How Naming the James Webb Telescope Turned Into a Fight Over Homophobia
For half a decade now, influential young scientists have denounced NASA’s decision to name its deep-space telescope after James E. Webb, who led the space agency to the cusp of the 1969 moon landing. This man, they insisted, was a homophobe who oversaw a purge of gay employees.
Hakeem Oluseyi, who is now the president of the National Society of Black Physicists, was sympathetic to these critics. Then he delved into archives and talked to historians and wrote a carefully sourced essay in Medium in 2021 that laid out his surprising findings.
“I can say conclusively,” Dr. Oluseyi wrote, “that there is zero evidence that Webb is guilty of the allegations against him.”
That, he figured, would be that. He was wrong.
The struggle over the naming of the world’s most powerful space telescope has grown yet more contentious and bitter. In November, NASA sought to douse this fire. Its chief historian, Brian Odom, issued an 89-page report that echoed Dr. Oluseyi’s research and concluded the accusations against Mr. Webb were misplaced.
NASA acknowledged that the federal government at that time “shamefully promoted” discrimination against gay employees. But Mr. Odom concluded: “No available evidence directly links Webb to any actions or follow-up related to the firing of individuals for their sexual orientation.”
Critics called the NASA report “selective historical reading.” And they reframed their argument, saying that Mr. Webb should be held responsible for any anti-gay activity at NASA and at the State Department, where he had previously been a high-ranking official.
Hakeem Oluseyi, president of the National Society of Black Physicists.Credit…Alyssa Schukar for The New York Times
In a blog written with three fellow scientists, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a cosmologist at the University of New Hampshire with a low six-figure Twitter following, said that it was highly likely that Mr. Webb “knew exactly what was happening with security at his own agency during the height of the Cold War,” adding, “We are deeply concerned by the implication that managers are not responsible for homophobia.”
This controversy cuts to the core of who is worthy to memorialize and how past human accomplishment should be balanced with modern standards of social justice. And it echoes a heated debate among historians over presentism, which is the tendency to use the moral lens of today to interpret past eras and people.
Some historians say a politically engaged, critical reading of history, so long as it is not dogmatic, is unavoidable.
“We approach the past with, as it were, double vision,” noted James Oakes, a historian of American slavery at the City University of New York Graduate Center, adding that in dealing with historical figures “we cannot help but look at them from our time even as we try not to let our biases get the best of us.”
That debate has of late touched astronomy and physics.
In October, the Royal Astronomical Society in Britain waded in, declaring that Mr. Webb engaged in “entirely unacceptable” behavior. The society instructed that no astronomer who submits a paper to its journals should type the words “James Webb.” They must use the abbreviation JWST.
The American Astronomical Society demanded in April that NASA issue a formal and public report on its naming decision. And a trio of top scientific publications — Nature, New Scientist and Scientific American — published essays and editorials sharply critical of Mr. Webb with nary a dissenting word. Dr. Oluseyi said Scientific American rejected a letter from him pointing out flawed statements in its essays and rejected his proposal to write about his findings on Mr. Webb.
Scientific American’s editor, Laura Helmuth, declined an interview and wrote in an email that its coverage had been “timely, thorough and fair.”
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A petition demanding NASA rename its telescope has garnered more than 1,700 signatures, a majority from faculty and graduate students.
“This is about who we canonize and who are our real saints,” Dr. Prescod-Weinstein said in an interview. “We can’t just exonerate a dead white guy who was in the thick of a repressive government.”
This dispute has, in a thoroughly contemporary fashion, grown harshly personal. While not always naming him, opponents in tweets and texts have assailed Dr. Oluseyi, bringing up unsubstantiated accusations of misconduct from his time as a professor at Florida Institute of Technology.
Dr. Oluseyi, 55, rose from abject poverty to obtain a Ph.D. in physics from Stanford, the first in his family to graduate from high school. Many students at Florida Tech described him as an inspiring teacher, with a booming voice and an outsize personality.
But the last few years have offered a rough ride. He emphatically denied that he behaved badly as a professor and repeatedly urged a reporter to ask any question about his past.
“The revolutionaries,” Dr. Oluseyi said in an interview, “have become the prosecutors.”
The Past Is Not the Past
Mr. Webb, who died in 1992, cut a complicated figure. He worked with Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson to integrate NASA, bringing in Black engineers and scientists. In 1964, after George Wallace, the white segregationist governor of Alabama, tried to block such recruitment, Mr. Webb threatened to pull top scientists and executives out of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville.
