Sexual and Gender Diversity in Physics
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.