Wednesday, May 4, 2016

When bathrooms and supernovae collide: Anti-LGBTQ legislation is hindering participation in science

By MacKenzie Warren

MacKenzie Warren (very recently) completed his PhD in Physics at University of Notre Dame. He will soon begin a postdoc at Michigan State University. MacKenzie's research is in computational modeling of core-collapse supernovae, particularly the role of nuclear and neutrino processes in the explosion mechanism.

Spinning off of Jessica Mink’s earlier post "On Becoming a Woman Astronomer", I have written this post to offer another perspective. My experience has been very different from Jessica’s in many ways: I am a trans guy (female to male) and I am transitioning while in graduate school. I never “planned” to transition in graduate school. My trans identity snuck up on me, as is often the case, and this is where I find myself. Taking time off from school to transition isn’t financially feasible and waiting until I have tenure is too far off in the future and too uncertain in today’s job market, so I am doing my best to manage the situation as it is. But that is a story for a future post. Today, I’d like to talk about bathrooms and how anti-LGBTQ legislation hinders participation in science.

As a trans person, there is perhaps nothing that I hate more than worrying about bathrooms. Believe me, I would rather be spending my time thinking about other things (such as science). But just as every woman has a fear of her next sexual harassment experience, trans people fear what we will face the next time that we use a public restroom.

Bathrooms are tricky spaces. Despite the fact that we all use them for the same things, they’re some of the most strictly gendered spaces that I can think of. This makes them a nightmare for anyone who doesn’t fit traditional gender norms, particularly for nonbinary, genderqueer, and gender non-conforming people, who are neither, both, or a combination of man and woman, and can’t win when it comes to gendered bathrooms. This fear is not without reason: 70% of transgender people have been harassed and ~10% have been physically assaulted in restrooms.

Although I have been frequently reassured that men never notice who else is in the bathroom, I still cannot quiet my nerves when walking into a men’s restroom. This took its toll at a recent conference, the first that I attended since coming out. In order to avoid other people, and therefore the possibility of an incident, I found myself using the restroom during sessions. I waited until the room was empty to emerge from the stall. I missed entire talks for the sake of peeing in peace.

All of this happened to me, a white masculine-presenting transmasculine person, and in a state where I can legally use the men’s restroom. I have considerably less to fear than transfeminine people (who bear the brunt of society’s transphobia) and particularly black trans women (who experience even higher rates of discrimination and violence and are at the deadly intersection of racism, sexism, and transphobia). Recent anti-LGBT legislation is only worsening the existing discrimination against, and the vulnerability of, trans people.

There has been an upswing in the number of states attempting to regulate which bathrooms transgender people may use and/or legalize discrimination against LGBTQ people. Anti-trans “bathroom laws” make it illegal for trans people to use bathrooms, locker rooms, etc., corresponding to our gender identity. Enforcement of these laws relies on the problematic and frankly offensive assumption that cis (not-trans) people can identify trans people on sight. Even though there has never been a reported case of a trans person attacking anyone in a bathroom, such laws continue to dehumanize and demonize trans women as dangerous predators and antagonize additional hatred and violence toward trans women and transfeminine nonbinary people.

All of this extends far beyond trans people and bathrooms. Anti-LGBTQ laws make it legal, on religious grounds, to discriminate against someone due to their sexual orientation and/or gender identity in many contexts. These laws further limit LGBTQ people’s access to goods, services, employment, housing, foster/adoption services, and medical care. Basically everything.

Currently, North Carolina and Mississippi have such anti-LGBTQ legislation in place. Additional states have similar bills in the works. This year, more than 100 different anti-LGBTQ laws were introduced in 22 states. This includes states where major astronomy and physics conferences are scheduled to take place. For example, Tennessee has luckily tabled its anti-trans “bathroom bill” for this year’s legislative session before the AAS Division of Dynamical Astronomy meeting at Vanderbilt University.

In light of these new laws (and the possibility of more to come), the full inclusion of LGBTQ astronomers in our field is at risk. Astronomers, physicists, and planetary scientists should stop hosting conferences, workshops, summer schools, and other meetings in states with anti-LGBTQ legislation. To facilitate this, I urge you all to sign an open letter, urging conference organizers to stop hosting conferences in states with anti-LGBTQ legislation. I also encourage you to pass on this message to anyone who is planning a future conference.

This should not be viewed as a punishment for researchers in these states nor purely as an idealistic act of protest. We must ensure the safety and well-being of all conference attendees. LGBTQ researchers attending events in these states will be at risk for discrimination and harassment, such as being turned away from hotels and restaurants. Transgender researchers traveling to states with anti-trans bathroom laws also risk legal repercussions and violence for using public restrooms (which can include restrooms at state universities). It is unconscionable of our field to require LGBTQ individuals to put so much at risk in order to participate in science.

The American Physical Society recently commissioned a report on the LGBTQ climate in physics. Their first recommendation: Ensuring a safe and welcoming environment at APS meetings. It is impossible to create a safe and welcoming environment if the conference is occurring in a state where discrimination against LGBTQ people is legal.

Let’s not forget the LGBTQ people, including scientists and students, living in states such as North Carolina and Mississippi, who will face these risks and barriers on a daily basis. The impact of these laws on LGBTQ people, particularly trans women, is very real. There have been many public threats of violence against trans women using public restrooms. Calls to a trans suicide hotline have doubled since HB 2 was passed in North Carolina. Lives are on the line and we must take a stand against this legislation.

If our field is truly committed to equity and inclusion, we must address the legalized discrimination of members of our community and commit to protecting our most vulnerable members. It is impossible to stay focused and committed to research without access to such fundamental rights as shelter and medical care or when facing harassment and violence. Now, more than ever, we need to stand with our LGBTQ community members and ensure that all interested researchers can fully participate in science.

1 comment :

Unknown said...

Happily signed the petition!


"My trans identity snuck up on me, as is often the case"

Boy howdy is it ever. Although, in my case, it didn't so much sneak up on me as quietly creep up behind me for several month before jumping me on an airplane flight in late December 2013.