Welcome to TNW Pride 2020! All throughout June weâ€™ll highlight articles that focus on representation for LGBTQPIA+ people in the STEM communities.
It feels weird to talk about trans and non-binary people right now. It feels odd to celebrate Pride while the US government attacks its own citizens. But it also feels necessary because these are not separate struggles.
Black trans women are among the most at-risk communities in the world. In 2018 one agency tracked the murders of 26 trans people in the US and all but five were black women. Around the world, more than 300 trans or non-gender-conforming people were murdered in 2019.
And it was the corrupt and brutal policing of the queer and drag communities that incited the riots that Pride spawned from. Itâ€™s fitting that the flag we fly for Pride is a rainbow. When black, brown, and white people fought the police side-by-side for six days in 1969, they showed the world that queers and queens could not be divided by color.
Unfortunately weâ€™ve got a long way to go. It feels like so little progress has been made. Blacks are still murdered in the streets and US employers can legally fire a queer person for not being heterosexual.
Black trans women exist in a Venn Diagram of hate where employment, freedom, and survival are never sure things from one day to the next.
Thatâ€™s why itâ€™s important, today, to ensure the world of science, technology, engineering and math does more for trans and non-binary people. As of right now, STEM is not a safe space for them.
TNW talked to Charlie Knight, a non-binary editor, business owner, and activist, to find out how we can all be better allies and why itâ€™s important. Knightâ€™s pronouns are â€œthey/themâ€ and, to be honest, I was nervous about the interview.
I just knew I was going to say â€œsheâ€ or â€œheâ€ or something really stupid. Itâ€™s not that I donâ€™t have exposure to trans or non-binary people. And itâ€™s not that Iâ€™m not an ally â€“ I came out last week. Itâ€™s justâ€¦ well itâ€™s hard and itâ€™s scary because it isnâ€™t normal.
Iâ€™ve interviewed hundreds of people. But interviewing Knight was different. It shouldnâ€™t have been, but it was. And thatâ€™s the problem.
I asked why pronouns mattered to trans and non-binary people, Knight said:
Weâ€™re not safe.
Their words lingered for a moment before I pressed the issue. I asked why it matters at all. Lots of people get â€œmisgenderedâ€ (a term for when you accidentally or intentionally call someone by the wrong pronoun or gender-descriptive noun).
Iâ€™m thinking about my long, beautiful (thatâ€™s right) red hair. I wouldnâ€™t be offended if someone mistook me for a woman and said â€œhey maâ€™am.â€ But then Iâ€™m thinking about my big, red, wizard beard. When I turn around, the person who misgenders me will feel foolish. Theyâ€™ll probably apologize and get it right next time.
Knightâ€™s experience has been different. They tell me that by sheer virtue of being an out queer person, theyâ€™re defacto representatives for the community. I asked how much time they dedicate to educating people and calling out transphobia:
Dozens of hours a week. Every week. Thereâ€™s a gap â€¦ in how serious people think this is because itâ€™s not something theyâ€™ve fought for.
You and I might think most people are well-meaning, and our experiences â€“ maybe youâ€™re a cisgender woman with short hair whoâ€™s been called â€œsirâ€ a couple times, or a dude that looks like a lady from certain angles like me â€“ are the norm. But they arenâ€™t. Thereâ€™s no such thing as an accidental transphobe.
Knight laughs when I suggest that people think trans and non-binary people bully people who identify as cisgender on the internet. The reality, according to Knight and the other trans and non-binary people Iâ€™ve spoken with, is that transphobes arenâ€™t interested in getting it right. To transphobes, theyâ€™re being asked to stop doing something they think is â€œnormalâ€ by people they think are â€œmentally ill.â€ It doesnâ€™t matter to them that science and history arenâ€™t on their side.Â
I think itâ€™s still very much popular to be in the status quoâ€¦ for us thereâ€™s no space. [Because of] social media we have a voice. Even if weâ€™re not getting represented in the media, you canâ€™t deny weâ€™re here. You know we exist.
The problem with the status quo is that, per the norm, everyone is either a â€œheâ€ or a â€œsheâ€ unless they tell you otherwise. Bigots not withstanding, this is a system that doesnâ€™t work for any of us.
