Note: This is an archival post of my recent article at Prettyqueer.
After graduating from the University of Texas in 2007, I entered one of the most complex periods of my life. Since childhood I had consistently felt more like a woman than a man, but growing up in a small town in rural North Carolina I had always been terrified to express this to anyone. By the time I entered college (still in North Carolina), I had some rough idea that maybe there was something I could do about the situation, but I told myself that obtaining my Ph.D. and getting a start on my career in physics should be my first priority.
However, deep inside what I really feared was that nobody would ever take me seriously as a trans woman in physics. I didn’t know any trans women in my own life— much less trans women successful in science— to whom I could look up as mentors. Not to mention that I had few reliable sources of information about my own situation in general terms; in fact, I wasn’t even familiar with phrases like “gender identity” or “trans woman” at the time I made that decision.
Luckily, by the time I received my Ph.D. in Texas I had done a lot to educate myself. I still wasn’t sure how transition would impact my career, but I came to a point where I couldn’t put off dealing with it any further. Hence I started coming out to friends and colleagues while working on the physical aspects of transition (e.g., hormone replacement therapy).
Somewhat to my own surprise, my experiences from this were mostly positive. Broadly speaking, I think physicists are a bit more open than we usually get credit for, and almost certainly the general societal progress that occurred on this issue in the ten years that I delayed my transition benefited my situation (although it wasn’t an easy decision).
However, not everything worked out quite so well. Discussing the issue with my family was more difficult. In February 2008, I was offered a one-year postdoctoral research position in Paris, which I accepted. Before I left for Paris, I journeyed home from my place in Texas to my parents’ house in North Carolina; real problems developed on this journey and during the short time I spent at home before departing for France.
During this interval a disturbing incident occurred involving someone close to me. This incident left me emotionally scarred in a way that rendered me very vulnerable during my time in France.
It was when I arrived in Paris that things became difficult at work.
The experience was very strange for me, and I still struggle a bit with how to think back on it. I had only begun my physical transition less than a year before and I was in a foreign country. I felt like living openly as a woman as soon as I arrived was too much to deal with, so I decided to put that off for a little longer. Instead I presented somewhat androgynously, and was most commonly placed socially as a man. Somewhat to my surprise, I consistently encountered people who did not react so well to me, including two men who worked in my office.
Keep in mind I’m not so great with foreign language, and this contributed to some social awkwardness on my part. Indeed, these two men hid behind the language issue; during daily group lunch I would often notice them snickering to themselves, exclusively speaking in French. While I remained in denial for some time (I was in a foreign country following a traumatic experience and on some level I just couldn’t handle it) there were less-than-subtle hints that their animosity was directed at me. Indeed, it turned out later that the other researchers in my office knew what was going on, but nobody said anything to stop it.
While this might sound like a small thing at first glance, the fact is the language barrier made it difficult to develop meaningful friendships; this situation combined with the fact that I was distant from my family at that time resulted in a life of isolation so complete that I noted days-in-a-row in which I hardly spoke to anyone.
Then there was the day a glossy flyer for a gay club mysteriously showed up on my desk for everyone to see, clearly demonstrating that these two men suspected something about me (let me emphasize I was not out in any sense of the word in Paris). I more-or-less kept my composure by putting it out of my mind for the rest of that workday, but on the bus ride home the image of that flyer kept reappearing in my mind, and I began having difficulty keeping my composure in public.
My mind drifted to thoughts that I would never be accepted as a trans woman, and finally as I arrived at my dorm my thoughts turned to the incident that occurred shortly before I left for Paris. Once I allowed myself to revisit that incident in my mind, I found I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and eventually I ended up laying on the bed screaming out loud as flashbacks of that memory began recurring over and over in my mind. This experience lasted for hours.
I now know that what I experienced was probably an incidence of PTSD; however, at the time it felt like there was something like a video recorder playback in my head that I couldn’t shut off no matter how hard I tried. I was aware that my neighbors must have heard me screaming, but it didn’t really matter because in those moments I was convinced that I was going to die.
There were some further things that happened during my time in France, including being laughed at by employees in a government office, as well as a second episode of PTSD maybe a month or so later. However, I survived these things; and by the last couple of months of that year I also became more open about being trans, deciding I simply didn’t care anymore what anyone thought about it.
In that latter period I’m glad to say I came to a kind of equilibrium with the situation, my French improved somewhat and I did make friends in the city, including several women in my office. There was also a secretary in my office and another at my dorm who were very kind and supportive of me.
Since my time in France, things have improved. Life is never simple, I suppose, but I live as my authentic self and I’ve generally felt accepted in both the cities where I have worked since (Copenhagen and then Toronto). However, I do still feel a desire to know other LGBTI people in physics, and particularly I would like to have a conversation about how to prevent situations like what I experienced from developing with others.
