Monday, April 14, 2014

This is not a post about nomenclature.

This is not a post about insects, or insect genitalia, or another round in the Vandal of the Calypterates series (but the next one of that is coming, I promise!).

This is a deeply personal thing I am going to talk about, which is entirely uncharacteristic for me and what I like to post here. Sure, I get rant-y about ICZNerdery, or the latest round of "the Naturalists are Dying Out". These are all par for the course, have been since the beginning of this blog. I share my love of, say, weird caddisfly life histories and get excited about it, because that's something I enjoy doing. I try to keep more personal things off this blog because (a) I don't especially enjoy sharing personal parts of my life, (b) the name is Trichopterology, not Facebook 2.0, and (3) the personal stuff is none of your business. But I feel this is important, so I'm breaking the rules.

This is going to be a post about transpeople in science and academia. Because I'm a transwoman.

I realize this will be a shock to some people. Other people will share knowing smiles. The majority of the academics will not care, and that is the point of this post: being trans in academia, at least in the biological sciences, seems to be becoming a non-issue. And the more visible transpeople are, the more of a non-issue it will become. 

When I came out to my first colleague here at Wright State last year, I was terrified. I'm not going to repeat standard introductory conversations on transpeople and gender identity, there are a multitude of primers out there in the InterWebz. Just Google it. What I will say is that transpeople are not exactly treated well by society in general, and our tendency is to expect the worse of any social situation in which we out ourselves. 

To my surprise and relief, my colleague was accepting and has been a huge ally. I told more people I felt I could trust, and not one of them rejected me. Some of them had guessed ahead of time. Others were excited for me. The majority were interested, supportive, and quite frankly, treated me like normal. 

When I made my gender identity public to the department in early March, my anxiety was decreasing. Graduate students and faculty, with few exceptions, had positive reactions. Many knew or knew of Joan Roughgarden, an evolutionary biologist who transitioned in the late nineties. Some had personal experiences with trans or other queer people. I found friendships had actually strengthened due to my trust. 

Perhaps I live a charmed life, that my experience is special, not normal. My university includes gender identity and expression under the non-discrimination clause, which means that faculty and staff have to respect my identity, regardless of their personal feelings. My department is a close knit group of open minded ecologists and evolutionary biologists with a wide array of life experiences. In the unlikely event I am ever harassed, the university will respond quickly to fix the problem. Many transpeople cannot claim the same about their university or department. 

Yet, I cannot see how my experience is completely unique. One of the most wonderful results of my coming out was being invited to a small panel by women faculty for women graduate students. When I asked about my opportunities for finding a job as a transwoman, the faculty members responded that I shouldn't worry about it, that the real issue is the community surrounding the university, and not the university itself. I may not want to live somewhere due to the hostility of the college town, but the university should be a non-issue. These things are improving.

The recent "Queer in STEM" survey suggests that this improvement comes from visibility. When queer people are out and visible in university departments, they become role models and create an environment which makes other queer people, including graduate students, feel more comfortable and welcome. It's so easy to focus on the negative aspects of my situation. Sometimes I feel my transition is selfish, that I am "creating drama" by asking people to change their pronoun and name usage, that I am making things more difficult not only for myself but also for other people. But I also feel that by being visible I am showing other students that they don't have to feel anxious about their identities. I can be that role model. I can relay my positive experiences. In the words of the Trevor Project, "It gets better". It is getting better.

Thanks to Morgan Jackson for his advice and encouragement, and to this post by Alex Bond for getting the brain juices flowing. Stay tuned for normal programming.