Queerness Should have Space in STEM

STEM cultures pathologize, trivialize LGBTQIA+ communities

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Keira Delaney is exhausted from constantly trying to educate her professors and fellow neuroscience majors about how their field historically and continuously discriminates against queer and transgender people, like herself.

And she is not alone. The lack of LGBTQIA+ representation and community in science technology engineering and mathematics (STEM) not only erases our identities in the workplace, but historical barriers and practices of STEM construct research climates that work against us.

There are no national statistics representative of the accurate number of LGBTQIA+ individuals in STEM, partially due to lack of gender inclusivity, and also due to high rates of queer and transgender people being closeted in the workplace.

But we do know that careers in STEM have historically been cisheterosexual white male playing fields. White men make up 49 percent of scientists and engineers, while men and women of color make up 34 percent of the science and engineering workforce together, according to the National Institute of Science.

Recently, Paul Koch, dean of Physical and Biological Sciences (PBSci), was asked to suggest faculty members for an Out in STEM panel, hosted by the Lionel Cantú Queer Center and the Society of Physics Students. Given that PBSci encompasses nine academic departments with well over 150 regular faculty, he tried to come up with 8-10 faculty names, and was surprised he could only think of five, including himself.

The PBSci department only collects data based on male and female representation. There is no UC Santa Cruz or reliable national data on queer- and genderqueer-identifying students.

The lack of diversity becomes clear in the classroom. Delaney reflected on a particular time when her neuroscience professor went over modern research about the differences between male and female brains, before going on to explain brain development theories of gay- and lesbian-identifying people.

When Delaney rose her hand to speak against how this research reinforces gender binaries and erases gender nonconforming and transgender people, her classmates simply replied with “research has to start somewhere.”

This was a memorable event for Delaney, but not a particularly unique example of how science constantly works to enforce the gender binary, and persecute people who speak against it as having a bias.

Science is built around objectivity, which is ridiculous, because Delaney’s identity as a transwomxn, and my identity as a queer woman is not a bias, but a fact. The science we produce should not erase our communities and experiences as queer people.

Research, such as in Delaney’s neuroscience lecture, models the lack of queer and transgender representation in science, from the undergraduate to Ph.D. level.

Additionally, STEM fields are not concerned with social issues. From fear of blatant discrimination, or being careful not to use  “she” pronouns when talking about my partner at work, the lack of conversations in STEM environments regarding LGBTQIA+ issues erases queer- and transgender-identifying scientists.

At no point in a scientist’s training are they required to learn about how their work intersects with social issues. There is a need for scientists to engage in conversations regarding not only queerness, but racial, social and economic systems of oppression.

Paul Koch, dean of PBSci said he tries to incorporate queerness into his introduction to ecology class, but it is hard for scientists to do this without losing objectivity.

“There are no courses for queer issues in STEM,” Koch said. “In general because of our scholarship, even if we weren’t so buttoned down at work, there is lightly a separation of the personal and professional.”

Despite STEM’s constant fear of not being objective enough, there is a deep history of exclusion and discrimination ideology in science that has affected the representation even in 2018, said Oarteze Hunter, molecular, cell and developmental biology graduate student who identifies as Black and bisexual.

The field of science has a history of excluding both queer people and communities of color, as well as using supposedly objective “science” to legitimize oppression. Scientific racism dates back hundreds of years as a way medical research was conducted to justify racism.

“There was a lot of science that was done [for hundreds of years] that was meant to exclude. Studies going on put people of color, specifically Black folks in a place where they could never get to become these professions,” Hunter said. “Things like eugenics and experimenting on Black folks, all of that was done and it suppressed who was and who wasn’t allowed in [STEM].”

Decades of scientific racism acts as a blockade to STEM fields for people of color, Hunter said. Science continues to produce research that pathologizes, or misdiagnoses, LGBTQIA+ people as abnormal.

STEM fields need to be more active in breaking the historical barriers faced by queer and trans people of color, beginning with representation and extending to how science is being practiced and executed.

For STEM fields to stop pathologizing LGBTQIA+ people, there is a need for greater representation and visibility of queer and transgender scientists.

A 2014 report by the American Physics Association found 1 in 5 LGBT physicists experienced harassment or discrimination due to their identities in the past year, and 36 percent of participants considered leaving their institution because of hostile or exclusionary work environments.

Barriers to being open in the workplace create a disconnect for communities of queer scientists. Keira Delaney said queer and trans people are often forced to seek support outside of academia, and STEM professionals often perpetuate a culture that disregards issues and interests outside of work as “not serious enough.”

“Not only do all of those things directly impact the ability to engage with academia, they also make it more critical for us to participate in a community that just does not exist in academic spaces,” Delaney said. “Community is so important for those of us who have been ostracized for coming out, or those of us who have trouble with employment, or stable housing.”

There is a need for greater queer and trans representation in the STEM community in the professional world and at universities, starting with UCSC. Visibility of queer and transgender people is necessary, but relies on the safety of the space.

In addition to spaces that unite the intersection of queer, trans and scientist identities, there needs to be education for all STEM students and professionals regarding social issues to create safer, inclusive and producttive futures for our research fields.