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Science July 11 issue cover

Science July 11 issue cover

Note: this is an updated version of my recent article at Autostraddle.

Update 2: I noticed that Science Careers editor Jim Austin has quietly deleted the most egregious of his tweets.  I take that much as a small, positive development.

One of the best known and most respected publications in science and technology chose to run a sexualized, trans-misogynistic photo for its cover this week, and when the editor was challenged on twitter for pandering to the male gaze, he responded that he thought it would be interesting what would happen when those males “find out” the women in question are transgender.

While the focus of Science magazine’s July 11 issue on combating HIV and AIDS worldwide is laudable, the editors unfortunately chose the route of crude sensationalism to present that story to the public. The magazine cover features a dehumanizing image of trans women sex workers in Jakarta that focuses on their bodies, crops out their faces and primarily centers on their exposed thighs. The text accompanying that picture says, “Staying a step ahead of HIV/AIDS,” as if trans sex workers are somehow an image that is naturally synonymous with this disease.

And while, yes, trans women globally, on average, do face significantly elevated risks, could you imagine how out of place it would be for Science to run the same cover text accompanied by an image of two men in a sexual embrace, and further only showed them from the neck down? It has also been pointed out that apparently Science has never previously run any similar cover image that crops human bodies in a sexualizing manner.

However, when one of the Science editors was challenged on twitter over this image, the situation worsened quickly. Read the rest of this entry »

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Note: This post represents the first part in a two-part series on washroom-related gender issues on the University of Toronto campus. The second part can be found here.

Part one: Redressing gender imbalances on campus

Washrooms can be funny things (in most any sense of the word). Of course, they are an essential element of our human infrastructure; it’s difficult to imagine how we would go about our daily business (pun intended) without them being readily available throughout the day. We mostly take washrooms for granted, including the gendered manner in which they are usually structured: the little “woman” symbol, the little “man” symbol, and of course if we see just one of these two then we’ll expect to see the other somewhere nearby. It’s all very neat, orderly and intuitive— at least at the surface.

However, looking a bit more closely, we might notice sometimes things don’t perfectly fit this— I would argue— simplistic picture. For one, there is the question of gender identity: walking into either gendered washroom compels us to announce, “I am a woman” or “I am a man” although there may be individuals for whom this question is not so simple. This may include trans, intersex or other gender non-conforming people. Further there is the question of gender parity: given this binary idealization of gender, is one gender grouping prioritized over another in a given circumstance? It should be noted that although we are approaching this issue through the lens of gender, further questions naturally arise relating to parenting or supporting people with mobility needs. We address these perspectives, along with the gender identity question, in a separate piece.

For the present, let us address the gender parity issue. I happen to work on the fourth floor of the University of Toronto Chemistry Department. By the elevators on this floor (near my office) there is a men’s washroom on the immediate left and a women’s washroom on the right, a bit further down the hall. However, in my first few months working here I noticed that on about half the floors there is only a men’s with no complimentary women’s washroom. Later I discovered this is actually the result of a specific University policy coming out of the Office of Space Management.

Section 1.5 of a 2009 document entitled Design Criteria for Classrooms explicitly states, “The proportion of male to female fixtures [washrooms] will reflect the proportion of the anticipated users, if known.” In other words, in traditionally female-dominated fields (humanities, social sciences) there will be a greater number of women’s washrooms and in male-dominated fields (such as chemistry) there will be a greater number of men’s washrooms.

In practical terms the demographics in the hard sciences are indeed presently skewed towards the male population. However, I notice that during the semester when the halls are filled with undergraduates, it’s more difficult to notice the disparity. Only during class breaks does the gap become more apparent (i.e., at the graduate and faculty levels).

Let us imagine an undergraduate woman considering a career in math or science. She notices that while her class is mostly gender-balanced, most of her professors are men (and I assure you a few of them will occasionally make sexist remarks). Further, she notices that she and her female colleagues spend more time looking around for a washroom than her male colleagues, with longer waiting periods once she finds it. What message does this convey?

It’s ironic to think we have numerous programs and awards specifically intended to invite women into the sciences in order to redress the gender imbalance. Yet this seems discordant with the fact that male dominance is literally etched into the structure of the building. For this reason, I strongly believe that these design standards should be removed and eventually gender balance should be obtained in all departments. Note that other campuses are already taking steps in this direction.

I believe that our University should act as a model for the wider Toronto community. If our campus is meant to show the way forward, why do we build it in opposition to our own ideals? My essential belief is that we should build the University that we imagine, not simply rebuild the one we found.

A version of this article appears in U of T’s Varsity paper.

Sec. 1.5 of the "Design Criteria for Classrooms" document from the University of Toronto Office of Space Management

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