Tuesday, December 16, 2014

On Being a Transgender Astronomer

Today's guest post is by Jessica Mink, a positional astronomer and software developer at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, who has written the commonly used software packages WCSTools and RVSAO and worked on a variety of astronomical projects over 40 years. Much of her story is told in this interview with the American Astronomical Society's Working Group on LGBTIQ Equality (WGLE). 

While I consider myself to be a woman astronomer, I have not always been one. Since I made much of my reputation with a different gender expression and remain in the field, I have to accept the fact that I am also a transgender astronomer, and as a representative of that small group, serve as an ambassador to the rest of the astronomical world.

While gradually (over 40 years!) transitioning from male to female, I have thought a lot about gender and its various facets, but when I volunteered to write a blog entry representing my gender minority for the Women in Astronomy blog, I realized that I hadn't been very systematic about it. It is likely that most readers don't have any trans* friends (that they know about), but this far into the 21st century, most thinking people are aware of our existence and might even know of one of us.

Each human being has a gender identity. Most of us don't think about it much because it usually matches our biological sex, but sometimes it doesn't, and then we fall into the broad category of trans* people. Even though we are grouped with Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual people under LGBT. and its variants, our category is not tied to our sexual orientation, so many of our issues are different. It appears that gender identity is usually innate, even when it does not match our biological sex. That means that many trans* people might not appear any different than their knowledge of their biological sex (how a person's genes express in their physical appearance) would lead you to believe, while others may take hormones, have surgery, or simply change their wardrobe and appearance to match the gender which they feel themselves to be. Thus gender presentation or expression is a separate thing from gender identity, though it is often related. It should also be noted that while trans* people have many similar experiences, my view from the male-to-female side is not the same as that of my friends transitioning from female to male, nor is it identical to anyone going the same way I am.
Image Source
This useful graphic by Sam Killerman shows the various scales which can describe a person's position in this four-dimensional space, allowing two scales each, male and female, for a person's gender identity, gender expression, biological gender, and who they are attracted to. This creates an 8-dimensional space for just a few parts of a person's identity, putting non-gendered at the zero-points of the woman-ness and man-ness scales, agenders at those ends of the masculine and feminine scales, asex at those ends of the end of the male and female biological sex scales, and nobody at those ends of the M and F attracted-to scales. I like this formulation because it doesn't oppose male and female as the ends of a continuum but shows that we can have aspects of both at the same time.

Most commonly, the word "transgender" is used to refer to people who have acted in some way to resolve a conflict over their gender identity, either by acknowledging that they have one or going further to switch their gender expression to match that identity. Here is a good glossary of trans* and related terms.

I spent most of my life with my gender expression not matching my gender identity. Though my biological sex, sexual orientation, and gender expression were consistent, they did not match who I was inside. When I started thinking about my situation in the 1960's and 1970's, the accepted solution, for those who thought that there was any solution at all, was to change everything and become a straight person of the opposite gender. This did not fit me, so I mostly stuck to my original gender expression, with secret forays across the boundaries. In the 45 years since I started college, I have been married twice, tried to have egalitarian relationships, like the same-sex relationships Jane Rigby discussed here, and eventually, the world changed. After the turn of the century, I realized that 1) I really was more comfortable living in the world as the opposite gender to the one that I had started out in, 2) Most of the people I knew had some idea through the media that there were transgender people, so 3) Most of the parts of my life which I valued could remain, but 4) Changing the other parts would be hard. I was very lucky to have a somewhat tolerant spouse and to find a community of local people in comparable (though not identical) situations.

The biggest thing I was afraid of was how other people would treat me. In an organization, this uncertainty can be reduced by having a policy in place to tolerate variations in gender identity and gender expression as well as sexual orientation and gender. Here are a few which which cover my world. Note that the first two do not include gender expression, which they should.
Harvard University provides equal opportunity in employment for all qualified persons and prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of race, color, religion, creed, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, ancestry, age, veteran status, disability unrelated to job requirements, genetic information, military service, or other protected status. [Source]
The Smithsonian is committed to ensuring that [all] individuals associated with the Smithsonian are treated equitably in an environment that is free from discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex (including pregnancy and gender identity), age disability, genetic information, parental status, marital status, or sexual orientation. [Source]
... the AAS is committed to the philosophy of equality of opportunity and treatment for all members, regardless of gender, gender identity or expression, race, color, national or ethnic origin, religion or religious belief, age, marital status, sexual orientation, disabilities, veteran status, or any other reason not related to scientific merit. [Source]
Going beyond simple toleration, it is important that people be addressed by their chosen name and gender. Using only their name is safest if you are uncertain about a person's gender. If people are living with a conflict between their gender identity and their gender expression, it is best if they are not forced to use a gender-specifying title or to select between male and female on forms. If you know that a person has switched their gender expression, use the appropriate gender pronoun for their current situation. If speaking of them in the past, use gender-neutral pronouns. It's tricky for us to want to claim our past accomplishments, but not necessarily the gender (or name) under which we did them.

