About Walt Westman

Walt Westman is considered to be the founder of NOGLSTP, in its original incarnation as NOGLS . Although he was an “out and proud” gay man, the occasion of his organizing a special session at the 1980 AAAS annual meeting to discuss problems arising from homophobia in the scientific workplace was his professional coming out. He was an early activist, speaking out against homophobia in the scientific workplace and in research funding, and set the stage for NOGLSTP’s ongoing relationship with AAAS.

In the late 70’s and early 80’s, a number of support groups for gay and lesbian scientists were forming throughout the country. Westman envisioned a national umbrella organization which would represent individual gay and lesbian scientists and regional groups in educational and political matters concerning science and society. He coordinated early communications among those regional groups, participated on national-level projects, and represented NOGLS at national AAAS meetings. He was one of the organizers of our first-ever AAAS symposium in 1985, “Homophobia and Social Attitudes -Their Impact on AIDS Research”, and was the main author of our original 1986 biographical pamphlet, “Who Are the Gay and Lesbian Scientists?” Walt Westman served on the NOGLSTP Board of Directors until 1988, when he resigned to follow his passions with AIDS activism.

A research ecologist by profession, Walt Westman was an alumnus of Swarthmore College Class of 1966. After Swarthmore, he studied for a masters in Australia before completing his PhD in two years at Cornell in 1971. He then spent a year working for Senator Muskie in Washington, D.C. and helped write the 1972 Water Pollution Control Act. From then on he pursued a dual career in applied and basic ecological research. He often testified at hearings. After two years as a lecturer in Queensland, Australia, he moved to UCLA where he rose to the rank of Professor in the Geography Department and gained an international reputation for his research in plant geography. In 1984, he made the difficult decision to leave his tenured position in order to move to the gay community in San Francisco and to pursue research posts in applied ecology at Lawrence Berkeley Lab. He also published a well-received text in 1985 entitled Ecology, Impact Assessment, and Environmental Planning.

After beginning treatment with AZT in March, 1989, he took time off to work for Project Inform and stayed active in issues involving AIDS and gay rights up to the end. Walt Westman died of AIDS in early January, 1991.

NOGLSTP is pleased to name its highest national award given to a NOGLSTP member after Walt Westman. The Walt Westman Award recognizes the unselfish and outstanding contributions of a NOGLSTP member to the advancement of NOGLSTP’s growth. The first recipient of this award was Rochelle Diamond, who’s acceptace speech appears below.

2004 Walt Westman Award Acceptance Speech
by Rochelle Diamond

Growing up in the 1950’s and 60’s, I watched my parents volunteer at their local hospitals, charity boards, and auxiliaries. They instilled a passion in me that I have yet to extinguish. It is a passion for righting a wrong, reducing a prejudice, giving back to a needy community. I was part of that generation when America was known for its remarkable people. We were known for a mix of optimism, generosity, and a can-do kind of spirit. We could fix anything, cure any disease. Just give us the scientific knowledge and the technological know-how. There was a sense of limitless possibilities, of dreams that could and would turn into realities. It was a time when we as a nation had faith in ourselves, trust in each other, and trust in the human spirit. There was always the hope that all of us would act on our good intentions and that would somehow motivate us to do the right thing. Perhaps we could use our conscience to create a more positive future for our kind.

This is my vision, the one that I have carried with me in my heart of hearts. A vision to communicate social and cultural concerns about the science that we conduct to discover the truth about ourselves and the universe we live in. A vision to unleash the best of the human potential that resides in our community. But somehow our society just hasn’t cooperated with me.

I am deeply honored and humbled to receive this the first NOGLSTP Walt Westman Award. Honored because you thought enough of my work on behalf of NOGLSTP to reward me with the highest honor given to a NOGLSTP member. Humbled to receive the first such award.

The award is named for Walt Westman, one of the founders of this organization, not because he put the infrastructure together, but because he spoke out, wrote letters. He organized some of the first occasions here at AAAS meetings that gay and lesbian scientists could find each other, talk about mutual interests, and more importantly discuss issues that needed to be addressed.