It is with that in mind that I was glad to connect at the 2011 American Physical Society (APS) annual March Meeting with some other great LGBTI physicists. This gathering took place as a result of a conversation initiated by Elena “LLLLL” Long, a doctoral student at Kent State, who also developed a website focusing on LGBTI issues in physics. Our group met in a cozy conference room at one of the hotels near the Dallas convention center, where we discussed some of our experiences as LGBTI people in physics, our concerns, and ideas for potential future projects.
From that and a similar discussion held at the APS April meeting it became clear there was a mandate for engaging the wider physics community in a conversation about LGBTI inclusion. Hence, a group of seven of us took the initiative to put together a special session for the 2012 March Meeting that was titled “Sexual and Gender Diversity Issues in Physics”. The session, held this past February in Dallas, featured four invited speakers and concluded with a panel discussion.
Dr. Sue Rankin, Associate Professor at Penn State University, was scheduled to open the session with a talk on “The State of Higher Education for STEM LGBTQQ Faculty/Staff,” based in part on results from the Campus Pride 2010 National College Climate Survey. However, due to illness, her presentation was given by her project colleagues Ramón Barthelemy and Eric Patridge. One important topic they presented was that of institutional “climate,” which is a reflection of the fact that the comfort and experiences of a person in an academic environment significantly affect their persistence in their field. Hence, these issues have a very real impact on both academic productivity as well as retention rates.
Given my own experiences, I can say that a less-than-friendly climate served as a constant distraction from work, not to mention that it impacted my personal productivity. The fact is that when one is devalued in one’s work environment, it doesn’t take long before one begins to consider the possibility that other career paths may offer greener pastures.
The next talk was given by University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor Michael Ramsey-Musolf, entitled “Shattering the Lavender Ceiling: Sexual Minorities in Physics.” In his talk, Dr. Ramsey-Musolf made the argument for supporting members of LGBTI minorities in physics based on the United Nation’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states in part that “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.” [emphasis added]
Dr. Ramsey-Musolf also related the tragic story of Alan Turing, a brilliant UK mathematician and logician who is widely recognized as the progenitor of modern computer science, developing several of the key ideas that went into the construction of the earliest computers; this includes the so-called Turing Machine, a hypothetical universal computational device with which he was able to formalize essential concepts, including the algorithm itself. Turing also played a prominent role in breaking German encryption techniques— particularly the famed Enigma machine— during World War II, an accomplishment that is often lauded as accelerating or even enabling Allied victory against Nazi Germany.
And even during a time in which same-sex relations were widely castigated in the UK— and in fact, were illegal— Alan Turing did little to hide the fact that he was gay. Indeed, it was his own acknowledgement of this fact to Police while they were investigating a break-in at his house in 1952 that resulted in Turing being indicted on a charge of gross indecency. Under UK law the only way that he could avoid jail was to accept being forcibly injected with estrogen with the intent of chemical castration. Further, his Government security clearance was revoked— his contributions to the war effort not withstanding— which likely disrupted his scientific work. Two years later, he was found dead in his house by cyanide poisoning, apparently self-induced, with a half-eaten apple nearby.
Fortunately, in recent years there has been a groundswell in the UK to publicly acknowledge Turing’s mistreatment, and in 2009 Prime Minister Gordon Brown formally apologized for this on behalf of the British government. And just this year, there has been a call by British lawmakers to have Turing honored on a UK banknote.
Next on the panel was Janice Hicks from the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals (NOGLSTP), who related many of the challenges she has personally faced in her career as a lesbian woman in physics and chemistry. Importantly, in her remarks she emphasized that her challenges in the sciences began with the fact that she is a woman, well before anyone else was even aware that she was gay. She was progressing forward in a tenure-track career program as she gradually became open about her sexuality; unfortunately things became uncomfortable to the point that she eventually left her university for a job at the National Science Foundation, who she reported were much more supportive.
Two important points should be emphasized here: first of all, it was Janice’s previous employer who was ultimately the true loser here, as her previous Chemistry Department lost significant sums of money in future grant funding. Secondly, the fact that being a woman dramatically enhanced the issues she faced illustrates a key point: intersectionality counts. The fact is that being a member of two or more oppressed groups often does not result in a mere additive phenomenon; on the contrary, overlapping social oppressions often yield multiplicative— if not exponential— effects.
Then LLLLL gave their talk “Physics Climate as Experienced by LGBT+ Physicists,” presenting results from a recent climate survey they initiated as a Member at Large on the executive committee of the APS Forum of Graduate Student Affairs (FGSA), which represents a first attempt at obtaining hard numbers for LGBT community members in physics. The results of the survey were recently reported in the FGSA newsletter.
While each presenter brought their own unique perspective to the issues at hand, there were certain recurring themes. These included the special challenges that same-sex couples encounter in trying to obtain partner benefits when dealing with academic or federal employment. Some universities do provide benefits to same-sex couples the same as heterosexual couples, but many don’t, even in the case of married same-sex couples. Further, there is the notorious “two-body problem,” which describes the challenge of attempting to find a position for both partners in the same institute (or at least the same city). This problem only becomes more challenging when the partnership might not be formally recognized in the first place.
