Coming out. Again

[I wrote this for National Coming Out Day, but have been rather ill since I drafted it, so only just getting around to posting it.

I was asked to write this piece by a friend of mine when I was trying to explain to her how coming out isn’t a one time only kinda thing]



You don’t come out just once.

So many people presume heterosexuality as being the obvious default that for someone who isn’t attracted to/only to people of the opposite gender, there are always people who don’t know, people who are making incorrect assumptions about your sexuality. On a regular basis you have to choose whether or not to correct them. Whether or not to come out. Whether or not it’s worth it this time.

The first time I came out I walked hand in hand into a place of work with a woman I had kissed the previous night, where I was met with colleagues telling me they had seen me the night before, that it was hot as hell, and asking if this meant I didn’t like boys any more. I hadn’t been kissing a girl for any reason other than the fact I fancied her, but I didn’t have the words to really explain this (other than that simple statement), nor did I have the words to say much more than that I liked both men and women. I learned how to express my sexuality quite effectively though as I spent the next few years with men trying to convince me and said woman to have a threesome with them.

Was it worth it? Yes. Despite the hassle I got afterwards, it was worth it as it was the first time I really admitted in public that I liked both women and men. I found something very empowering in making the decision to own my sexuality at that point in my life…

Then there was the time I was forced to come out. A man I had been dating for a while had been told by a friend of his that I had slept with women in the past, and he wanted to know if this meant I was promiscuous. By this stage I was older, wiser, and far more able to explain that sleeping with a woman rather than a man provided no insight into how promiscuous I was.

Was it worth it? Well, I didn’t really have a choice. I didn’t think it was really any business of anyone else at the time who I had slept with in the past, and had clearly made the decision not to get to tell the guy I was dating at the time too much about my past. It did however have the benefit of pointing out to me that I should probably end my current relationship…

Another time I came out was while talking to mental health professionals when trying to get treatment for depression. The woman I was talking to asked about my sexual and romantic history, so innocently I provided it, mentioning both male and female ex partners. She raised her eyebrows about these, and told me it may be indicative of an underlying instability. I was more than a little angry about this, ranted to a few friends as soon as I left the room, but wasn’t in a place to do anything about it. Given the response, which also made me close down about being open about any other parts of my life history, made me feel that someone was trying to interpret my sexuality as a sign that there was something wrong with me, it certainly didn’t feel worth coming out this time.

And then there was the time I mentioned a girlfriend to my father. And the last time I consciously mentioned an ex girlfriend to my work colleagues because for some reason at the time it felt important. And… And…

I can’t count how many times I’ve either had to or chosen to come out to different groups and individuals. And I know that I’m not alone in this – it’s something that many of my non-heterosexual friends have experienced. When you ‘come out’ the first time, it may be that you tell someone significant – be that close friends or family – but it is far from the only time you will have to own your sexuality, and correct other people’s preconceptions.

And each time takes the same calculations about whether or not it is worth it this time, whether or not you’re in the place to deal with possible questions, and how important it is to be true to yourself measured against any possible negative judgments or repercussions.

Although time makes it easier– and for me at least, so does the fact that I’m lucky enough to have been born in a country where my sexuality isn’t illegal – there are still too many instances when I slightly hold my breath as I casually drop in mention of an ex girlfriend when in conversation with people who aren’t aware, those who are newer in my life and haven’t known me when I’ve been dating a woman (the last significant woman in my life was pre-university).

And because I’ve realised it does matter to me that I don’t feel I’m having to hide a part of who I am, and because most people do still tend to default to presuming you are straight unless you say otherwise, and because I plan to keep meeting new people, people who don’t know that I’m attracted to both men and women, I guess I’m going to have to keep on coming out.

Data based moralising

There are all manner of complex reasons why people may sign up to Ashley Madison (and other related sites). Some people are in open relationships while some people may be in all manner of unhappy relationships (those that are abusive, that have mismatches around sex drives). Others may have contemplated doing something, but only thought long enough to sign up to having an account, and never actually contacted anyone. Relationships and cheating are complicated.

This leak has huge potential damage to cause a *lot* of harm to real people. And even more so in countries where extramarital sex isn’t just considered morally wrong but is illegal, or where homosexuality is illegal (some of the data reportedly indicates this). Saudi Arabia is an example of this.

