Thursday, 2 June 2016

Where are all the trans* role models in STEM?

Earlier this week I was part of a series of short talks based around the theme of LGBT heroes. The talk went well, but as can be expected I skipped a few salient lines of information. Further, I had some questions on my talk which at the time I did not answer as well as I could have done.
I thought a few folks may enjoy reading my talk, but for those that already heard it, I have also added a little to hopefully make my points a little clearer! (Clearly, I somewhat paraphrased when talking out loud!)

So let me start by saying that there are very few trans* role models out there in STEM subjects and, in my opinion, that will remain the case.

Why STEM? Well, I am a scientist and an engineer, with degrees in both subjects - so the topic has some importance for me. STEM itself, standing for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, is a term that has been coined when trying to promote diversity in STEM subjects - so in itself that is a good thing. However, the truth remains that whilst the acronym has a very positive message, the subjects it describes need for the push.

But, I should back up. What are heroes? Well, for me a hero is someone I can aspire to, emulate. Someone who makes me want to be something more - something like them. Sure, I am a huge fan of various singers, bands and climbers. But do I want to be them? No. I just admire them. And those super brave folks who run into burning building to save children, that stand in front of Nazi marches and calling out their evil - they are heroic - but not my heroes. I do not want aspire to do such actions, although I hope that when the time came I would. No, heroes to me are something else.

When asked who my heroes are in the past, I have never been able to answer this - with one exception. As I grow older, I remember seeing a play when I was ten with my mother where a guy portrayed Ziggy Stardust. 

I remember asking my mother
'Who is that?'
' David Bowie, he's a singer.'
 'So... that is a boy?'
'And he wears makeup and a skirt?'
'Yes - he wears what he wants.'
'Is that allowed?'(I was 10!)
'You can do whatever you want'. 

At that time I gained two heroes. David Bowie gave me someone I could relate to and, in hindsight, my mother for being so damn awesome about the whole thing and totally accepting.

In recent years, when I realised that transition was inevitable, I started to gain heroes - the YouTube stars who shared their stories on-line and showed me what I could have, how my life could be - that transition is possible. These were people I related to. Folks who were getting on with their lives, but sharing that they were also trans*. Showing that both a life and being myself was possible. People who I was jealous of, and who gave me the strength to get over that and get on with my transition. Without their strength, I would be nowhere. I say this with conviction, because had I had these heroes as a teen I know I would have taken steps much earlier. 

A quick shout out to some of these YouTube folks:"Kristins Trans Life" and "Minorqback" - I shared their videos with my mother as they explained what I was going through far better than I could at the time. "Isley Reust" whose maturity on the topic of living and also happening to be trans* put me to shame when I realised she turned 21 last year! And the fierce "Grishno" - who makes me feel I can and should argue for LGBT rights - who is able to reassure me that we should be able to have rights. An amazing role model. Since coming out I also found great support from "Claire Michelle", knowing that we were going through similar things at the same time.
Notably, I saw Laura Jane Grace, the singer of the punk band Against Me! come out very publicly as trans*. This was someone who I would go watch when they play a show, someone I could imagine dancing next to in a rock club, and someone I feel I would go to the pub with. Not only was she a punk trans* girl like me, but she handled questions with an air of 'I happen to be trans*'. I found someone I could relate to, aspire to, and it is no surprise I was listening to her album 'transgender dysphoria blues' the day I visited the endocrinologist for the first time; which also happens to be the first day I was given hormones.

So a hero is someone I can aspire to - someone I feel I relate to. I'm a scientist and engineer, but I never had heroes in those roles because it is what I do - not what I aspire to. But surely there are some role models, right? Sure, STEM folks get little publicity and press so you have to look them up, but there must be some.Right?

Do you know that Wikipedia has 'List of transgender people' which it states "This list consists of well-known people who are transgender in identity." There are so many notable transgender folk around, we can compress them into a list of around 100. And it has been updated recently (both Lana and Lily Wachowski are on there). And it contains a lot of celebrities. There are some politicians and lawyers - like 2 or 3. And from all of STEM, maybe 3 names. Huh. Is this a surprise though? Well, not really. I look at myself and I get it. 

Like I say, I do not think that STEM subjects are particularly hostile to diversity, I think it just diversity is rare in this range of subjects. I could theorise on this; I certainly have thoughts to do with a stifling of creativity in science - the antithesis of what science should be to my mind. But that would be a topic for another time. However, whilst the acronym STEM itself shows we are trying to reach out in science, the truth is that it is still a hostile environment. I have heard of homophobia within some of the departments at my University, disguised as other things. I have felt hostility for a senior department member, but whether that was transphobia or internal politics I cannot decide. And I would say that things are better within the academic field, I have read too many stories of folks losing jobs in STEM subjects after coming out as trans*, and then failing to get reasonable positions for their experience and knowledge.
It happened to me.

I do not think that STEM is so alone with this. It is universal and improving. However, my real thoughts behind the lack of trans* folks in positions of authority or academic achievement in STEM relate to do with being trans* itself.

To achieve and do well in STEM subjects requires hard work and dedication. A constant push to be know, improve, publish papers. Trans-folk wreck our careers struggling with our gender. I use myself as an example.

I know I could have done more. I was part of many collaborations, and my ideas were always listened to. At conferences, folk attended my talks and I was generally well know and, I would like to think, well regarded. So I should have a whole heap of papers and further things in the works. I don't, and I ended up taking a step back from my career - stepping to the side of research.


How can you concentrate on looking at data when you're struggling to look at yourself in the mirror? 

How do you have new thoughts, when all you can think about is transition?

How can you feel happy going to the lab, attending conferences, etc when  your body feels unnaturally and you know that the person you present is a fraud; so much easier to hide away and retreat from the world. 

How can you really make good career choices, push yourself to the limit when you, achieve anything when your whole life sucks. In science you cannot have anything but focus to be successful - and I had no ability to focus on anything but my gender. 

Plus I expected to be an outcast when I came out, so why would I push myself to do well anyway? And just so you know, when I did come out as trans*, the industrial engineering companies that said 'you have a job with us any time', well, the offers dried up pretty sharpish. Sure, for legit sounding reasons - but really? I'm lucky, I landed on my feet and I have the chance to build myself up with amazing support from an amazing group and department. Many are not so lucky. 

And finally, how can you push and look to the future, when you really have no guarantee that you have one? The stats for trans* murders are shocking, the suicide stats and just horrifying. Take it from me, in that mind set, achieving all you can from your career is nothing but a passing thought.

So, that is why there are so few role models in science. Not because of STEM itself, but the struggle we trans-folk face with our lives. I think some will come through. Will I call any heros? I doubt it - not surprising given that my personal hero trans* person is a punk singer! But some role models will emerge. 

Thing is, times are a changing and many folk are transitioning earlier and earlier. My gender doctor yesterday told me that he wishes more folk could get access to transition earlier so they can get on with their lives, and I agree. Sure, they will have their problems. I would not want to slight that. Being trans* will still have stigma and 'associated issues' for quite a while.  But I honestly think that they will be able to get on with their lives earlier - thus the entire career screwing-up rubbish will go away. I think today's youth have the chance to be as successful as they can be. 

Yet, I said that there will not be any trans* role models - why is this. Well, to be honest, because I'm hopeful and have faith in humanity. Cheesy.

Thing is, there will come I time, and I hope I will see it, where there are not trans* role models in STEM. There will not even be male and female role models. Even better, there will just be role models- scientists and mathematicians and engineers. There will be no reason to label people as trans* role models, just some who happen to be trans*.

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