Anna Franklin delves into the history of prominent LGBT+ figures in conservation and natural science in celebration of LGBT+ history month this February.

LGBT+ History Month is an annual, month-long celebration of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender history — held each February in the UK — which highlights the many and varied contributions that LGBTQIA+ people have made, and continue to make, to our society.

It is also a prime opportunity to focus on some people who have contributed to conservation and nature research efforts throughout history...


 Rachel Carson (1907 - 1964)

Marine biologist and conservationist Rachel Carson has been credited as the founder of the global environmental movement. Her 1962 book Silent Spring detailed the impact that chemical pollution has on wildlife. Prior to Carson's publication, countries around the world were baffled by the decline in bird numbers. Her work internationally drew the public's attention to the increasing use of pesticides and the negative effects they have on nature.

Carson had a 12-year-long close relationship with another woman. While some argue that the relationship was purely platonic, their fondness for each other was evident in their exchanging of letters in which they declare their love for each other.

Image: Rachel Carson, official photo as FWS employee. c. 1940. Wikimedia

Alan Turing (1912 - 1954) 

Many of us know Alan Turing as the man who cracked the Nazi Enigma Code during the Second World War. Among his many other accomplishments was the development of a mathematical equation that describes how chemicals spread through cells, resulting in patterns in nature such as a leopard's spots.

Tragically, only two years after publishing his paper on mathematical biology, Turing took his own life. At a time when homosexuality was still criminalised, he had been chemically castrated as an alternative to prison, after being prosecuted for homosexual acts. 

Image: Alan Turing, passport photo at age 16, Unknown Author, Wikimedia

Joan Roughgarden (1946 - present) 

Ecologist and evolutionary biologist Joan Roughgarden developed the theory of social selection, which accounts for the existence of sexuality and gender diversity in nature. Charles Darwin's original theory of sexual selection positioned heterosexuality and biological sex as fulfilling the primary purpose of reproduction.

Roughgarden's work has since suggested that homosexual behaviour in the animal kingdom can be explained by achieving the social goals of pleasure and bonding. Her theory continues to contribute to the growing body of scientific research that demonstrates how sexuality and gender diversity are natural in both the human and animal kingdom. Roughgarden came out as a trans woman in 1998.

Penny Whetton (1958 – 2019)

Penny Whetton was a climatologist who published numerous articles on global warming. She was also the Lead Author on a report of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which was rewarded the Nobel prize in 2007.

Penny came out as a trans woman to her wife in 1998.

Image: Penny Whetton at the March for Science, 2017, Mal Vickers, Wikimedia

Whilst we celebrate the contributions of people from the LGBTQIA+ community to conservation, it is also important to recognise that there is still much work to be done to ensure inclusivity and equality for this marginalised group, both in conservation and in society as a whole.

The climate and nature emergencies most greatly impact the already vulnerable and marginalised, and exacerbate current issues of social justice, including LGBTQIA+ rights. To fight these emergencies, we need to ensure every voice is heard, empowered to act, and included in the solutions.

You can read more about the RSPB’s internal LGBTQIA+ group ‘The Starlings’ in our latest Pride blog here.

Anonymous