The intersectionality of Black Lives Matter, pride and being a civil servant and a data scientist

On 25th May 2020 George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis. His death has sparked protests not just in the USA but around the world. Like many Civil Service organisations, our departmental race champion posted a blog about the Black Lives Matter movement at the start of June. This coincided with a short twitter thread I posted about these latest Black Lives Matters protests rising at the intersection of the start of what is increasingly seen as LGBT+ Pride Month1 in the US (and to some degree here in the UK too).

June is #pride month. Rightly these days we can celebrate our achievements as a community, and within society. But we must not forget that: (a) Pride was and is a protest started by black trans women against police brutality directed at our community; (b) queer and trans people of colour remain the most disadvantaged in our own community and society at large; and (c) Pride must continue to be a protest both for the injustices that continue to be experienced by LGBT+ folk in the UK and globally. Because while we are very fortunate in the UK to live in a society with the general freedoms and legislative progress that we have, which allows many LGBT+ individuals to live their lives openly and freely as the conversation in the UK about #BlackLivesMatter moves to confront the legacy of colonialism, we cannot ignore the fact that so many of the anti-LGBT laws still in place around the world were instituted by the British Empire and we so we must continue our proud tradition of protest and strive for a better world where #BlackLivesMatter, #TransLivesMatter and #BlackTransLivesMatter.

As a cis white middle-class gay man I can “pass”: keep my head down, pretend I’m not different, merge into the background. I have consciously done so in the past, I try not to nowadays but I no doubt will again at some point in the future through some unconscious ignorance of the privilege that the social position that the colour of my skin, my class and my gender identity afford me. Recently I have been listening to a podcast called Bad Gays, which looks to explore our community’s less savoury characters. Their Bad Gays are typically cis white gay men, who often “passed” because they had the social privilege to hide their sexuality from society at-large or more recently presented a ‘socially acceptable’ form of gay man. Several of their episodes highlight the complex history of racism that exists in the LGBT+ community, again usually perpetrated by cis white gay men.

The blog on our intranet made me further consider the additional intersection of my position as a civil servant. The UK’s own Black Lives Matter protests with their focus on the legacy of empire, demonstrated most visually by the removal of the statue of a Bristol slave trader and renewed calls that Rhodes Must Fall, also added to these thoughts about my institutional intersectionality. Many LGBT+ people of colour around the world live in countries with repressive laws that persecute homosexuality either with imprisonment or death. A sad fact is that very many of these laws come from the administration of the British Empire. In 34 of the 54 sovereign states of the Commonwealth of Nations homosexuality remains illegal and in only six countries of the members is same-sex marriage legal; laws in British overseas territories also descend from Empire.

British laws on homosexuality date to the Buggery Act of 1533, but the ‘modern-era’ law repealed in 1967 was based on legislation passed in 1828, 1861 and 1885. Different approaches to colonial administration mean the criminalisation passed to different territories in different way (e.g. the direct transposition of British domestic law, or the writing of a general penal code that includes prohibitions against homosexual relations), but nonetheless British legal positions on homosexual conduct were exported across the Empire. While the 1533 Act was passed by Henry VIII the acts of the 1800s were enacted by the British parliament, so a case could be made that there is some form of democratic consent for such laws, though there’s a whole separate discourse to be had about whether the British parliaments of the 1800s were democratic and whether there should be laws governing non-harmful activity between consenting adults. Such consent cannot in any way be claimed in respect to the laws that continue to persecute LGBT+ people of colour in Commonwealth countries, they were imposed by British colonial administrators… who were a form of crown servant, just like modern civil servants.

Beyond the institution of laws against homosexual conduct, western colonial administrations also enforced western binary gender social norms, suppressing a more fluid and diverse range of gender practices, identities and customs found in many localities before the colonial conquest. So there are no doubt trans today who are being persecuted and/or subject to social stigma for expressing an identity that their ancestors may well have fully supported and celebrated. Trans people are a small subset of the LGBT+ community, yet even from within our own community they can experience stigma and misunderstanding, let alone the vocal levels of hate directed at them from cisgendered individuals, while society has become more accepting of the L, G and (to some extent) B parts of the acronym, the same cannot be said for the T or + parts. For many reasons there is not good data about the trans community, but the US-based Human Rights Coalition has identified at least 16 trans individuals that have died in the US in 2020 as a result of violence directed at them, a majority of whom were Black.