I really hate people forcing their morality/perspective on relationships on to others in this incredibly public and identifiable way. And I think we’ll (very sadly) see more instances of incidences like the suicides reportedly related to the hack.

Waving goodbye to July

What a month July was – I’m not sure I’ve had such a busy month for a very long time… lots of travelling as part of work (doing NHS Citizen stuff), but also lots of seeing friends in different places such as managing to see my best friend in Manchester, and fulfilling a life long desire to stroll up the Champs-Élysées for breakfast after lots of jazz.

I still managed to do a bunch of reading though…

Things I read

Tanglewreck – Jeanette Winterson
“Today lies on top of yesterday. And yesterday on top of the day before, and so on down the layers of history, until the layers are so thick that the voices underneath are muffled to whispers”

You can rarely go wrong with a good children book – and this is an OK one. Gorgeous concept, but I’m possibly a bit too old and too ‘sciency’ to buy into the idea of time travel as portrayed here.
Mrs Dalloway – Virginia Woolf
It had long been on my to read pile – but I found that I really need to spend some time just sat down with it as the largely stream of consciousness writing style meant it wasn’t a book to pick up and put down. It explores some of my favourite themes – interactions between individuals, understanding/acceptance of decisions made, reinterpretation/subjectivity of perspectives, and mental health. The ending made me itch with frustration as I wanted greater resolution…
Gilead – Marilynne Robinson
Time, age, and introspection seemed common themes for books in July. I loved the period of time the book could span due to the tale told, always from a single perspective. Reading through an individuals slow stepping their way towards forgiveness – you can read this as a book about faith, or you can remove the religious aspect entirely and read it as being about family, relationships, and human interactions.


Things I did

  • Building Digital Democracy event in Parliament – interesting afternoon. I wasn’t convinced by everything that was being presented as being new/interesting/valuable, but certainly a step in the right direction of getting digital and parliament talking to each other more. Wednesday lunch time is rarely a good time for a Parliamentary event though.
  • Turkish baths, champagne, and chinese in Harrogate – there is a place in Harrogate where you can do 3 of the best things ever. You can go to Turkish baths (bathing, heat, cool water, all surrounded by amazing architecture), and then eat chinese and drink champagne after. Possibly the best evening of my life.
  • Open Government Partnership launch – I’m very pro greater openness in Government, so was very happy to be at the launch event for the next national action plan. It was excellent to be involved in conversations about ‘open data’ going beyond just openness in terms of licensing. Anyone who has heard me rant about this over the last few years will know *quite* how happy I was to hear others talking in these terms in this meeting…
  • Wikimedia UK Volunteer Strategy Gathering – conversations about communities, community building/empowering, strategy, and open knowledge, genuinely fit into my idea of a good time on a Saturday. I may be somewhat of a nerd though… I’m not convinced by the processes they are currently proposing, nor their focus on committees and advisory boards, but we shall see what happens next!

Things I saw

Fast and Furious 6 and 7 – Incredible. For all the wrong/right reasons. 7 was the better of the two – if only for bonus Jason Statham, The Rock pulling a gun from a Predator drone having literally flexed a cast off his arm, Vin Diesel and the amazing car jump to hook a bag of grenades onto a helicopter. Oh and a glorious scene where a car is driven through multiple towers in Abu Dhabi. And the bit where the team parachute out of a plane in their cars. It’s ludicrous. But so much fun.

Green Hornet – An absolute farce and terrible film that was perfect for a giggly evening in with pizza. Will NEVER watch it again, and will never recommend it.

The Man Who Knew Too Little – Mildly amusing. Not recommended

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off– Hard not to see the appeal for many. A giggle and a backward glange to an idealised teenage day that no-one ever actually had, and to a person none of us ever were.


So, roll on August – a month of more travel, lots of planned films, and hopefully some time to actually see some exhibitions. I plan to actually settle down and get back into reading something non-fictional as well, and I have the feeling I have some proms tickets for something…

Why voter tools may be problematic…

I’m a little unsurprised by this post I just saw on Buzzfeed about how the Daily Telegraphs Tactical Voting Tool was coded never to recommend the SNP. Not only am I not totally surprised, but I’m both a little happy and a little sad to be proven right about the use of voter apps and tools.

