Thursday, November 17, 2016

Losing Privilege and Gaining Something Else

by Jessica Mink, Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory

Jessica and Darian,
neighbors and tandem partners
Not many people have the experience of giving up a trait which carries with it a significant amount of privilege in our society. When I changed my gender five years ago this month, several of my woman astronomer friends asked me how I experienced life differently after I gave up my male privilege. I thought that I knew some of the answers a year ago and wrote what I had learned in a post, "On Becoming a Woman Astronomer". As I have learned more, I continue to find more uncertainty about my place in the world. I've realized that in significant parts of my life, I'll continue for a long time to be seen as a transwoman because my personal history has two differently-gendered chapters. Here is another annual installment in my unending journey.

In my world, being transgender has tended to be positive. Far more people have congratulated me for my courage than have insulted me, at least to my face. This is not true of all of my trans friends, and that difference is always in my mind as I try to figure out how much is good fortune and what I can teach others from my experience. I've enjoyed more involvement in the world, being asked to represent the T of LGBTQ because I'm more out than most of my demographic. An eight-month stint as chair of the board of our local transgender chorus led people to believe that I was a local trans leader. I got to know a bigger sample of the trans community, was interviewed  by a local NPR station, and got invited to places I'd never been before. I've also learned that past male privilege has followed me into my new life, maybe because in my controlled experiment I was trying to change only my gender but not my environment. I still get credit for things that I did as a male, so people tend to think of me in a less gendered way than if I had always been a woman.

I decided to write about this because of several recent events which made me think about where I am, both in and out of the astronomical part of my life. It started with a workshop on negotiation for women at work two weeks ago, where it turned out that I knew more about negotiation than I expected. I also learned that women have a harder time finding a the right style of argument than men. A couple of days later, I participated in a panel on intersectionality in science at a nearby university as the trans/female representative. I got a lot of time to listen to the concerns of undergraduate women and realized that I'm probably too old to experience the harassment that younger women seem to get almost everywhere. By missing that kind of experience, I won't ever quite feel what other women in science (or elsewhere, for that matter) feel.

Then there was the election, which seems to have brought out a backlash against women, especially those that act out of the box, and trans people.  I still tend to act as if I can do anything without having my gender questioned, but now worry more that I will inadvertently out myself as trans when I don't want to be.

Other minority groups seem to be more open to me than they were before I changed, and I try to be as open to them. It's been interesting to move between single-race groups which are trying unsuccessfully to be more inclusive and other groups which just are inclusive. I keep trying to figure out how what I've learned from my own intersectionality can be used to include and empower divided demographic groups in my city, state, country, avocations, and profession.

Just this past weekend, I attended a 25th anniversary meeting of the East Coast Greenway Alliance, which I helped start. Most of my original colleagues, who I had not seen for many years, were there and instantly accepted me, though with a bit of surprise. While our planned trail goes through all of the major cities on the East Coast from Maine to Florida, including a quite diverse population, its support group is maybe even whiter than astronomy, despite early attempts to be more inclusive. There is a lot of work to be done!

I returned to my Boston community for Saturday dinner in honor of a black woman bicyclist who had just biked across the country with her violin and dog. The group was integrated racially and a major contrast from that I had been in all day. It's not that the constituency is not there, just like there are people of many races who want to be astronomers. We all need to think about what the barriers are and how they affect how our profession connects to the world.