Walt was a true visionary scientist- a leading edge kind of guy. Geographer by discipline, ecologist by research, he was one of the first to use satellite remote sensing technology to describe the changing conditions of biomes and biomass with incidents such as fire, draught, air pollution, and the human encroachment on our planet. Just a cursory search on the Web of Science yields over 60 papers issued in his shortened life.

Yet, Walt Westman was a fellow who was willing to take risks, to raise his voice to make a difference for his community. As a geographer, he knew how to use knowledge and intelligence to make convincing arguments. Whether he was working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, UCLA, UC Berkeley Lawrence Laboratory, or NASA Ames, Walt was proudly out and raising Cain. He was an activist on homophobia, employment issues for gays and lesbians, and later AIDS issues.

I had the enlightening experience to work with Walt to organize the first, then NOGLS, symposium that we presented at an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Annual Meeting in Los Angeles on the impact of homophobia on AIDS research. It was quite an education for me to watch as Walt raised money from UCLA and other sources to fund such an enterprise. He brought various experts from diverse disciplines to debate the ethics and issues of the research being conducted at the time. I learned the power of putting ethicists and scientists in the same room together. I didn’t always agree with Walt, but he sure knew how to get things stirred up and running. He died of AIDS several years later.

Walt convinced me that to change things we had to work on the professional level, to preserve our integrity and our right to question. The rationality of the scientific approach is the better way to educate and uplift our society about the concerns voiced by the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender communities. And that is what I have tried to implement on behalf of NOGLSTP.

Together, we have organized a fairly stable infrastructure. Through networking, newsletters, and the Internet we have gathered our constituency, found our voice, and search for legitimacy. We found that by aligning ourselves with the AAAS. It was a long but useful process to affiliate with AAAS. It forced us to create by-laws, incorporate in the state of California, seek 501(c) 3 status as an educational organization, and answer some really tough questions. What did NOGLSTP stand for? How do we view our interactions with AAAS? Do we stand for the same values and goals as AAAS? These are still really good questions as our strategic plan reflects. And if you are interested you can find it on our website- http://www.noglstp.org

It is truly an honor to be affiliated with AAAS. Our partnership with AAAS enriches our science and research across the disciplines. It provides us a resource for developing strategic interventions, broad coalitions, and it helps to translate research into policy and practice by communicating our findings in culturally appropriate ways. Our interaction helps us to provide ethical discourse with our colleagues on uncomfortable subjects.

In particular, it has been an honor working with the members of Section X, otherwise known as the section that deals with the impact of science and engineering on society. We have appreciated their openness, sponsorship, and monetary support for our educational symposiums here at the annual meeting. They have collaborated with us to be able to assess community-identified concerns and address their real and potential impacts.

You know, recently our community has celebrate great strides in the courts- the Federal Supreme Court decision on the Texas sodomy statute, the Massachusetts Supreme Court decisions on same-sex marriage. But I have to tell you that these days there are very real threats to the scientific community and our ability to conduct fair and accountable research. G/L/B/T Healthcare research faces new threats from Congressional and Bush Administration attacks which have led to an effort to censor LGBT, HIV, and sexual behavior research forcing in some cases harassing audits and a hit list received by NIH from the likes of the Traditional Values Coalition.

Just last month, I was reading in an issue of The Scientist in which they were interviewing the sociobiologist, E.O. Wilson. The reporter asked him “What is the toughest lesson that you have learned about science?” Wilson’s answer was simple and to the point – he said, “Political ideology can corrupt the mind and science.” It rang quite a bell for me about why AAAS is so important to NOGLSTP. And I want to take this opportunity to publicly thank AAAS and in particular it’s CEO, Alan Leshner, for using their bully pulpit in a Science magazine editorial. Dr. Leshner stood up and in no uncertain terms condemned the influence of political ideology on the scientific endeavor to know and understand the truth. We need as much help as we can get on this fight to preserve our right to do science, to live our lives in a creative and nourishing atmosphere, and to obtain the benefits of good healthcare in an affordable and reasonable way.

