First Encounter. Zenodo. doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.10091193
  3. Halleck, R. (2018, August 29). Overlooked No More: Ruby Payne-Scott, Who Explored Space With Radio Waves. The New York Times. 
  4. Ward, C. (2015, January 13). Ruby Payne-Scott [1912-1981]. CSIROpedia. csiropedia.csiro.au/payne-scott-ruby/
  5. Goss, W. M., & McGee, R. (2010). Under the Radar: The First Woman in Radio Astronomy: Ruby Payne-Scott. Springer Nature. doi.org/10.1007/978-3-642-03141-0
  6. Lerner, G. (1986). The creation of patriarchy. Oxford University Press.