For trans physicists there are issues of covering (or possibly just obtaining) basic healthcare, including support for hormone replacement therapy, not to mention coverage for surgery for those who require it. There are also potential complications around the fact that transition may involve a name change, which can possibly result in confusion regarding one’s research history (e.g., publication record, etc.).
I would also mention that I know of unfortunate instances when trans physicists have been denied recommendation letters specifically in response to trans disclosure or transition, or refusal to use chosen names and pronouns. Of course, it should go without saying that a recommendation should be based on the person’s abilities, not their identity. And using someone’s correct name and pronouns is just a matter of basic respect (not to mention moving forward in the real world).
We concluded the session with a panel discussion that included all of the speakers as well as Ted Hodapp, who offered an invaluable perspective as the APS Director of Education and Diversity. The panel discussion was further enhanced by strong audience participation. We also asked for audience feedback through a pen and paper survey, which resulted in many insightful comments and ideas on how to move forward with sexual and gender diversity issues in physics; a breakdown of the survey results can be found here.
In the end, the session was well attended, the audience seemed engaged, and those of us who organized the event came away with a lot of energy and a positive feeling that we had initiated an overdue conversation. Since the March Meeting, more physicists have gotten involved in these efforts and we have taken the ideas that came out of that discussion in several new directions.
For example, one ongoing project is to put forward a blueprint that individual physics departments can implement in order to foster an ideal and welcoming environment for LGBT community members. A working draft of this “Best Practices Guide” is available here. In coordination with this effort, one of our organizers, Wouter Deconinck, recently gave a talk on building a supportive academic environment at the recent 2012 Physics Department Chairs Conference.
In addition, we recently started a so-called ‘Out List,’ in which twenty-four people already have volunteered themselves as visible LGBTI-identified physics students, educators, and researchers (along with eleven allies).
However, it is certainly worth noting that we never would have gotten as far as holding the special session at the March Meeting had it not been for support from the APS Committee on Minorities and the Committee on the Status of Women in Physics, and a very special thanks is due to APS Diversity Officer Arlene Knowles as well as Ted Hodapp, who both supported us whole-heartedly.
On a personal level I want to say that I have felt really fortunate to be part of such a creative and productive team; I have to admit that we came much farther over the last year and a half than I had at first expected.
However, I would also like to offer a few brief words of caution as well to my colleagues. In all fairness, I have to report that there was one unfortunate moment during the March Meeting session when the word “tr*nny” appeared on a slide from one of the presenters. As I have already mentioned in private to the other organizers, this word is a slur against trans women, and it can only be meaningfully claimed or re-claimed by trans women.
Also, I would like to offer a word of caution regarding the concept of being ‘out.’ Let me say that, personally, I am generally quite out and I’m proud of that. But that having been said, there is no single valid narrative of how to live in this world as an LGBTI individual.
For example, I think we were all heartbroken to hear of the passing of the first American woman astronaut, Sally Ride, back in late July. However, most of us were also surprised (and proud) to learn that Sally had actually shared in a same-sex partnership over the last 27 years. However, I’ve read more than enough insensitive comments from LGBTI community members claiming that it was a “shame” that we did not get to know this side of her life until after Sally passed. Personally, I think Sally has the right to live her life any way she damn well pleases, and there is absolutely no shame in that whatsoever.
Further I personally know of cases in academia in which one person who is in a position of being able to be out safely has intentionally used that fact to manipulate and coerce someone who is in a more difficult position. Indeed, I suspect this type of situation may occur in academia more often that most of us realize. I think this illustrates a point that those of us who are able to comfortably, safely lead lives as outwardly gay, trans, etc. should acknowledge that this may in fact afford us certain privileges relative to someone in a different situation; hence, we should be very careful to make sure that our politics are supportive of, rather than counter-productive for, those in our field who cannot safely be out.
In conclusion, while there have certainly been some lonely moments for me as a trans woman in physics, nevertheless, I feel lucky having had the opportunity to participate in the generations-old study of nature’s seemingly endless mysteries. I also feel lucky to have had amazing support from so many of my colleagues, especially my research mentors in several places I have visited (Austin, Toronto, Tokyo…). I find physics to be the absolute best outlet for my personal creativity and I am indeed proud that I’ve stuck through some challenges and I’m proud to be my own kind of woman in this world and in this field (and I’m glad to report that I recently visited Paris for an academic conference and had a much, much more positive experience).
However, I also strongly believe that a community that dedicates itself to one of the most pure and noble of humankind’s pursuits— the study of our own universe— owes it to itself to commit to being a bit more open and accepting, more woman-friendly, and even a bit nicer.