Wednesday, November 18, 2015

On Becoming a Woman Astronomer

by Jessica Mink, Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory

A year ago, three years after I transitioned from male to female, I wrote a guest entry for this blog entitled "On Being a Transgender Astronomer", giving a sort of Gender 101, with a few stories of my own experience. At that time, I envisioned a second blog with the same title as this one, thinking that it would be written a lot sooner than this. It turns out that despite having had woman astronomers around me since I was an undergraduate and therefore thinking that I knew what I was doing, it is taking me more than a few years to become a woman astronomer. The woman astronomers I have come to know better since I changed have gone through (and in too many cases are still going through) experiences which, at my advanced age, I may never have. It seems to be a lot easier to be accepted as a woman astronomer than to truly feel like one. "Becoming" in the title does not mean that I'm there yet, only that I am working on becoming a member of that too-slowly growing demographic.

Over the past year, I've gotten more involved in the community of astronomers than I ever was before. My new involvement started in 2012 when I found out that the AAS Working Group on LGBT Equality (WGLE) was looking for a trans astronomer, and I seemed to be the most open one at the time. This led to an interview with Wladimir Lyra and Stefano Meschiar, which made me more
visible in the field as a person, more than simply the author of some widely-used software. WGLE this summer became the Committee for Sexual-orientation and Gender-identity Minorities in Astronomy or SGMA, where SGM is our substitute for LGBTIQQA... This summer, I also became a member of the AAS Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy and act as the liaison between the two committees. I joined to learn more about the issues of women in astronomy and bring a slightly different perspective to them.

At the 2014 AAS meeting in Boston, over a WGLE-organized dinner, a group of LGBTIQ astronomers starting thinking  about what we collectively could do to make astronomy more inclusive. Continuation of these discussions eventually led us to organize this past summer's conference on Inclusive Astronomy, which dealt with access and inclusiveness for all under-represented classes: women, sexual orientation and gender identity minorities (SGM), under-represented racial and ethnic minorities, and people with disabilities. It was a new experience to be accepted into the under-represented, a group I spent most of my life on the outside only occasionally looking into. In my earlier life, I had never been the only person of my gender or race in a large class. Now, I'm often the only trans person at the table (or away from the Observatory, the only astronomer people have ever met), and sometimes the only woman, and where groups are mixed, I count demographics.

Over the past year, through pretty deep discussions that I have had with SGM, minority, and female astronomers and with an increasingly diverse group of friends in my non-astronomical life, I have listened learned by comparison about the privileges I have had and often continue to possess, as well as those I may have lost. While I lost explicit male privilege, that privilege helped me to get where I am today, and I have to acknowledge it. By transitioning in place, I get to keep the privilege of accomplishments which so far have made the loss of gender privilege more bearable.  I kept the privilege of being white and that of height: being a very tall woman can put one in a more powerful position in some situations than being a medium tall man, a situation I observed among tall woman friends before I transitioned. I've had the privilege of being able to change genders without as many repercussions as many of my friends have had.  That also made it easier than most to not have to hide the fact that I have not always been a woman and to speak out for transgender and non-binary people.

It has turned out that by successfully becoming a woman in society, I have become a "possibility model", as Laverne Cox says, for other transpeople, so my involvement in that community has actually increased rather than decreased.  I have also learned that there are times when I can use my privilege to aid others after learning from them what I can do to help.

Interestingly, it was at the Inclusive Astronomy conference where I unexpectedly found myself in a minority (unrelated to those enumerated above) which was devalued by speaker after speaker. My group is a subject for another post, but experiencing a consistent level of microaggression in a space that was supposed to be safe allowed me to understand feelings which my bubble of privilege had allowed me to avoid up to that point. That experience has made me more sympathetic to others as well as making me angry enough to speak up, and contemplating it has helped me redefine my how I think about my choices in life and why I made them.

I still have a ways to go to reach my original goal of becoming a woman astronomer, but I am approaching it as much by redefining my own idea of what I want to be as by doing what I thought that I wanted to do.