Fifteen years earlier, however, Mr. Webb encountered different pressures as an under secretary at the State Department during the Truman administration. The political right, led by Senator Joseph McCarthy, sought to dismantle the legacy of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In attacking the State Department, they tried to ferret out employees they claimed were Communists and what they called “perverts” — gay Americans, in what became known as the lavender scare.
“The lavender scare, like the red scare itself, was an attack on the New Deal,” noted David K. Johnson, a history professor at the University of South Florida and author of “The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government.”
“Then,” he added, “it turned into a moral panic.”
These were bleak times. In two decades, between 5,000 and 10,000 gay employees were pushed out of government, careers and lives wrecked.
Secretary of State Dean Acheson denounced the “filthy business” of smearing diplomats. And President Harry Truman, records show, advised Mr. Webb to slow-walk the Republican investigation, while complying with its legal dictates. Mr. Webb did not turn over personnel files to Senate investigators, according to the NASA report.
In 2002, NASA named the telescope after Mr. Webb, citing his work in pushing to land a man on the moon. That decision attracted little attention, in part because the telescope was not yet built.
But as the telescope neared completion, criticism flared. In 2015, Matthew Francis, a science journalist, wrote an article for Forbes titled “The Problem With Naming Observatories for Bigots.” He wrote that Mr. Webb led the anti-gay purge at the State Department and that he had testified of his contempt for gay people. He credited Dr. Prescod-Weinstein with tipping him off, and she in turn tweeted his article and attacked Mr. Webb as a “homophobe.”
Those claims rested on misidentification and that portion of Mr. Francis’ article has been deleted without notice to the reader. Mr. Francis declined an interview.
As Dr. Oluseyi discovered and NASA’s report confirmed, it was not Mr. Webb but a different State Department official who oversaw the purge and spoke disparagingly of gay Americans.
Yet the question of moral culpability lingered. Brian Nord, a physicist with the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, argued in tweets last year that Dr. Oluseyi had “utterly and brazenly” ignored that leaders “are responsible for standing up for people who are oppressed and marginalized.”
Dr. Prescod-Weinstein wrote that if Mr. Webb had been “a radical freedom fighter,” he would not have served in the Truman administration.
Historians who specialize in this era in gay history said such expectations ignore the historical context. Mr. Webb did not lead efforts to oust gays; there was not yet a gay rights movement in 1949; and to apply the term homophobe is to use a word out of time and reflects nothing Mr. Webb is known to have written or said.
“The activists who say that James Webb should have stood up and spoken against the purges are anachronistic,” said Dr. Johnson, whose Twitter handle is @gayhistoryprof. “No one in government could stand up at that time and say ‘This is wrong.’ And that includes gay people.”
In 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed an executive order that essentially barred gay Americans from federal employment. It applied to all federal agencies and remained in effect throughout the 1960s, when Mr. Webb led NASA. In 1963, police arrested a NASA budget analyst, Clifford Norton, in an anti-gay sting in Washington. He was forced out of his job.
Critics say Mr. Webb stood silent. Mr. Odom’s report for NASA, however, found no evidence Mr. Webb knew of this case in an agency of many thousands. In any event, he would have had no good option, said James Kirchick, author of “Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington.”
“It is unimaginable that a high-level functionary would have stepped in and blocked a broad federal law that applied to every agency,” he said.
It was not until 1998 that President Clinton enacted an executive order forbidding job discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Professor Oluseyi argued the fairer measure of Mr. Webb is found in his willingness to face down a segregationist governor. Civil rights was the moral struggle of that time. “I was born in the South,” he said. “Webb was heroic in that moment.”
Ms. Prescod-Weinstein, 40, was born in Los Angeles to a family of left-wing activists and is among a handful of Black women to work in theoretical cosmology. Charismatic and outspoken, she describes her writings on race and gender and science as inseparable.
“The civil rights versus gay people schtick is marginalizing and pathetic,” she said. “It’s straight people arguing about the straight canon. As a Black queer Jewish person, I’m not interested.”
Who Should Be Memorialized?
How should we handle naming memorials, given the messiness of history? Dr. Prescod-Weinstein said she would draw an exacting line and memorialize no government leader of that era. “Rename the Kennedy Center for Harriet Tubman,” she said.
Sarah Tuttle, an astrophysicist at the University of Washington, characterizes the question of whether Mr. Webb was a homophobe as unanswerable and a distraction.
