Trans Day Of Visibility in STEM: How to Be a Better Ally to Transgender and Non-Binary People in Workplaces

March 26, 2021
International Transgender Day of Visibility is an annual event occurring on March 31 dedicated to celebrating transgender people and raising awareness of discrimination faced by transgender people worldwide, as well as a celebration of their contributions to society. Find out more information here.
Mily Mumford

Written by: Mily Mumford

When I was first training at my job as an astronomy educator a couple years ago at the HR Macmillan Space Centre, I distinctly remember learning how to demonstrate a space toilet. In one of the science demonstration shows, we have a very entertaining International Space Station module, which includes a to-scale model of the type of toilets astronauts use on the station (complete with suction sound effects) which obviously goes over very well with the kids who visit the centre. When teaching me the presentation, my (cisgender, or, a person whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex) co-worker said, “And then you can show them how for the urine collection vacuum, there is one shape for girls and one shape for boys.” I stared at them blankly. They had learned this presentation from co-workers before them, and it had always been how it had been framed. I asked, “But what about trans people?”

They stopped dead. “I never thought of that.” I then suggested we could turn it into a comedy beat (as I am often liable to do) and say, “And we have a vaccum shaped like this, and a vaccum shaped like this, you know, depending on what you have down there.” I adopted this new way of demonstrating the space toilet, and some of my co-workers followed suit. It was a seemingly minor change, but to me it was such a simple way of making the show that much more trans inclusive as genitalia does not equal gender.

In 2019, the Trans PULSE Canada Project surveyed 2873 trans and non-binary people (25% men, 25% women, 53% non-binary, 2% two-spirit) to try to learn more about the issues transgender people face in Canada. Mental health and employment, as well as comfort in public spaces, showed significant challenges. It showed that even though overall trans people are a highly educated demographic, with half of the respondents having at least one university degree, half above 25 had a personal income of less than $30,000/year. 56% of the respondents rated their mental health as fair or poor and one third had considered suicide within the past year. When presented with 14 different types of public spaces, 64% reported avoiding three or more types of spaces to avoid harassment, and only 16% said they didn’t avoid any type of public space.

Transgender scientists and STEM professionals specifically have reported many issues in their places of work. A study by the Institute of Physics, Royal Astronomical Society and Royal Society of Chemistry, surveyed over 1000 UK-based scientists, and half the trans and non-binary scientists said they had considered leaving or had left workplaces because of discrimination.

Source: YouTube

I have, as a scientist and science communicator (and the Research Coordinator for WWEST), just begun my journey of being openly non-binary and transgender in my workplaces, as someone who has questioned and struggled with my gender my entire life, but only recently came out as non-binary. People have asked me (and I do not recommend you do the same) how I “know” that I’m non-binary. How do I suddenly know I am something, at this point in my life as an adult? My now go-to response is, “Well, I have red hair. Imagine your whole life having red hair but people only had language for blond hair and dark hair. You knew you were different but didn’t know quite how. And then one day, someone introduced you to the words and concept ‘red hair’ and you realized there was a way you could describe yourself you didn’t have before. That’s what it feels like to me.”

An article in Nature, published in 2020, interviewed several LGBT+ scientists about how they felt they could make their workplaces more supportive of people like them. Hontas Farmer, a Black trans woman who is a theoretical physicist and lecturer at Elmhurst University spoke about her experiences teaching at a university saying, “Not everyone under 25 is liberal. Some students expect to see an LGBT+ person teaching gender studies but not Newton’s Laws…if too few students sign up for your classes, the course gets cancelled and you don’t have a job. This is why it is important for institutions to make space for conversations about how student biases can affect LGBT+ teachers.” Micah Savin, a two-spirit Ph.D candidate in clinical neuropsychology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai talked about the importance of pronoun use and practice, saying, “I have made recommendations to departments and institutions about wearing pronouns on work name tags or badges, or adding pronouns to e-mail signatures, but often they are adopted only at lower levels of power, not by the physicians or heads of departments…every time you misgender me you are saying, ‘This space isn’t created for you. I don’t see you as yourself.’” 

In my own personal experience, being trans, being non-binary, often does still feel like a strange, in-between place, even in spaces that are more supportive. As someone with white and cis-passing privilege I have been fortunate enough to have not experienced outright physical or verbal violence because of the way I look or move in the world. (“Passing” is when a trans person is perceived as cisgender.) However, many trans people do not have that privilege. But even with this privilege, most days I feel like I am met with subtle or outright messages that I don’t belong, or there isn’t a place for me. I work for a (wonderful) organization called Westcoast Women in Science, Engineering and Technology. I am not a woman. I am often applying for conferences and in my creative life, film festivals that do, in their fine print, say that non-binary applicants are welcome and encouraged but their titles still begin with “Women in…” I am part of many communities for “Womxn” but including that “x” doesn’t actually make me feel more included as someone who is not a woman, but non-binary. And for those who claim the “x” is to include trans women, this also doesn’t make sense because there is already a great all-encompassing word for both cis and trans women, and it is just women. When I work up the courage to correct people when they misgender me (it is still a process, and one I don’t always have energy for), in the best situations people correct themselves and move on with the conversation without comment, but more likely than not I am met with comments like, “Oh, sorry you don’t look non-binary,” or rolled eyes, or sometimes even “fun” monologues about how difficult it is to remember or use gender neutral pronouns or how people just don’t see them as important.

My perspective is if you are a cisgender person, you don’t get to decide what pronouns people use. And you shouldn’t comment on whether they are “important” or “easy” or not. If you actually want to be supportive of trans and non-binary people in your personal and work lives, not only will you use the pronouns and descriptive language people tell you are theirs without making it about you, if you make a mistake (which is fine! It happens!) you will correct yourself and move on. When you do this, you show that you accept someone as their true selves. You show that you are respecting that person.

I am by far not an expert on how to makes spaces more trans-friendly. And different approaches will make different people feel more comfortable. I can only offer my own experiences as a trans and non-binary person.

There are many ways people can be more supportive of the trans people in their lives. Here are some ideas:

  1. Pronouns are a great way to start. Having pronouns in your email signature, asking for/including pronouns in introduction rounds, as cisgender people not only make this a “normal” process in workspaces, but it takes the pressure away from people who are trans who might get misgendered to feel like they are “outing” themselves by being the only one introducing themselves with their pronouns. 
  2. If someone uses the wrong pronoun or misgenders a co-worker or friend in another way, correct that person. It can be a relief to have someone else do that work of correcting for you. 
  3. Don’t assume someone’s gender when you first meet them. Ask for pronouns. 
  4. Start using gender neutral language when addressing groups (for example, instead of ladies and gentlemen, use “everybody,” or if it feels right, “folks” is lovely and less of a mouthful). 
  5. Don’t say things such as, “Well, Annie ‘identifies’ as a woman.” Annie is a woman. Or, “Nik ‘identifies’ as non-binary.” Nik is non-binary. 
  6. Explore if there are gender neutral washrooms at your workplace - if not, is there a way to change signage or layouts to make one? 
  7. Please don’t ask people personal invasive questions such as, "Well, what were you born as?” I was born non-binary, I just didn’t realize it yet. Or, “Have you had a surgery?” Or, “But what do you have, you know, down there?” It doesn’t matter. 

Trans people exist, we are valid, we are your co-workers and friends, and should the opportunity arise, we will figure out for ourselves which attachment we should use on a space toilet.

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Check out our past blog post about Transgender Day of Visibility in STEM.