Gay, lesbian and bisexual psychological scientists now have explicit recognition and support of their rights when working and traveling abroad, thanks to a policy adopted by the International Union of Psychological Science.

The union — the main body representing psychology worldwide — has added sexual orientation as a protected category under its “free circulation of scientists” policy, a principle promulgated by the International Council for Science, the world’s main body representing science. As a result of this addition, it will be possible for the union to advocate more visibly for the rights of gay, lesbian and bisexual psychological scientists to travel, meet, communicate freely and access data and research material without fear of reprisal, says Pierre Ritchie, PhD, the union’s secretary-general.

Sexual orientation joins many other protected categories within the “free circulation” policy, including ethnic origin, religion, citizenship, language, political stance, gender and age.

The action comes at a time when anti-gay activity is fomenting abroad, says Rochelle Diamond, board chair of the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals, an affiliate of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. A bill introduced in Uganda in 2009, for instance, would confer the death penalty on people with HIV who have same-sex relations, according to human rights reports. In Cameroon, simply being gay can land a person in prison for three years, and the country is notorious for unwarranted arrests, beatings and intimidation based on sexual orientation, the reports say.

Diamond hopes the union’s new policy — which is written as a statute, or law — will spur international scientific and ethical dialogue on these issues.

“It’s very difficult in some of these countries for scientists to speak out,” she says. “So having an international psychology organization make its policy explicit on this matter will hopefully help to change the demeanor, rhetoric and practices in parts of the global community that adhere to some of these horrific practices.”

The new policy will allow the union to take concrete actions based on the new protection, such as changing conference venues or programming that conflict with this protection, or advocating against restrictive policies in a given country, says Ritchie.

“We now have the ability to proactively address any barriers that impede the natural flow of scientists in and out of a given country based on sexual orientation,” he says.

The statute also gives the psychology union tools to influence opinion in a broader context, says Merry Bullock, PhD, APA’s senior director of international affairs. For example, the union weighed in on a controversial United Nations decision in November to stop protecting gay, lesbian and bisexual people from unjustified executions, a decision the United Nations overturned in December. The union also has encouraged the International Council for Science to add sexual orientation to its list of protected categories.

APA played a major role in getting the union statute adopted, Ritchie adds. In 2007, Bullock and Clinton Anderson, PhD, APA’s director of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender concerns, wrote to the U.S. National Committee for Psychology, the organization that represents the United States in the union. Their letter encouraged the union to include sexual orientation as a protected category and to advocate for its inclusion by the international council. Soon after, Suzanne Bennett Johnson, PhD, now APA’s president-elect who then chaired the U.S. National Psychology Committee, wrote to Ritchie asking the union to consider the move. The union’s general assembly unanimously voted the new language into its statutes at its general meeting in 2010.

—T. DeAngelis