Love is love. Whether woman & man; woman & woman; man & man; or none of the above! Whether you’re cisgender, transgender, or non-binary, I want you to know you matter to me! And you deserve to feel wanted, included, and comfortable – everywhere – including in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, & Mathematics). Sadly, many LGBTQ+ scientist *don’t* feel this way. And this is NOT OKAY! I’m going to hit you with some more stats later, but in a 2019 study, about 1/3 of trans and non-binary scientists reported discrimination for their sex or gender identity in the past year, and about 1/5 of trans scientists *frequently* considered leaving. It’s (past) time for STEM to stand up, speak up, and lift up *all* those our societal institutions have pushed down.
June really flew by and I almost let it pass without doing a Pride month related post. Which is really bad on my part. Especially since I shouldn’t need Pride month as a “reminder” or a “reason” for doing a post on some of the unique issues confronting LGBTQ+ scientists and some ways to help. As a cisgender heterosexual white woman I’ve grown up in a world that is designed to be comfortable for people like me, often at the expense of the comfort of my fellow human beings. And I’ve been much too comfortable. Comfortable to the point of complacency. And this is not okay. We cannot allow complacency with regards to human decency. And I sincerely apologize. And am committed to educating myself further on LGBTQ+ issues and taking a more proactive role as an ally. Starting (but not ending) with this post. So here goes…
There is a looooong history of LGBTQ+ people facing discrimination around the world. And STEM is no exception. In fact it might even be worse than a lot of other fields. The academic scientific institutions were basically built for rich white cisgender, straight men. And a “boy’s club” mentality continues to this day in many places. People are encouraged to stand out in their science but fit in in their personal lives. And this fitting in often means performing the traditional norms associated with cisgender, straight people.
In case some people aren’t familiar with some of the terminology around sex and gender, let me explain, starting with the terms “sex” and “gender” themselves. Let me note that there are a lot of different terms around LGBTQ+ identities, they’re constantly changing (hence the + at the end of LGBTQ to be inclusive of all). Some people prefer different terms, so always go by what someone identifies themself as when they do. And if you want a guide to terms, the website Stonewall has a glossary that they update regularly.https://bit.ly/3gb90Oi
When you talk about sex and gender in biological terms, things get kinda technical and, well, complicated. “Sex” is typically used to refer to “biological sex” which is typically used to refer to, in one sense, what external genitalia you have. And this genitalia typically is determined by hormones that come from the sex chromosomes. So, 2 X chromosomes and you’re a “biological female” and 1 X & 1 Y chromosome and you’re a “biological male.” But it’s really only a small part of the Y chromosome that’s responsible for this genital makeup. So if that part has a genetic mutation you can have XY females. Some people have mutations elsewhere that make them not respond to the sex-determining hormones. And some people have more than 2 sex chromosomes. So basically, it’s not as simple as XX vs. XY and there’s a whole host of “intersex” individuals who don’t fit nicely into a dropbox for sex.
And that was just “sex.” For “gender” you need an even bigger dropbox. If you think of life as a grand theatrical performance, “gender” refers to the specific “roles” that are ascribed to various groups of people based on what society expects of/from them. These are often related to sex. So, historically, “biological females” have been characterized as more docile, family-oriented etc.
Because “gender” is a social construct, a person might identify with a different gender than the sex they were assigned at birth. If we think back to the play, a person has kinda been put in the wrong costume. They know in their heart of hearts that they’re supposed to be in a different role, but society expects them to be playing the role of the costume that they’re in.Such people are referred to as “transgender” where “trans” refers to opposite. “Cis” refers to “same” so people who identify with the gender typically associated with their birth-assigned sex are referred to as cisgender. I was assigned the sex of “female” at birth and am female-identifying, so I am classified to as a cisgender female. But some people do not identify as either “male” or “female” – instead, they might reject the whole concept of a binary classification scheme they don’t fit nicely into and instead identify as non-binary or gender fluid (as well as some other terminology which goes back to the “use what each individual person wants when possible” thing).
“Sexual orientation” refers to who you’re romantically attracted to and it can be different from that “expected by society” for your sexual identity. So trans men might like women or they might like men or they might like both. Or neither. Same for cisgender people, non-binary, anyone.
So you have a whole lot of potential identity combinations, and anyone who isn’t cis hetero male or cis hetero female is at increased risk of discrimination. Especially for people who are transgender or gender nonconforming. Over and over in the stats, you consistently find that transgender people experience the most discrimination and receive the least support. Even within LGBTQ+ communities, trans people are often marginalized, as are people who identify as non-binary or gender fluid.
This stratification even within the LGBTQ+ community reflects deeper issues in society at large. and how society has basically literally tried to write away their existence. I highly encourage you to watch Laverne Cox’s Netflix documentary “Disclosure” which shines light on how Hollywood has largely shaped the ways in which society sees (and doesn’t see) trans people.
You don’t have to go to the big screen to see the erasure of gender nonconforming people in practice. How many times have you gone to fill out one of those online forms and it asks for gender and then gives you a dropbox menu with 2 options: male or female? Or asks if you want to be called “Mr.” or “Mrs.” or “Miss.” Each time there’s one of these options it’s like a symbol of “proof” that gender nonconforming people literally have no place in our society. But, *people* make these forms. *People* determine what gender roles we expect people to perform. These male/female questionnaires aren’t proof of anything “natural” – they only proof that the people making them don’t value gender nonconforming people.
