Highlighting different experiences in palaeontology. This issue’s palaeontologist, Catherine Strickson (Liverpool John Moores University), discusses being trans in academia.
What does it mean to be a woman? Have you had the surgery? What even is non-binary? Isn’t the singular ‘they’ grammatically incorrect?
While many cis (not transgender) people are eager to go out of their way to learn about and show support to transgender colleagues, attempts to have a fruitful discussion about the issues trans people have in academia are often stymied by barrages of lines of questioning that are at best unproductive, and at worst, profoundly offensive. The above is a small selection of the questions that we are often left having to answer in lieu of talking about real issues affecting trans people in our field – such as harassment, assault, healthcare and safety concerns when travelling. It is difficult to have productive conversations about improving the safety and comfort of trans and gender non-conforming people in science, when we are left to essentially defend ourselves from ignorance, misunderstanding and loaded rhetoric posed against us by the media and certain politicians and regimes. It is exhausting to have discussions of diversity and intersectionality when so many even well-meaning members of our community enter these discussions unwilling to hear our voices, treating trans and non-binary colleagues as a curiosity, or even a subject of intense debate, rather than as human beings with emotions, ambitions and value outside of our gender.
The existence of trans and non-binary people is not up for debate. Our existence is well-documented. Nor are we a recent phenomenon. Elagabalus predates Caitlyn Jenner by almost two thousand years1. The fact that we are now out of the shadows and in the public imaginary might seem like a shock to many, but this is no reason to dismiss our concerns, or worse, our personhoods. The media backlash to our newfound visibility is harsh and unrelenting, especially in the UK, where media outlets on all sides of the political spectrum have a record of publishing barefacedly transphobic articles, ignoring their author’s links to far-right organisations in the US 2, 3, 4. As scientists we need to do better than to listen to these hit pieces, but we cannot improve if we are not listening to trans and non-binary people, as we should be listening to all marginalised groups, and looking for solutions to roadblocks to their inclusion on both an individual and an institutional level.
One such roadblock is simply medical access and leave. Trans people who pursue medical transition (use of hormones, or surgeries, for example) are in a prime position to face major disadvantages from medical insurance, lack thereof, and from a lack of adequate provisions for medical leave 5,6,7,8. Living in the UK, the National Health Service covers much of the cost of my healthcare, yet when seeking leave for major surgery during my PhD, I was left to pay for rent, food and other expenses out of pocket. Waiting lists for trans healthcare and surgery are long, often multiple years, and postponing could result in going to the back of the queue9. Given the dire financial situation of most PhD students, this is a major concern. Indeed, when complications followed with an urgent need for further hospitalisation, those stays were not accompanied by medical leave. I simply could not afford it. And all that eats into the quality and quantity of research that can be done within a tight time period. In the US, I likely would have had to pay for that surgery itself out of pocket, to the tune of possibly tens of thousands of dollars.
As with other people who are reliant on medical care and regular access to medicine, trans people can be knocked into precarious financial circumstances rapidly, risking having to drop out of study entirely just to keep afloat. If we are to retain a more diverse set of academics, we need safety nets in place for these emergencies. These risks are heightened in countries without adequate access to healthcare, but even in countries where health care is seen as a right, trans patients have been known to face abuse and neglect from medical professionals once their trans status is revealed 7,8,10. This speaks to the direst issue at hand here: lack of safety even in places which for most people would be safe environments. In the US, there are still many states where ‘trans panic’ is a valid legal defence – here murderers of trans people can get off without charge11. Anti-LGBT+ laws are commonplace throughout the world, and being perceived as, or revealed to be transgender can be a death sentence. The safety of trans and non-binary people should be first and foremost on the minds of academics when speaking of us. How do we keep our colleagues and friends safe? What arrangements can be made to make fieldwork in dangerous countries more secure? How do we make sure they have adequate healthcare provisions? How do we make sure any inconsistencies with name, title and gender markers do not make life difficult or even dangerous? We need to move past the fascination with trans people as set dressing, and start addressing very real safety and social concerns. No good comes from patting oneself on the back for inviting a trans person to speak when that trans person could be facing real and tangible harm from lack of social, financial, bureaucratic and medical support.
Extending a hand is a great first step. The next is not shaking our hands, but helping us up from the ground.