Queer engineer and founder and president of Space Pride, Franco Labia is on a mission to diversify the space industry, which as it stands is an ‘elite old boys club’ with a serious lack of any visible LGBTQIA+ community. We got in touch with Franco to discuss Space Pride – an international charity dedicated to celebrating our vibrant LGBTQIA+ community in the global space sector – as well as touching on the upcoming fashion gala, and why they think the Space industry is lagging behind in terms of diversity. 

 

Tell us a bit about your journey into the space industry and what inspired you from there to establish Space Pride. 

I’ve always been curious when I look up at the stars and see how beautiful they are, but I really found my passion for space when I did an undergraduate module in it. Being queer and neurodivergent growing up in south Africa, I was searching for that sense of community and acceptance, so that’s what led to me moving to the UK where I studied theoretical physics at The University of Leeds. Here, I learnt a lot more through exposure and during my undergraduate project I discovered my passion for robotics, before which I didn’t even know that was a field. From there I did a masters in robotics at the University of Bristol and then now I’m doing a PhD at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory which is a dream come true – I’m currently looking at how to detect life in caves using robots. When I went to The International  

Astronautical Congress in 2022 – the largest space conference in the world – I heard the director of the European Space Agency tell a story about how discrimination is alive and well in the space sector and that really hit home with me. I also found when looking at the people around me, that there was no real visible LGBTQ+ community and it made me feel like there wasn’t a place for me in the international space sector so that’s what motivated me to start Space Pride. as a community platform for the queer community in the international space sector.  

And what impact do you hope it will have? 

We have three main pillars at Space Pride and the first is community. I strongly believe in the power and beauty of communities, so when you bring communities together, amazing things happen. We run community events and will be hosting a fashion gala in October. The second pillar is of course research and producing actual data to reduce queer discrimination in the international space sector and ensuring that everyone has a place in the global space sector. We formed a research group with The Space Generation Advisory Council and The International Astronomical Union to hopefully produce that first bit of actual data on queer discrimination in the space sector. Finally, we have education outreach – ultimately, we aim to share our message of hope and acceptance and celebration of humanity’s diversity.  

 

Why do you think the space industry has been so left behind when it comes to diversity and discrimination? 

I think space has always lagged behind in terms of diversity and inclusion primarily because it started out as being exclusively funded by governments, so the private sector wasn’t really developed. Because of that, there’s a strong influence and impact from the military in the global space sector and because the military has a long history of homophobia and sexism, it has spread throughout the culture of the space sector. Even now, in NASA they don’t talk about being queer at all because it’s still very much tied in with the US military. In fact, just last year NASA JPL was not allowed to walk as an organisation at the pride parade, for them to refuse such a simple request of supporting a local pride parade is quite shocking. The other thing is that the global industry has many participating countries which are homophobic, so they have a big impact on creating this unwelcoming culture particularly when conferences are held in countries with homophobic laws, like Dubai. In my eyes, a lot of it goes back to kind of a lot of the colonial routes of governmental policy. I’m South African myself and many of homophobic laws are a legacy and direct product of those colonial eras.  

© Freddie Turner, Fellow PhD student

As a queer, non-binary person, how do you think this lack of representation shaped your perception of the space industry? 

I think it’s been both an amazing thing and also a very difficult thing because it has allowed me to see the worst and best of the industry. I found an incredible amount of support from people; I really think now is the time where change is happening in the industry and there’s a lot more people who are open to it. I’ve also seen the worst of it, for instance just because of my work on Space Pride, I was unable to get an organisational letter of recommendation for an opportunity in the space sector and that’s obviously created quite a bit of friction for me. 

 

Tell us a bit about the upcoming fashion gala, what we can expect from this event and what kind of message do you hope it conveys? 

The Space Pride Fashion Gala is going to be an ‘out of this world pride parade’ – that’s our tag line. It’s capturing the spirit of pride parades, hosted in Milan which is perfect because it’s the fashion capital of the world. The goal is to celebrate diversity and our beautiful queer community through art, culture, and joyful protest and so it will be a fashion show with a theme of pride parade meets space and there will be fantastic outfits as well as guest appearances from amazing queer icons, allies and perhaps even an astronaut. The goal is to shift the culture of the global space sector to a more inclusive one which celebrates differences as well as our vibrant queer community. We want the space pride fashion gala to be a more queer Eurovision, which is streamed live to the LGBTQ+ community all over the world. 

 

Can you explain the moto ‘We Are All Made of Stardust’? 

I can’t claim credit for coming up with the phrase because it’s something that is commonly used in the astrophysics, astronomy, and space communities but it comes from the fact that stars, at the end of their lives, run out of fuel and there’s an explosion and a nebula. From those explosions, different elements are created, and those different elements are actually what make us have today. The amazing thing about that is that we all have this common thread of being. We’re all human and we should accept and welcome everyone. 

Franco at Ars Electronica

What’s next for you, following your graduation? 

That’s still to be determined. I’m really passionate about helping people so that’s something I want to do regardless of what area I go into. I’d be very excited to potentially work on innovative space missions, particularly to detect life on other planets because that would create a massive shift in society, to found out we aren’t alone. I want to bridge the gap between art and public communication because a big issue in the space sector is that we don’t have enough people communicating what’s happening and sharing the beauty of it and art is an amazing way to do so. I have no idea if I will continue in the space sector or not, but either way that passion will never end.  

 

spacepride.space are on the hunt for sponsors for the Space Pride Fashion Gala, if you think that could be you, get in touch with info@spacepride.org 

 

Keep up to date with Franco and Space Pride  

Space Pride socials: linktr.ee/spacepride 

Franco’s Instagram: Cosmic.Franco  

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