The Straights Are Here To Save Us

On naming telescopes, complicity, and the rewriting of history

[Post updated 1/26 to add a comment on the personal attack in this writing discussed below.] There’s a blog post by astronomer Hakeem Oluseyi making the rounds about James Webb's role in persecuting LGBTQIA+ folks during his time at the State Department, which I find... more than a little frustrating, to put it mildly. I'm not linking to the article here because (as I'll be talking about in this newsletter) it already has traction with people who are enamored of the just-so story it tells, and because it is also being actively edited without version control or correction notes (though its central argument has not changed). If you wish to read it, you can easily find it; I also link a PDF of the article in its original form at the end of this piece. In the event that you read all the way to the end, you’ll also be treated to a cool slide show on Frank Kameny, an astronomer who lost his job for being gay, and became a gay rights icon. The following commentary was written following the excellent remarks of Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Adrian Lucy, Audra Wolfe, and Brian Nord; I have featured specific tweets that are helpful in capturing the issue, but strongly recommend that readers click through to read the full threads as well, as they contain additional comments and context that are not captured here.

What’s Up with James Webb?

Here’s the brief summary from Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, as part of her full thread:

For readers who are unfamiliar: James Webb served as the NASA Administrator during the Apollo era, and is the namesake of NASA's upcoming flagship mission, the James Webb Space Telescope (also known as JWST). However, Webb— and specifically, the honor of having a great space observatory named after him— has been a focal point of controversy due to his participation in government persecution of LGBTQIA+ people during the time he served as Undersecretary of State (known as the Lavender Scare). In his blog post, Oluseyi attempts (but fails) to exonerate Webb from this aspect of his record. Because I am extremely tired of straight people incorrectly explaining gay history to me for the purposes of justifying their own ends, and because the scrubbing of Webb's historical record does active harm to LGBTQIA+ astronomers in the field today, I am taking some time to respond.

Before we get into the specific content of the blog post, I think it's helpful to consider writing not just on the basis of what it says, but also, what it does. Any piece of writing that argues a particular point has a function— as is the case with this blog post about Webb— and in many cases, the function of a piece of writing is both separate from and more important than its content. To use a separate example, I have argued as much in critiquing SpaceX's messaging around Starlink, which purports to provide internet to "underserved" areas, where SpaceX’s choice of language is intended to imply a philanthropic mission that short-circuits critique.

So, what is the function of this piece litigating Webb's role in persecuting queer people while at the State Department? Its purported aim is to exonerate Webb from the accusations which have haunted the JWST, expressly so that "members of astronomy’s LGBTQI+ community will now be freed of any burdens that may have borne from encountering the misinformation on Webb." 

And what else does the essay do? 

  • Uses the case of telescope naming to allay the qualms of a predominantly cis/heterosexual community of scientists that they have any kind of relationship to or responsibility for the treatment of LGBTQI+ both historically and currently, when ample documentation to the contrary exists 

  • Centers Webb within a false dichotomy between the advancement of Black people within NASA and the persecution of LGBTQI+ people, as though there are no queer Black people, and then uses this dichotomy to drive a false equivalence argument between the experiences of oppression within these overlapping communities 

Now, content. Oluseyi's blog post focuses foremost on correcting a specific quote that had been attributed to Webb in his Wikipedia article, which is as follows: "It is generally believed that those who engage in overt acts of perversion lack the emotional stability of normal persons." Unable to confirm that this quote is attributable to Webb, the rest of the post follows a circuitous series of rabbit holes to argue that, in fact, the systematic persecution of LGBTQI+ people within government agencies was due to not to James Webb himself, but to his associates at the State Department, John Puerifoy and Carlisle Humelsine. Having emerged from the archival tunnel, Oluseyi concludes that "James Webb never played a role in the Lavender Scare at all. It was a case of mistaken identity." 

This statement is not only directly inaccurate, it also elides how hierarchies within workplaces work. Credit for the evidence to the contrary comes from fellow astronomer Adrian Lucy, who points out that there is direct documentation of Webb's involvement in the planning and implementation of the Lavender Scare (click through for the document itself):

As Lucy also points out, there is also commentary on Webb's participation in the book Lavender Scare, by David Johnson

The relevant passage here: 

President Truman and Undersecretary of State James Webb met to discuss how the Hoey committee and the White House might "work together on the homosexual investigation." Truman told the undersecretary "he was sure we could find a proper basis of cooperation"and agreed that Webb and two White House aides should meet with Hoey to establish a modus operandi.

There is also a description of the meetings Webb attended:

You can see the memo here

As Audra Wolfe (who is an actual historian, and whose excellent newsletter you can also subscribe to here on Substack)-- astutely points out, the questions raised by naming NASA's next flagship telescope for Webb are particularly relevant now that questions of accountability and complicity with the Trump administration are wafting around everyone like a bad smell.

So from the documentation above, we can see that Webb was directly involved in the planning and implementation of the Lavender Scare, even if he’s not on record as calling us “sex perverts” or whatever. Personally, I am not particularly interested in whether Webb's Wikipedia article misattributes a quote. Wikipedia can be a great source for a lot of things, but what it is not a great source for is articles that involve controversy of any kind, which tend to become an editorial battleground. But also, I find the implication that people who think Webb was a bigot are basing it solely off his Wikipedia article to be ridiculous. Honestly, cissex/heterosexual astronomers, do you think that your queer colleagues are fools? You don't know our history, and only seeking to learn it in the service of exonerating a fellow cissex/heterosexual man is Not A Great Look.

Furthermore, the arguments in Oluseyi's blog post posit a world in which bigots walk around announcing themselves-- which they sometimes do, but usually do not! Sure, someone occasionally says something on the record and looks like a big bigoted meanie, but more often than not, oppression is a slow, bureaucratic death march of policy that leaves us with little to quote except the number of people whose lives it altered or ended. 

So, let's ask: what other work is this blog post doing, beyond scrubbing Webb's legacy? This effort to exonerate Webb not only works upon the past, but the present, in that it seeks to allay creeping sensations of guilt amongst cissex/heterosexual astronomers that they, in fact, are complicit with upholding the ongoing barriers faced by queer people in the sciences

It’s unpleasant to think that NASA's awesome new telescope, whose exciting capabilities underpin so many current and future careers, is named for someone who helped enact a campaign that ruined so many peoples' lives. Astronomers who work on JWST, or who hope to use it, would prefer the easy option: to not have to rename the telescope, and to go on using its current name without being reminded of history. Specifically, heterosexual/cissex astronomers would also like to think that they, too, bear no complicity for discrimination against queer people in the field— and yet: the discrimination is coming from inside the house, folks. Maybe it's not your own actions, but it is someone's, and you probably know them. The fact that it happens is evidence that complicity with discrimination— of all kinds— haunts astronomy still. 

Hey, you made it to the end! Would you like to read about how an astronomer who lost his job for being gay became a gay rights icon? Click here!!

Original post by Hakeem Oluseyi available here.

Note added 1/26/21: In my original writing I did not address that Oluseyi’s blog post also contains a barely-veiled personal attack against Chanda Prescod-Weinstein. It is ironic, and upsetting, that his post attempted to wield history (albeit incorrectly) against someone who is both better qualified to talk about it (Dr. Prescod-Weinstein is a feminist theorist, in addition to being a theoretical physicist) and personally affected by it (as a queer Black woman). There is much to think about in the fact that so many astronomers were willing to skip over those lines without pause, and I hope my colleagues will think about why they were so motivated to do so… over the name of a piece of technology.