Before the election I became a little concerned about applications and tools that were being created by a variety of organisations that were supposed to give a floating voter an idea of how to vote in the 2015 General Election.

There is a fundamental (and incorrect) assumption underlying these tools that a parliamentary candidate should only be considered as a member of a party, rather than both as a member of a party and as an individual who will have their own pet areas of interest and qualities, but let’s ignore that and pretend that we should only be thinking about what national party policy says.

How the tools work

Many of these tools that were being created operated on a simple set of premises. A user would chose some areas of policy they were interested in, and then a variety of statements would be shown to the user without any obviously identifying information about which party had made those statements (although language used and the proposals themselves often gave that away to the more politically active), and the user would choose which statements they thought fitted most with their beliefs. An algorithm would then run over the answers provided and recommendations for how someone may wish to vote, or a bar chart/pie chart of the users similarities with political parties on various issues would pop out.

Alternatively, a user may be asked a series of questions about their priorities or beliefs, with similar outputs being provided – some form of chart or suggestions for which party their beliefs most align with.

Sometimes the bits of policy would be direct quotes from various statements and/or manifestos – albeit it shorn of any context and just a part that the tool creator had deemed ‘relevant’ – perhaps removing a sentence or two from either side that may alter how something reads, perhaps not using the paragraph that may be most directly comparable to other parties policies, or perhaps not considering that policies in seemingly unrelated areas may have an impact

And sometimes – especially with those tools that asked a series of questions – policy ideas and proposals from parties would be condensed by the tool creator into slightly different sentences and ideas than were ever originally considered.

How can bias creep in?

My concern before the election was that even with the best will in the world, any such tool will be full of biases. Be that removing specific nuance that may accidentally change what was originally meant in a policy statement, or removing the idea of how policies can and do interact (as an example the Green Party’s proposal to reduce copyright to 14 years after creation itself may be considered very difficult for many creators – but as the Green Party also propose a citizens basic income, this reduction in copyright would not itself cause destitution if both policies were brought in together).

And added to which, most organisations, including charities and NGOs, creating these tools are not politically neutral. They care about specific areas and will have either accidental or deliberate political biases that will emerge through these tools. Not only is it easy to accidentally remove nuance from a policy statement in a way that may make a political party look bad, it would also be very easy to deliberately do it – if say you wanted more people to vote for Labour than the Greens and Lib Dems – you could chose statements for the latter two parties that are less likely to be palatable to a wider audience, or summarise their policy proposals in less favorable ways.

And any questions asked will invariably contain bias. Just as one example, when I looked at 38 degrees vote match, none of the topics mentioned were my top voting issues. And the questions themselves were troublesome. For instance – one of the statements I was asked if I agree with was:

‘Government should raise new taxes to fund the NHS’

This statement is really leading. ‘Raising new taxes’ is not the same as ‘give more money to NHS’ as it is presuming the means by which more money needs to be provided. Furthermore, it also presumes the answer to any existing problems within the NHS is ‘a lack of money’, rather than for (possibly) bad internal management structures, or the wrong types of services being offered. Different technical procedures, less paper work, a decrease in homeopathy funding can all act to reduce costs for the NHS, providing an effective increase in funds – without ever ‘raising new taxes’. But the questions didn’t allow for such subtlety.

And therefore, any party which had more nuanced approaches to policy, which may need a little more explaining would be punished by this – as their idea wouldn’t fit easily into a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to this question.

I don’t expect most people to go away and read all the manifestos, and I do genuinely like the idea of tools and apps that people can play with to explore voting options. But I worry that these tools and apps can be used by organisations to push biases that less politically aware individuals may not notice.

Steps forwards

I would like to like to see those with strong interests in politics and with some understanding of social science to start more critical analysis of the biases that can be built into such tools – both in the language and framings used, as well as in the software and algorithms underpinning them. For this, it would help if the tools themselves were open source, so that the underlying code can be explored fully. Obviously, making something open source doesn’t magically make it evaluated and tested – but it is a start that enables this.

With each of these voter apps basically acting as a (potentially) poorly-designed survey, but one with the potential to influence voters and possibly alter outcomes within our election and democracy, much more critical analysis of these tools is needed.