So, while I am glad that I can be an openly gay civil servant — in fact when I marched in pride with the Civil Service Rainbow Alliance several years ago, marching in the parade and being identified as a gay man wasn’t what worried me, it was wearing a t-shirt with the Royal Coat of Arms and the words “Civil Service” blazoned across my chest that I was most anxious about — I cannot help but reflect on who I might have been had I been alive 150/200 years ago. If I was a civil servant would my story be one of those “bad gays” that I’ve listened to: a cis white gay male that hid his sexuality and ‘passed’, and in that ‘passing’ might I have been involved in instituting the legal system that to this day continues to directly and indirectly harm so many queer people of colour around the world.

In England the decriminalisation of homosexuality followed from the 1957 Wolfenden Report and the subsequent Sexual Offences Act 1967, decriminalisation in Scotland came in 1980 and in 1982 for Northern Ireland. Further reforms, such as the equalisation of the age of consent, the establishment of anti-discrimination legislation and the first form of recognised legal relationships did not arrive until the late 1990s/2000s, indeed it is only in February this year that the first same-sex marriage took place in Northern Ireland. I lay this out, because although decriminalisation started in the 50s and took place in England two-years prior, the Stonewall Riots on 28 June 1969 in New York remain an important moment for all LGBT individuals around the world, the riots helped our community start to organise for our acceptance and liberation. On the first anniversary of these riots in 1970, the first ever Pride marches happened in a number of US cities, and the first UK pride march followed in 1972 spurred by the actions of our American cousins. I cannot celebrate pride without being indebted to transgender people of colour — Marsha P Johnson in particular — who were at the forefront of the first battles to resist police intimidation and persecution of LGBT+ people, communities and spaces.

The data science perspective

I say ‘data science perspective’ but I mean anyone that deals with some form of statistics or quantitative research. The field of modern statistics owes much to the work of Francis Galton, Karl Pearson and Ronald Fisher. Depending on the subject and institution through which you learn about statistics you may, or more likely may not, learn about the fact that these three men were deeply involved in the field of eugenics. Galton (1822-1911) is credited with inventing the concept of correlation, survey questionnaires, standard deviation, and a pioneer of regression methodologies. Pearson (1857-1936) was a protégé of Galton’s and developed his work on correlation and regression further (the Pearson correlation coefficient is named after him2), he is also responsible for the chi-square test and principal components analysis. Fisher (1890-1962) is responsible many developments in modern statistics including the ANOVA and linear discriminant analysis methods, he popularised the use of the t-test and maximum likelihood estimation, and the F-distribution and F-test are named after him.

Modern quantitative analysis relies heavily on methods developed, influenced or promoted by these men. If you learn about statistics through biology/life sciences then you may become aware of their involvement with the eugenics movement. If you learn about statistics through other disciplines then you almost certainly will not. Galton invented the term eugenics in 1883 as a way to describe his thinking on heredity and to apply the concept of selective breeding “to give the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable than they otherwise would have had”3. Pearson was the first holder of the University of London’s Chair in Eugenics (set up through a bequest in Galton’s will), and in 1925 argued against the immigration of Polish and Russian Jews into Britain4 on eugenic grounds. Fisher became an editor of the Annals of Eugenics journal, headed UCL’s Department of Eugenics and served on the Committee for Legalizing Eugenic Sterilization and even after the horrors of World War II he wrote in support of a Nazi eugenicist claiming that “[the Nazis] sincerely wished to benefit the German racial stock, especially by the elimination of manifest defectives… [I give] support to such a movement”5. Fisher also actively objected to UNESCO’s work in the 1950s disproving the scientific case for racial differences, “[Fisher] believes that human groups differ profoundly ‘in their innate capacity for intellectual and emotional development’"6.

While some might argue that eugenics was a widely held set of beliefs within scientific and non-scientific society at the time, there was significant contemporary critique of their methods and approaches7. I decided to undertake the displeasure of reading Pearson’s 1925 paper arguing against Jewish immigration to Britain, its dry academic/scientific language attempts to lull you into a sense of decency, but it is clear that many of differences he and co-author Margaret Moul report are clearly the function of social conditions (i.e. poverty) rather than inherent genetics. The paper mixes discussion of their scientific findings with political questions, such as ‘assimilation’ and asserts that Russian and Polish Jews are not as likely intermarry with the English as the English Jews, Hugenots or Dutch immigrants have. While stating that they did not choose these immigrants for study because they were Jewish, they choose to include in their prose “neither Jews nor Slavs have hitherto shown in their historical records the ability to found a stable democratic community”. Moreover, “We must remind the reader that from our standpoint as Eugenists we demand that the immigrants shall not be equal to the feebler children here, or to the average children here, but shall be markedly superior to our average”, however their analysis and commentary completely ignores any consideration of the socio-economic position and conditions that recent immigrants will have faced and how this would contribute to non-superior outcomes in their measurements of health and capability.

