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Through the Non-Heteronormative Looking Glass

Sunlight coming through the glass, and falling between the two set of straightly lined chairs.

… Scientific activity has been assigned a privileged epistemological position of being socially and politically neutral … It delinks itself from the new social and political problems it creates … Science stays immune from social assessment, and insulated from its own impacts.

– Vandana Shiva, ‘The Violence of the Green Revolution

Picture a typical engineering class in your head. Maybe that scene from the movie 3 Idiots where Aamir Khan’s character tells his professor the definition of a book. If you’re a woman studying any kind of science in college, you’ve probably walked into such a classroom at least once and balked at the ratio of men to women in there. Perhaps you’ve even felt uncomfortable or unsafe at times. Now let’s add some variables to the mix. Ever been the only trans student in a room? What about the only gay or bisexual student? Have you entered a classroom knowing that you will have to leave parts of yourself – your identity – at the door when you walk in?

If you haven’t, imagine feeling that over and over again throughout four years of college. This isn’t new to people who consider themselves part of the queer community. The lack of LGBT representation in Science is so normalized that most of us prefer to not even think about it (it’s too painful).

No one ever really talks about how queer people in STEM fields navigate hostile spaces. ‘STEM’ stands for ‘Science, Technology, Engineering, Math’. We Indians, of course, are well aware of what these fields entail because our parents, neighbours and teachers often push us towards them. Pursuing a career in the humanities/arts means deviating from the norm, so it makes sense that sexualities and gender identities which are considered ‘deviant’ often flourish in these fields.

Science, on the other hand, wants you to think that it is completely divorced from the reality of politics and personal experiences. It’s easy to get so lost in all the data and equations that you forget who you are. There’s no time to explore your identity, much less talk about it with other people. Even if you had the time, who would listen to you? Only your own conscience.

I did my undergraduate study in the United States, so I can’t speak for the college experience in India. I expect that the lack of resources for LGBT people in science would be the same here, if not worse. I majored in Physics at a university with a relatively small Physics department. The discrepancy between the number of men and women in the classroom was unnerving. I don’t think a single day went by where I entered a room without mentally preparing myself to be surrounded only by men.

College was also the time I began exploring my sexual identity. I realised I was asexual and this brought its own set of problems. If you think being the only woman in a classroom of men is hard, try being the only asexual woman. Try being the only lesbian. Put yourself in the shoes of any LGBT person, closeted or not, and imagine what they would feel like around 20+ straight men. Spoiler alert: it wasn’t a pleasant experience.

Outside class, I had many friends who were either part of the queer community or strong allies. I was also working with the LGBT department on campus and I had all the support I needed. However, I spent 16 to 19 hours every week inside a classroom boxed in with at least a dozen people who knew nothing about my identity. A professor once made a joke using the word ‘gay’ in a derogatory manner, and talked about women crudely. That joke got many laughs from the men in class. These men, my classmates, would also engage in conversations with each other where they made no effort to hide their misogyny or homophobia.

Could I stand up to them? Sure. But I also depended on these people for help with my studies when I needed it, or class notes when I missed a lecture, or just to make friendly conversation while waiting for the professor to arrive. And if I did stand up to them, who would back me up? That one guy in a group of twelve, or twenty, who never cracked jokes but simply nodded along with what everyone said? I’m not a confrontational person, and I wasn’t interested in outing myself to people who didn’t care about me.

Being asexual has its advantages: no one needs to know about my sex life unless I choose to bring it up. Now think about what it must be like for a gender non-conforming person, or a transgender woman, or a bisexual man who is too afraid to tell his male classmates that he is attracted to men. Is this problem exclusive to science? Definitely not. But the toxic culture that science breeds exacerbates this problem. We’re constantly told, “Science isn’t political”, or “Science is neutral and unbiased”. We are not supposed to talk about identities and experiences because that is irrelevant to solving Schrodinger’s equation. We are expected to act as if science has never done harm, as if researchers aren’t biased, as if doctors don’t mistreat LGBT patients constantly.

It’s true that my asexuality, or the gender of the person I’m dating, has nothing to do with how I solve a math problem. But it has everything to do with how I approach college, or how motivated I am to pursue a certain field or career, or how welcome I feel in a certain space.

I’m now pursuing a law degree, and I am happy about it. Truth be told, part of the reason I left science was because I lost my passion for it. The other part has to do with how alienated I felt in those straight male-dominated classrooms. Somewhere inside me is still the girl who dreamt of being in the stars, the girl who wanted to be an astronaut. I don’t want to disappoint her. But I also don’t want to grit my teeth and smile for the rest of my life, while scientists and engineers and mathematicians continue to pretend that their work isn’t affected by who they are. Science is a very useful tool to analyse the world, but it is not sacred.

I’m not saying this to discourage people from science. If you consider yourself queer and you want to pursue STEM, go right ahead. You shouldn’t have to feel uncomfortable following your passion. There need to be more women, more LGBT people in science, to be role models and guides for generations to come. Your voices and your experiences are important and integral to the future of science. I’m holding on to the hope that a day will come when a typical engineering class doesn’t consist mostly of heterosexual men. I’m also rooting for you to shatter the heteronormative glass ceiling. Good luck.

Photo credit: CC0 license