Registering to vote

You have until the end of today (20 April) to register to vote for the 2015 General Election. Go and do it now.


To vote in UK elections, you must be over 18 and on what is called ‘the electoral register’. And even if you decide in the end not to vote on the 7 May, if you don’t register today you lose the option of doing so.

You never know what a local candidate or political party may do or say in the next few weeks. Even if you are normally politically apathetic, there is a chance someone will say something so incredible or outrageous that you feel obliged to go make a mark on polling day. Or you may just want the chance to spoil your ballot and scrawl all over your piece of paper, to stick it to the man.

But if you don’t register today you won’t get that opportunity.

I’ll be honest, it’s very unlikely your vote in the general election will do much. Even in this close election, many seats in the country are safe seats, where a party holds a significant majority.

On the 7 May, there will also be local elections – where you get to choose local councilors. And this is likely to have a much more significant impact on your local area than the national elections. If you aren’t on the electoral register, you won’t get an opportunity to vote in the local elections either.

There are all sorts of other ways you can get involved in the election if you so desire – contact your parliamentary candidates in the run up to the election to tell them about the issues that you care about, and asking them what their views are on these things. When they are busy trying to get your vote is one of the best times to convince a politician that they should care about the same things you do.

Or you could go to a hustings and meet the candidates for your area.

But all this may be far too much to think about right now, seems far too much like getting involved. And doesn’t have a deadline of just a few hours away.

So go and register now. Because you should go and mark a paper on election day – even if you just scrawl across it that the entire system is broken and politicians are all corrupt bastards. Which they aren’t. Not all of them, anyway.

And there is a lot more we can all do to be actively involved in the politics of our country, but making sure you are at least able to vote just in case you may want to in 3 weeks time is the least of those things!

So register. Now

MPs and second jobs

I’ve seen quite a lot of calls for MPs to be banned from having a second job over the last few days.

And I’m sympathetic to a lot of it, and would be strongly opposed to any parliamentary representative of mine not working hard to represent the constituency, or deal with issues they said they would work on if elected.

But what actually is a second job? If we are to ban them, we need to come up with some kind of agreed definition. And I’m not sure I know what one is.

Does an MP have a second job if they are a doctor during periods of Parliamentary recess? How about if said MP has no family/child care responsibilities and writes articles or a book during late evenings, having been in Parliament or working on either parliamentary or constituency business for 10 hours or so that day?

Does an MP have a ‘second job’ if they are a Minister? In many ways, surely this is worse than having an outside part time job that takes place during recess, as said MP is no longer able to vote against the Government party line, as well as having a (very) significant portion of their working time taken up with Government business rather than constituency business.

While there clearly are examples of MPs who take the mick – before we can talk about banning anything, we need a much clear idea of the shades of grey that might or might not be considered acceptable.

Collecting a list of learned societies

Happy Open Data Day 2015!

To celebrate, I’m going to spend the day curating a list of UK based learned societies, and scientific organisations to release later today/tomorrow as an openly licensed data set. I’ll then hopefully update the Wikipedia page – which is woefully incomplete.

It would be great to have some help if you’re interested. At present I’m looking just to gather names of organisations and websites.

I’ve merged a number of lists of learned societies and scientific organisations together, into a Google spreadsheet, and shall spend the next few hours tidying it up, making notes, and hunting down other organisations to include.

Scientific organisations and learned societies are not defined terms, and come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Some are professional with paid staff, others entirely voluntary, and they may caryy out a wide range of activities from publishing through to arranging meetings or networking events. They may provide grants and bursaries, get involved in public engagement and outreach, or get involved in political lobbying.

The criteria for inclusion on the list:

  1. The organisation or group should be a learned society or scientific organisation. Although these aren’t defined terms, often an organisation claims to be one or looks a lot like other organisations which claim to be one. The key things to look for are that it must be a membership organisation that is in some way linked to an area of research. I don’t want to include organisations who are solely professional bodies – although some learned societies also act in this way. There are lots of grey areas though and I’m very keen to explore them in the future – so if you aren’t sure, please do add it!
  2. Based in the UK. This means the main physical base or contact address should be in the UK and/or the organisation specifically states that it is an organisation for either the whole UK or part of the UK.

Thanks for the help – and if nothing else, please just make sure you add your learned society or organisation on to the sheet!