The point, she said, is that the bar should be set higher. Previous telescopes were named after physicists and astronomers — Edwin Hubble and Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar. Why not name in that tradition?
“This controversy should restart the discussion about why on earth this telescope is named after him,” said Jason Wright, a Penn State astrophysicist who signed the critics’ petition.
This argument puzzles Sylvester James Gates Jr., a theoretical physicist at the University of Maryland, former president of the National Society of Black Physicists and winner of the National Medal of Science.
“Great accomplishments require a community,” Dr. Gates noted. “Some are scientists, some are engineers, and some are administrators. We owe Webb a great debt.”
Nor is Professor Gates taken by the argument NASA should strictly apply the values of 2022 to those of 1950. At 71, he noted, he is old enough to have attended a segregated high school and experienced the rough arc of change.
“We can make moral judgments, of course, but not to the point that we project backward in time and say: ‘They should have known,’” he said. “This absolutist dialogue accomplishes nothing.”
When Dr. Oluseyi wrote his essay on James Webb, he took to task journalists and an astrophysicist, whom he did not name, for not rigorously researching the accusations. He said that the scientist, who was cited by name in the Forbes article, had “propagated unsubstantiated false information.”
Dr. Prescod-Weinstein wrote on Twitter that she was this unnamed scientist in Dr. Oluseyi’s article and that he “is writing poorly researched articles that are basically hit pieces on me.”
“The leader of a professional society and a senior scientist,” she wrote, is “going out of his way to justify historic homophobia” and “attack a junior queer Black woman professor.”
Months, later, in August 2021, George Mason University recruited Dr. Oluseyi as a visiting professor, and Peter Plavchan, an astronomy professor, offered a tweet of welcome to the man he played a role in recruiting.
Dr. Prescod-Weinstein objected. In a stream of tweets, she said Dr. Oluseyi had championed “a homophobe.”
She wrote that Dr. Plavchan’s welcome was “a reminder that senior men in astronomy can treat junior women” poorly — using an expletive — “and be welcomed by colleagues with open arms.”
Dr. Plavchan apologized to her, writing on Twitter that “I do believe @HakeemOluseyi owes you and LGBTQ+ astronomers an apology.”
He added that he had “privilege to be able to not feel marginalized by what Hakeem wrote.”
But Dr. Oluseyi’s hiring at George Mason comes with a back story. The attacks against Dr. Oluseyi had shifted, as some accused him of personal misconduct.
Dr. Plavchan said that in July 2021, as word circulated in academia that Dr. Oluseyi might win an appointment at George Mason, he heard from a professor at a different university who claimed that Dr. Oluseyi had mishandled a federal grant and sexually harassed a woman.
Dr. Plavchan said that he reported these accusations to George Mason. Soon Florida Tech officials were combing through records and thousands of emails. They found nothing to substantiate these charges, according to Hamid K. Rassoul, a physics professor at Florida Tech and former dean who took part in the investigation. George Mason went ahead with its appointment in the fall of 2021.
On Twitter, Dr. Prescod-Weinstein has pushed some of the same accusations, while not naming Dr. Oluseyi directly. “It continues to be the case that academic institutions play pass the harasser,” she wrote in a veiled reference to Dr. Oluseyi in August 2021. And this past November she questioned on Twitter why journalists have not asked why he left his last job.
Dr. Prescod-Weinstein did not reply to three emails asking for more information.
In early December, as The New York Times examined various accusations, an anonymous person who described having worked in a lab at Florida Tech began sending text messages to this reporter, making similar accusations against Dr. Oluseyi. Several of these claims were demonstrably false, and others could not be substantiated.
“I am sorry for Hakeem,” Dr. Rassoul said. “These rumors never die out, and they damage his reputation. These accusations were shamefully promoted.”
The End, but Not the End
NASA in late October made clear the telescope will retain its name. But the bitterness remains. On Twitter, critics talk of the “zombie James Webb” and suggest Dr. Oluseyi and his defenders are due for a reckoning.
Several prominent astrophysicists in interviews supported Dr. Oluseyi but declined to talk publicly. “People err on the side of prudence, which is to say they don’t speak up,” Dr. Gates noted. “When a campaign is aimed at denigrating a professional reputation, that is the inevitable effect.”
Dr. Oluseyi is aware of the risk of damage to his reputation. For just a moment, he sounded plaintive.
“Look, I didn’t care about James Webb — he’s not my uncle,” Dr. Oluseyi said. “I had no motivation to exonerate. Once I found the truth, what was I supposed to do?”
Kirsten Noyes contributed research.