Having regulations helps, but actually being accepted by the people with whom you work is something else. I was really worried about how my colleagues would deal with a change in me, the people I work with every day, and the many people I may only see a few times a year. It turned out that having a record of accomplishment over a few decades gave me a strong professional identity which, at least in my case, overrode my gender, and that helped people to accept me however I appeared. I put together this web page to help people understand where I was.

And then there is medical coverage for processes which can get quite expensive for an individual, though they are not out of line for any serious hospitalization. Universities, big corporations, states, and the federal government are moving toward complete coverage, but we have a ways to go. The US government only *allows* complete transgender coverage; it is not required, though at least one insurance company is adding coverage to all of their government health insurance plans.

In the future, I'd like to use my experience to discuss how changing gender affects one's view of privilege, inclusion, and diversity in astronomy and whether identity characteristics other than race and gender can also have significant effects on our careers.

Further Reading


Anonymous said...

Rock on, Jessica! Thank you for giving voice to us trans* astronomers. We exist.

Anonymous said...

You are not a "transgender astronomer"--anymore than I am a "female astronomer." We are both astronomers. No modifier necessary. Never have I heard anyone refer to a "male astronomer." When you call a job by a different name, it means it's a different job. We are astronomers.

Robyn Ann Jane Alice McCutcheon said...

Thank you, Jessica, for such a well-written post! I'm still an AAS member but switched careers to the Department of State some ten years ago. I now serve in Kazakhstan as Regional Environment, Science, Technology, and Health Officer for Central Asia. Very few people have a clue that I have walked a path similar to your own and have come to be the woman I am through the transgender experience. It's good to know that I'm not alone in the AAS! -- Best from the steppe, Robyn (http://attitude-analyst.blogspot.com & http://attitude-maneuver.blogspot.com_

Anonymous said...

This is anonymous commenter #1 responding to anonymous commenter #2. I called myself a trans* astronomer, but I will assume you were responding to Jessica, since the date/time stamps of our comments suggest you submitted your post before mine showed up on this page. Since I used a phrase to describe myself similar to the phrase Jessica used to describe herself, I will respond on my behalf. I see that it would be useful not to modify "astronomer", as one may want to emphasize that all astronomers study astronomy regardless of sex or gender identity. But the phrasing "transgender astronomer" does not imply a different job description than "astronomer". It just means that the person doing the job (here, astronomy) is, in this case, transgender. It is useful to be able to identify oneself as an astronomer of transgender experience, if only as an existence proof: we exist. And "astronomer of transgender experience" is a greater mouthful than "transgender astronomer" or even "trans* astronomer".

In most situations, I would refer to myself as an "astronomer", with no modifier. I.e., usually, I would emphasize my work. However, in the context of noting that astronomers of transgender experience exist, which can be a useful exercise in certain situations (e.g., if I were to write about it from 1st-person perspective in a Women in Astronomy blog article, as Jessica did), the phrase "transgender astronomer" or "trans* astronomer" would be helpful, useful, and not incorrect. There are very few astronomers of transgender experience, so an existence proof is helpful here.

To each their own.

berkeleyjess said...

Dear anonymous commenter #2. It is unclear if your comment was meant to be supportive of the author. Perhaps you were trying to say "I do not see you any differently than any other astronomer. I wish we lived in a world where you do not feel the need to qualify or explain your gender expression."

Or if you were trying to silence or minimize the author by saying "I do not want to hear about your experience. When you talk about your experience as a transgender astronomer it makes me view you differently (or view your job differently). You shouldn't do this. Keep quite. Keep your head down."

I agree with anonymous #1 in that it is very generous, helpful, and important for people of underrepresented and traditionally marginalized groups to share their lived experience so that the rest of us can learn how to better understand, support, and be inclusive.

While I doubt that Dr. Mink goes around introducing herself as transgender in most situations, it's really not my business or your business to tell her what to do. But in this specific context (a blog that discusses gender and astronomy) she was generously and bravely sharing with a wider audience a process which many of us have never had the opportunity to see or hear about first hand. Talking about gender and astronomy is exactly what this blog is about, and so qualifying who she is and the lens with which she experiences the world is important (and completely appropriate) for this space.

You identify as a cis-gender woman, which is a position of privilege over a trans* woman. And in this position of privilege you are telling a trans* woman that she is "not a transgender astronomer" and by talking about herself in this way she is undermining her position as an astronomer. This is at best condescending and at worst transphobic.

Please check your privilege and be more careful about the words you use. Even if your intent was to be supportive, the language you used was hurtful.

Anonymous said...

Jessica K., this is anonymous #1. I just wanted to clarify that I thought anonymous #2 was saying something along the lines of your first interpretation of her comment; i.e., that she doesn't see Jessica M. "any differently than any other astronomer ...". I personally didn't think there was any ill intent on the part of anonymous #2, though I cannot speak for Jessica M.

Jessica Mink said...

Each of us is an amalgam of identities, which influence each other. Being aware of all them can be useful; even if we try to keep them separate, like I did for a long time. It turns out, for example, that my being an astronomer adds something to my life in my LGBTIQ, bicycling, and other worlds.