Amid Allegations of Anti-LGBTQ Gov't Purge, a Push to Rename the James Webb Space Telescope

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Monday July 26, 2021

James Webb, a career bureaucrat who headed NASA in the 1960s, helped perpetuate a purge of LGBTQ civil servants, activists allege. As a result, there's now a push to reconsider naming a high-tech space telescope in his honor, PinkNews reports.

"Earlier this year, four astronomers launched a petition to rename the telescope because of Webb's alleged participation in a government anti-LGBT+ purge," the British LGBTQ news site recounts, going on to add: "NASA's acting chief historian Brian Odom is investigating the evidence against Webb using archival documents."

The Scientific American op-ed piece, by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Sarah Tuttle, Lucianne Walkowicz, and Brian Nord notes that the new space-borne instrument "will peer farther into the universe than any optical or infrared telescope before it and could show us galaxies in their infancy, probe potentially habitable worlds and explore the mysteries of dark energy.

"It is unfortunate, therefore, that NASA's current plan is to launch this incredible instrument into space carrying the name of a man whose legacy at best is complicated and at worst reflects complicity in homophobic discrimination in the federal government," the article adds.

Webb's long career included time "at the U.S. Department of State under President Harry S. Truman," where Webb was a proponent of "psychological warfare as a cold war tool."

"As Webb was beginning his career with the U.S. government in the late 1940s, gay and lesbian employees were being systematically rooted out and fired because of their sexual orientation," the science journal Nature recalls.

"During the lavender scare, gay people were cast, untruthfully, as perverts who might be desperate to keep their sexual orientation secret and thus be susceptible to revealing government secrets under blackmail," Nature details.

"When he arrived at NASA in 1961, [Webb's] leadership role meant he was in part responsible for implementing what was by then federal policy: The purging of LGBT individuals from the workforce," the Scientific American op-ed alleges.

The op-ed authors cite the 2004 book "The Lavender Scare," by historian David K. Johnson, as including "archival evidence indicating that Webb, along with others in State Department leadership, was involved in Senate discussions that ultimately kicked off a devastating series of federal policies" targeting LGBTQ civil servants."

One famous casualty of the anti-LGBTQ policy was Frank Kameny, a gay government astronomer who took his case, unsuccessfully, all the way to the Supreme Court after being fired. Kameny became an influential LGBTQ civil rights pioneer.

The effects of the purge are still felt today, the op-ed authors argue, citing a 2016 report that found the field of physics remains "exclusionary, and physicists who identify as more than one minority, including LGBT+ physicists of color, experience the most harassment and exclusion.

"Astrophysicists who are LGBTQIA+... are [also] marginalized," the authors add.

The push to rename the telescope is only the latest wrinkle in the scientific instrument's troubled history. The James Webb Space Telescope was originally slated to replace the Hubble Space Telescope in 2007, but the project has run into numerous cost overruns and delays. The new telescope is currently scheduled to launch later this year.

"NASA has an opportunity to choose a new namesake that will embrace a future of freedom and inspiration for all," the op-ed authors argue.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.