It’s really very easy to add an extra choice in that Dropbox list, or let people type in how they identify. And it’s also easy to add your preferred pronouns (e.g. she/her; he/him; they/them) onto things like your Twitter and Instagram bios and in your email signature. When I see someone has their preferred pronouns in their Twitter bio it makes me smile (and makes me more likely to follow them). And I also love how some science conferences have taken to printing them on your name badge. The more people who do this, the more we can set a “new norm” to make for a more comfortable environment for all and helps ensure that we don’t accidentally misgender people (of course, people still have to honor these chosen pronouns and unfortunately, many people simply ignore them).
Speaking of ignoring name preferences… many transphobic people will refuse to call transitioned trans people by their new name. This is called “deadnaming” and it’s dead wrong. But even if individual people do the humane thing and use their correct, preferred, name, it can be harder to change things at the institutional level, where names have to be changed in databases while making sure that someone looking for the pre-transition name will still be able to find them. This can be especially important and difficult for transitioned scientists who have already published work under their pre-transition name. Institutions should have protocols in place to streamline this process for scientists who transition while employed there. https://rsc.li/2NVzmId
Another thing institutions can do to help transgender people is turn single stall bathrooms into unisex ones. I think it’s ludicrous that we have 2 rooms across the hall from one another that only differ in the symbol on the front of the door (speaking of which, those little triangle-dressed symbols are another way in which society subtly reinforces gender norms…). I get that men might traditionally take less time in the bathroom so they don’t want to wait for women to go. But suck it up and wait (don’t go saying it benefits women cuz men are slobs, just aim straight and clean up after yourself – and put the seat cover down!)- you have no right to get to cut the line of women waiting. And you definitely have no right to make transgender and non-gender-conforming people (some who may not be out) confront an uncomfortable situation of having to chose a room and potentially face backlash no matter their choice.
And I’m not just blaming men here – I am so disgusted by “TERFs” (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists) who pretend to be feminists but won’t support female transgender people. Just because someone is assigned the sex of female at birth does not give them the right to “own” the social construct of what it means to be a woman. Trans women are women. Trans women are women. And we need to keep saying this because apparently it isn’t sinking in. Until very recently, people in 26 states in the US could be legally fired for being trans. https://bit.ly/2YKkdzy
And even though the Supreme Court now says that isn’t ok, all is not good… Even though society definitely thinks that murder isn’t okay, trans people, especially black trans women, keep getting murdered. And these murders are “erased” as well – you don’t hear about them all the time in the news – but at least 16 trans people have been killed in 2020 alone and at least 27 in 2019. I say “at least” because these cases are underreported and victims frequently misgendered in police reports https://bit.ly/3ePCBfT
Discrimination and harassment against trans people and other LGBTQ+ scientists in our workplaces isn’t as dramatic – but it is serious harm. Psychological harm, economic harm, scientific harm.
We have to have to have to make the environment better for our colleagues. As I mentioned above, LGBTQ+ scientists are more likely to have considered leaving STEM than their non-LGBTQ+ colleagues (28% vs. 16% respectively). https://rsc.li/2NVzmId And some don’t only consider leaving – they *do* leave. A study found that LGBTQ+ college students are also 7% more likely to switch out of a STEM field than their non-LGBTQ+ peers. https://bit.ly/2NFXHkY
Not only is this bad for those individuals, but it’s bad for science (and humanity) as a whole. I personally know some LGBTQ+ people who are amazing scientists. But, more importantly, they’re amazing people. We shouldn’t have to fight for their right to be here in terms of the value they bring to “science.” They bring value as human beings. But if you insist on talking in economic terms, diverse people bring diverse ideas -> diverse ideas lead to discoveries -> discoveries lead to innovations -> innovations can lead to $.
Speaking of $… it’s historically been really hard to get funding for research on LGBTQ+ issues. And, since they’re often an “invisible minority” there isn’t much readily available data to comb through. Those binary choices in forms don’t just erase people who don’t fit in to what society wants. Those boxes also erase the possibility of finding out more about them. https://bit.ly/3geuoCa
Much of the data we do have comes from a large joint study done by the Institute of Physics, Royal Astronomical Society and Royal Society of Chemistry, and I’ve highlighted some of their findings in the figures but highly highly recommend going to read it yourselves. https://rsc.li/2NVzmId
As well as a great review of it by David K. Smith (who is an amazing chemist & LGBTQ+ advocate whom I plan to profile in the future. http://eprints.whiterose.ac.uk/153187/
One of Dr. Smith’s key messages is that representation matters. It’s important that people see LGBTQ+ scientists succeeding, and online communities are helping with this. For example, the online database 500 Queer Scientists now has over 1,000 profiles of LGBTQ+ scientists. https://500queerscientists.com
In addition to 500 Queer Scientists, there are a lot of other great social media LGBTQ+ scientist networks such as LGBT STEM, LGBT Physics, and Pride in STEM. Even for non-LGBTQ+ people, it’s really important that we support the work of LGBTQ+ people and amplify *their* voices.
Speaking of which, I am in no way an expert on these things. And I did my sincere best to try to use inclusive language and not say anything in a way that is offensive to the LGBTQ+ community (though I know I offended some transphobic people, etc. which I’m perfectly fine doing). But if I made errors I’m really sorry and please feel free to correct me. As I said (and am ashamed of) I’m pretty new to proactive allyship and am still learning.
Also, I printed out that Safe Space sign from True Colors United: https://truecolorsunited.org