Modern statistics and analysis relies on the techniques developed by these men, in the same way that the US Air Force and NASA’s early space flights relied on the work of Nazi rocket scientists. We cannot abandon these methods but we certainly should ensure that we are aware of the history of their development. These methods were not created by people who also happened to be eugenicists, these methods were often employed by these same and other eugenicists in their work, these methods were in part devised to support the study of their beliefs. We are unlikely to see the F-distribution or Pearson correlation coefficient renamed, however we can and must consider whether it is right to continue to memorialise these individuals on the names of buildings, awards and lectures, and we should strive to ensure that those learning statistics through whatever discipline have the ability to learn about its historical associations with eugenics. In 2018 UCL began a process to explore the role they have played in the history of eugenics.

Beyond the morally repgunant racist motivations that eugenics is most commonly associated with, eugenicist arguments have often been used against LGBT+ individuals. Are you born gay? Is it nature vs nurture? Is it something you can be seduced into? Is there a gay gene? While there is an element of natural curiosity into how one comes to be, the wide ranging evidence of homosexual practice through human history and in the natural world8 suggests that this difference isn’t something we should be concerned about. Instead, there’s always part of me that thinks this sort of inquiry has the potential for danger, if there is a gay gene does that mean that ‘designer babies’ could be created that aren’t gay. Alan Turing has been honoured by naming the UK’s national institute for data science after him as a result of his developments in computational mathematics, and his renowned cryptographic efforts during World War II breaking the Enigma machine. In 1952 he was convicted of indecency for homosexual activity and accepted a sentence of chemical castration, the taking of oestrogen to suppress his libido and induce impotence. This conviction ended his role as a government code breaker, and increased police surveillance of him and his activities. In 1954 he committed suicide aged 41. While the posthumous honour of naming the Alan Turing Institute after him, it does not bring back a man that contributed so much and could have contributed so much more, and whose death is the indirect result of legal practices influenced by eugenicist thinking. In 2017 some 20 countries in Europe still had laws requiring trans individuals to undergo sterilisation before a European Court of Human Rights judgement ruled that this was a violation of their human rights.

So again, while I am proud to be an out gay data scientist, I cannot ignore the complexity of my profession’s history: that some of its most prominent men have been involved in some very disturbing science, science that has been used to, or influenced, the persecution of others like me. I reflected in the earlier section about whether I’d be one of those colonial administrators, so I should reflect on whether 100 years ago would my passion for statistics and social geography would have lead me down the route of joining these eugenicists. I hope not, I hope that my interest in social and urban geography would have led me more down the route of Charles Booth and Seeboham Rowntree9.

  1. The pride flag shown here is the “Progress Pride” flag by Daniel Quasar an updating of Gilbert Baker’s well-known 6-stipe flag to add representation for trans and non-binary individuals, queer people of colour and those in the community who have been lost through violence and disease. ↩︎

  2. While talking of correlation, it’s also worth noting that the ‘other’ correlation coefficient (Spearman’s rank correlation) is also named after another British eugenicist, Charles Spearman, a contemporary of Pearson’s. ↩︎

  3. Galton F (1883) Inquiries Into Human Faculty and Its Development, Macmillan, p24 ↩︎

  4. Pearson K and Moul M (1925) “The problem of alien immigration into Great Britain, illustrated by an examination of Russian and Polish Jewish children” Annals of Eugenics 1(1): 5-54 doi:10.1111/j.1469-1809.1925.tb02037.x ↩︎

  5. Weiss, SF (2010) “After the Fall: Political Whitewashing, Professional Posturing, and Personal Refashioning in the Postwar Career of Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer” Isis 101(4)722-758. doi:10.1086/657474, via Wikipedia ↩︎

  6. UNESCO (1952) The Race Concept: results of an inquiry, UNESCO p26 ↩︎

  7. Allen GE (2011) “Eugenics and Modern Biology: Critiques of Eugenics 1910-1945” Annals of Human Genetics 75(3)314-325 doi: 10.1111/j.1469-1809.2011.00649.x ↩︎

  8. There are a lot of gay penguins. Lions can also be pretty gay. While bonobos are the pansexual queens and kings of the jungle. ↩︎

  9. Booth is also not without sin, his 1902 study uses anti-Semitic references when discussing Jewish immigration into the East End of London. ↩︎