There are members of NOGLSTP who cannot sponsor their committed partner or some cases spouse (if they were married in Canada or Amsterdam) for immigration to the United States. They are literally being forced to choose between their love and their country. The Permanent Partner Immigration Act languishes in Congress and may never get out of committee. What a loss to the scientific community it is when our g/l/b/t colleagues face such a choice.

There is talk of an amendment to the US constitution that would permanently lock us out of the many benefits afforded to other citizens and rescind some benefits already afforded by some states. The price of some AIDS drugs have escalated over five fold just because their clinical market value has been reached. Why is this? And there is a rising tide of HIV/STD infections that if unchecked threaten to swamp our communities yet again with at best increased caseloads and at worse massive deaths.

Political winds change from one administration to another – from one big business merger to another – from one peer review committee to another – from one state to another – from one supervisor to another- from one voter to another – and another – and another.

NOGLSTP must represent its constituency with professionalism, integrity, and persistence in the face of adversity, criticism, and opposition. This society is constantly measuring the worth of a human being and the human endeavor. But by what are they measuring us by? It is our lives journeys, our thoughts, our actions, the love we share, the lives we uplift, the truth we tell, the good we do, the value that we perceive in each other. These should be our measures, our ripples that we leave in the dimensionality that we live in.

Lastly, I would like to publicly acknowledge the two women in my life who have stood by me, contributed their insights to my knowledge base, and enabled me to freely pursue my vision for NOGLSTP. They are my life partner, Barbara Belmont, and my Caltech cheerleader and boss, Dr. Ellen Rothenberg.

To my friends and colleagues- my heartfelt thanks. This really belongs to all of you. I have never been alone in this work. Many people have come before me and I have carried many people in my pocket to prod me along. There are still many people too fearful to come out in their professional lives. They need us to continue the fight for professional freedom, to improve the quality of all of our lives, to enhance and protect our rights, to validate and value our contributions to science and technology, and to foster real understanding between our communities. To do this NOGLSTP needs your strength in numbers, your visions, and your voluntary help to carry and further our goals to completion. We need new dynamic leaders to transfuse these old warhorses and continue our voices to eliminate fear, hate, and prejudice wherever they reside.

Thank you again for this great honor.

2006 Walt Westman Award Acceptance Speech
by Michael Parga

On the flight here from Los Angeles, Barbara Belmont leaned over and reminded me that I would have the opportunity to say a few words during the presentation of this award. I think she did this to give me time to prepare and also calm myself as she knows I do not consider myself a good public speaker and often become very nervous in front of groups of people. I thought about it and felt compelled to stand before you to thank you for this incredible honor. An honor that means so much more at this time in my life when I am experiencing many personal and physical challenges. But the honor I feel is not just for receiving this award, but is also the honor of being associated with NOGLSTP through these many years.

I first heard about the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Scientist from a
co-worker while we both worked for McDonnell Douglas Aircraft Company. He invited me to attend their meetings on several occasions, but
> I felt hesitant about attending because, although I did work in the electrical engineering field, my degree was not in engineering. I felt that I would be an imposteur and would not fit in. But after attending, and meeting Barbara and Shelley I quickly learned that both LAGLS and NOGLSTP were truly inclusive and it made no difference to anyone my educational background, only that shared their interest and passion for science. Soon I found myself involved in and helping both organizations.

Although it is truly an honor to receive this award, it pales in comparison to the honor of having the opportunity to be associated with an incredible organization like NOGLSTP. The members of NOGLSTP have challenged me to be a better technical professional and given me opportunities to learn more about science from a diverse, interesting and giving group of people. And in my own small way, helped me to contribute back to the organization and my community.

But most importantly I have developed friendships which have grown through the years and have come to mean so much to me. I thank you all for this award and for the chance to work with NOGLSTP and to be a part of making a difference. Thank you.


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