I wrote about how much it sucked to know that most people in tech see a straight man when they see me, some even think Iâ€™m a â€œtech broâ€ type. But, I also benefit from a lot of privilege. When someone looks at me, they assume Iâ€™m â€œa manâ€ and, lucky for both of us, that just happens to be how I identify.
The reason this is a problem is because, unlike Knight and those black trans women I mentioned earlier, the world is a relatively safe place for me. When Knight gets misgendered in public they have a legitimate fear that the person calling them a woman or man will turn violent when their assumptions are challenged.Â
When Knight says â€œthereâ€™s no space for us,â€ theyâ€™re telling us that the world â€“ even the queer community â€“ isnâ€™t giving them any room. Trans and non-binary people have been around since the dawn of time. People havenâ€™t changed, language has.
Trans and non-binary people donâ€™t feel safe because societyâ€™s been far too slow on the uptake when it comes to doing the bare minimum to support them. I asked Knight about the STEM community in specific. Arenâ€™t scientists, developers, and such an international community of mostly liberal-leaning people who eat this woke stuff up? Not so much. As they put it:
Just because youâ€™re marginalized in some ways doesnâ€™t mean youâ€™re not problematic in others.
Knight says the best way for STEM companies and universities to clear space for trans and non-binary people is to hire people that can ensure youâ€™re always sending the right message:
In a perfect world, youâ€™d have a sensitivity reader or entire staff. Someone from a marginalized community who can determine whether your message is accurate, sensitive, and representative.
And that last part, representation, is where the STEM world currently fails trans and non-binary people. Itâ€™s not enough to just have diversity training and make sure every employee signs the check-in sheet before they go on break.
Decades ago nearly every textbook, research paper, and technical manual were written from a mostly male perspective. Youâ€™d regularly see passages that say â€œevery employee should do his bestâ€ instead of â€œall employees should do their best.â€ He and him, like â€œmankindâ€ and â€œmanned flight,â€ were the status quo. Many people in STEM were reluctant to change, the thinking was that women donâ€™t need a book to tell them they arenâ€™t men so they can just do the translation in their heads and everybodyâ€™s happy.
But without representation there can be no progress. Women are still an underpaid, under-employed minority group in the STEM fields. However, thereâ€™s been incremental change over the decades. Trans and non-binary people are waiting patiently to be included too.
The first thing we can all do is get pronouns right. Until we normalize the use of â€œthey/themâ€ and asking people for their pronouns, trans and non-binary people are not safe. So letâ€™s start there.
Knight has four simple tips for everyone, and they mean everyone. Because none of this works unless we all join in. When trans and non-binary people stand up for themselves, theyâ€™re drawing even more attention to how different they are. But they arenâ€™t different. We all have pronouns.
- Just ask. You can say â€œmay I ask your pronouns?â€ and you can also just start with yours. â€œHi Iâ€™m Tristan, I use he/him, itâ€™s a pleasure to meet you.â€
- Use they/them unless youâ€™ve been explicitly informed otherwise. Even around cisgender people! You already do it anyway: â€œA bank robber you say? Which way did they go?â€
- Practice. Seriously, try it out on your friends. Get used to introducing yourself and your pronouns.
- Relax. Youâ€™ve been using pronouns for a long time, itâ€™s not that hard. Now just update your knowledge and show grace when you or someone else screws up unintentionally.
Beyond that, we need to extend non-gendered thinking into every space so that trans and non-binary people can feel included by default.Â
We should all put our pronouns in our bios and social media profiles. And we should use ambiguous language when we talk about groups of people. We arenâ€™t, for example, the â€œmen and women who work for this company,â€ weâ€™re the people you employ.
More importantly, itâ€™s time for STEM to invest in the trans and non-binary community. If your company or university doesnâ€™t have trans or non-binary representation then thereâ€™s a good chance youâ€™re unintentionally promoting a heteronormative, cisgender-oriented community. Because thereâ€™s a lot more trans and non-binary people out there than you think. If youâ€™re not leaving the light on you shouldnâ€™t be surprised when you canâ€™t find them.Â
Thereâ€™s a silver lining though. Workplaces and research labs that do decide to create safe spaces for trans and non-binary people stand a pretty good chance of finding out theyâ€™ve actually been there all along.Â
For more information, check out the following resources:
Stick with us all month for more Pride 2020 coverage. If youâ€™d like to share your story, weâ€™ve opened our contributorâ€™s platform up for Pride-related submissions from authors working in the STEM field.Â