At 19, Samuel Buelow felt he had to leave Los Alamos to be himself.
He had grown up as a girl in the insular, scientific community that felt deeply conservative in the late 1990s and early 2000s. After moving to Pittsburgh for college, Buelow came out as a transgender, gay man.
“It was definitely something, at the time, I felt I couldn’t have done living here full time,” Buelow said of Los Alamos. “There was very little awareness of these issues in general. And when there was, it was surrounded by some pretty intense homophobia and transphobia.”
That was then.
This … is a town sporting different colors.
On Monday, a rainbow flag was raised for the first time in front of the Otowi Building on the Los Alamos National Laboratory campus, flapping alongside the U.S. and New Mexico banners. Lab officials said it will fly for the remainder of the week.
It was another sign of change at the lab, which in previous years has undertaken different pride representations, including decorating the windows of a prominent building with rainbow-colored Post-it Notes in 2017.
CJ Bacino, the laboratory’s diversity officer, said a Los Alamos lab LGBTQ staff and allies group called Prism brought forward the idea of raising the flag this year to help mark Pride Week in Los Alamos County.
LANL and Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque both are affiliated with National Lab Pride, an organization founded in 2016 with roughly 80 members representing 14 of the Department of Energy’s 17 national laboratories.
Tom Gallant, a program manager at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, said National Lab Pride was formed to foster a better sense of belonging, as well as information sharing, among the Department of Energy’s lab workforce. And Bacino said LANL “has a pretty robust diversity and inclusion strategy in place,” including recruiting, retaining and creating a positive work environment for a variety of groups, including the LGBTQ population.
A more inclusive atmosphere wasn’t always the case at the national labs.
A new documentary, The Lavender Scare, based on a book of the same title, explores how, on the heels of the McCarthy-era hunt for American communists, federal employees also were interrogated over their sexual orientation. Thousands of investigations were conducted, with people removed from their jobs by the hundreds. In some cases, researchers said, federal employees took their own lives as a result of the persecution.
“No one was defending gay people,” filmmaker Josh Howard told CBS News. “The Democrats stayed away from this issue. At the time, the ACLU believed it was perfectly legitimate for the government to fire homosexuals as a threat to national security.”
Until the early ’90s, federal workers and scientists at LANL and Department of Energy facilities around the country could be denied security clearance on the basis of sexuality. Even after President Bill Clinton signed a 1995 executive order barring the practice, some continued to be denied clearance if they had not come out to family or friends, according to a 1995 New York Times story. And only in 1998 did the White House ban employment discrimination related to sexual orientation.
Some Department of Energy workers remember when discrimination based on sexuality was rampant. Michele Kahn had been living as an openly gay woman for years when she was hired by Sandia Labs in 1992. During her security clearance investigation, she was asked to list the names of her current and past partners, and to call her mother to confirm her family was aware she was a lesbian.
The interviewer “zeroed in on my sexual orientation,” she wrote in a blog post for Sandia in June 2017.
Despite a network founded for gay, lesbian and bisexual employees in 1987, Kahn wrote, “Meetings had generic titles to avoid accidentally outing members when others viewed their calendars. People worried that associating with the LGB group would negatively impact their careers.”
Though flags remain symbolic, Buelow, a researcher for the Los Alamos Historical Society, said there is a different feeling on the Hill today. This week, for example, has been designated as the annual LGBTQ and Pride Week in Los Alamos County, culminating in a festival Friday.
“The very fact that we had a Pride [commemoration] was so monumental last year,” Buelow said. That it was well attended and positively received, is “something I would have never dreamed possible for this community.
“Things are absolutely improving,” said Buelow, 36.
Still, he said past discrimination has left a blank spot about the LGBTQ community in Los Alamos history. He is working on a project about the Cold War experience in Los Alamos for the historical society but said there is little archival information about what those in the LGBTQ community faced at the time.
“There were people living here who were either gay or trans — LGBT in some capacity — but as far as I know, we know relatively little about who these people were or how they managed the issues surrounding secrecy or government clearance or blackmail and those types of issues,” he said, referring to discriminatory practices of the past.
Buelow said he hopes this year to launch an oral history of untold Los Alamos stories — including remembrances from those who still don’t want to be identified as a gay, bisexual or transgender.
There are, “people who were here during the Cold War era who still aren’t out. … They have managed this their entire lives but still are not in a position where they tell many people.”
Now, he said, Los Alamos is changing — and with it the recognition of stories that have long been suppressed.
“It is an issue that I think has just been under the surface for a long time,” he said.