Graduate school is never easy, but as I neared the end of my first year, my Ph.D. training was about to get much harder. It wasn’t that the classes or research were any different. I had simply come to recognize the truth about myself: I was nonbinary, a gender identity sometimes falling under the transgender umbrella. Excited to finally express my true self, I came out to my colleagues and began to pursue my transition. Here I will share some lessons from my own experience as a transgender STEM Ph.D. student in an effort to show other transgender and gender-nonconforming students that they are not alone, as well as to demonstrate ways in which school administrators, faculty and mentors can be better allies and promote the success of transgender students.
One of the first steps many transgender people make (and the first thing I did) is referred to as social transition. I cut my hair, changed the way I dressed and began using a different name and pronouns. It took some jumping through hoops, but I was eventually able to get my school email and ID badge changed to reflect my preferred name rather than my legal one. Although I eventually did change my legal name, the process is long and expensive and not feasible for everyone. Being able to communicate with colleagues under the appropriate name was a huge step in expressing my identity and maintaining my mental health. As individuals, using the correct name and pronouns (those requested by an individual) is one of the biggest and most important acts of respect and allyship you can do. For institutions, having a policy that allows individuals to designate a preferred/nonlegal name on emails and ID badges is critical. Normalizing including pronouns in email signatures and on ID badges or name tags is another easy way for everyone to support transgender colleagues. These are excellent ways to communicate your pronouns when they are not obvious from your appearance. Having cisgender individuals join in normalizes the practices, encourages people not to assume the pronouns of others and helps transgender people not to feel singled out by sharing their pronouns.
The next step for me was to begin medical transition, starting with testosterone hormone therapy. With the help of our school’s director of student support services, I was able to explore what coverage was included in the student health insurance. While many insurance plans explicitly exclude coverage for gender transition-related care, I was pleasantly surprised to find that my school had added a rider for this coverage. For people like me, who experience gender dysphoria, transition-related health care is essential. To be inclusive of their transgender employees, all employers should ensure their provided insurance includes this coverage. As an ally, find out if your employer does, and if not, lobby for it on behalf of your transgender colleagues. Even if you don’t know any, they are there.
That brings me to my next observation. Many transgender individuals are not out to their colleagues. For some, this is a personal decision not to share their personal and medical information with colleagues. For others, it is a matter of safety. There is no federal guarantee for protection against discrimination based on gender identity/gender expression. Some states or cities have such laws and some institutions and employers have such policies, but without universal protection, transgender individuals can face losing their jobs, their homes, and more just for being out. The United States Supreme Court is currently deliberating on whether the 1964 civil rights act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of “sex,” can be interpreted to include “gender identity,” “gender expression” and “sexual orientation.” Here in Michigan, a grassroots petition has been initiated to amend the law to explicitly include these protections, and I am fortunate that my city and my school already have these laws and policies in place.
Relatedly, access to restrooms has recently been a hot-button issue across the U.S. For me, early in my transition, I continued to use the restroom of my assigned gender, but as my testosterone therapy continued and I began to grow facial hair, I was no longer comfortable in women’s restrooms (and I was clearly making others uncomfortable as well). However, entering men’s restrooms and dealing with urinals was uncomfortable to me. To make matters worse, I did not yet “pass” as male, and men in public would sometimes try to direct me to the women’s room. The easiest way to ensure everyone can feel safe using a restroom is to have access to single-occupancy nongendered facilities. Unfortunately, these are not common. In some cases, like at my school, a simple change of signage to relabel gendered single-occupancy restrooms as “all gender” is a quick and simple solution that shows commitment to inclusion and accessibility for transgender employees. All new construction plans should include such facilities. When single-occupancy restrooms are not available, a multistall restroom, where stalls ensure privacy for all users, can be marked as “all gender.” As a nonbinary person, I deeply appreciate access to “all-gender” restrooms. However, for many binary transgender individuals, being forced to use an “all-gender” restroom is discriminatory, and access to the restroom corresponding to their gender identity is preferred. This comes down to protection within school/institution policy and applicable law. As such, it is critical that our allies and colleagues contribute signatures, votes and other support to ensuring these rights are guaranteed.
All of these things created a difficult, and sometimes hostile, environment for me as a transgender individual. Other things impacted my studies and work as a Ph.D. student more directly. Research has shown that having role models with the same identity leads to increases in academic success of students. Two years ago, when I came out as the first transgender person in my graduate program, I had never heard of or met another transgender scientist, and neither had anyone else I knew. The visibility of LGBT people in STEM is still incredibly low. In fact, formal national surveys, such as the National Institutes for Health and National Science Foundation surveys only quantify numbers of women, people with disabilities and ethnic minorities, but not LGBT people. This lack of inclusion in demographics has a profound effect on visibility and efforts to increase equity and inclusion.
On my first attempt to apply for funding, an NIH F31 grant, I was looking at the funding mechanisms and I discovered the F31 diversity grants directed towards “underrepresented” groups. As a nonbinary person, I knew my gender was in the minority of representation, so I reached out to ask about eligibility. I was told that because there are no official demographic statistics on LGBTQ+ identities, that these identities are not considered underrepresented. As far as the NIH demographics are concerned, these groups simply do not exist. Recognizing sexual orientation and gender identity in formal demographics is the critical first step in improving visibility and representation in STEM.
As approximately 1 percent of the world population, transgender (and gender-diverse) individuals are a minority, but we don’t have to be invisible. So, this June, during this month dedicated to celebrating LGBTQ+ identities. I am making myself visible and raising my voice for those who can’t.
How are you being an ally to your LGBT+ students and colleagues? Please let us know in the comments below.
Emery D. Haley is a Ph.D. candidate in molecular and cellular biology at Van Andel Institute Graduate School, where they are involved in science outreach and diversity activism. You can find them on Twitter @EmeryHaley2 or on LinkedIn.