A constant uneasy state: Trans people in STEM in India

Issues of trans gender, gender non-binary and gender-conforming people in science in India are compounded by the heavily gender-segregated nature of most Indian campuses. When the engagement with sex, gender and sexuality is lesser, the scrutiny is heightened.

By Sayantan Datta

Trigger warnings (TWs): Mentions of harassment, abuse and transphobic instances

Anasuith P. Pridhvish is met with a dilemma every time she has to go to her department on the eighth floor of a private university in Bangalore: The elevators she has to use are marked either exclusively for “gents” or “ladies”. As a transgender womxn, she does not feel comfortable using the elevator for gents but doesn’t have an option to use the female one either. She, therefore, has to take the stairs. “I am not always in the best of my health to do that every day,” she remarks, as she tells me of how this restricts her access to gender-segregated spaces on campus.

Anasuith’s experiences resonate with what a small but growing community of transgender (trans), gender non-conforming (GNC) and gender non-binary (GNB) people in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines face. Science institutions, universities and bodies are only now warming up to the idea of inclusivity in science, and the discourses on discrimination, equal representation, diversity and inclusion in STEM disciplines are still limited to cisgender women. To the best of my knowledge, there has been no study in India that has attempted to gauge the number of trans, GNC and GNB people in STEM, see what keeps them from pursuing a career in STEM, and propose how the situation could be made better. Trans, GNC and GNB people in STEM, therefore, live largely in oblivion; and the lack of supportive systems, affirmative action, mentors and role models keeps younger trans, GNC and GNB people from coming to STEM.

The discourses on discrimination, equal representation, diversity and inclusion in STEM disciplines are still limited to cisgender women.

I conducted a small survey to probe the issue further. I had the following key goals in mind: a) what are the problems faced by trans, GNC and GNB people in STEM? b) what keeps trans, GNC and GNB people from continuing a career in science, and c) how can one make the situation better. I received 15 responses from self-identified trans, GNC and GNB people in science. Most of my respondents were young students and early-career researchers from both public and private institutions. I also received responses from a few veteran voices from STEM. Along with the data from this survey, I also conducted two detailed interviews with trans-identifying STEM students. This report shall combine the data from the above-mentioned sources. And along with my own experiences of being a queer-trans persxn in science, it shall delve deep into understanding the issues faced by trans, GNC and GNB individuals in STEM.

The pretense of objectivity and productivity

“People say that science only cares about the work you do; nothing else really matters,” says Abigail Silversmith Irfan, a non-binary transwomxn and an undergraduate student of physics, “but, that is not correct. We do science with and around people, who have their own biases and privileges”. Abigail’s words are a constant reminder of how under the facade of objectivity and productivity, STEM disciplines choose to disengage (and often perpetrate) systems of discrimination and oppression. For trans, GNC and GNB people in STEM, the situation is worse than their cis-colleagues.

From the responses that I received, three major categories of issues emerge. They are a) issues concerning mobility in and accessibility of institutional spaces, b) issues concerning harassment and abuse (of both sexual and non-sexual nature) and c) issues concerning mental health.

Being transgender, GNC or GNB leads to lesser mobility and lesser access to various spaces on campus. One of the reasons for this is that campuses in India are heavily gender-segregated. Hostels and washrooms, two places essential to students on campus, are segregated based on a binary understanding of gender. Krish N, a science student mentions, “As a non-binary and genderfluid person, I find it really difficult to “choose” between binary options be it lavatories, hostels or when filling a form. I don’t feel comfortable in spaces exclusive for my assigned gender at birth. Obviously I wouldn’t be allowed to use spaces reserved for the other genders. Any situation, where we will be asked to segregate on the basis of binary gender, is an uneasy state.”

A lot of transgender, GNC and GNB people feel a varying degree of gender dysphoria that can get worse in gender-segregated spaces.  Many a time we have to stay in and use hostels and washrooms that do not align with the gender that we identify with. As Abigail recounts, “I had gone to the administration with an application requesting them to allow me to use the washrooms that aligned with my preferred gender identity. They immediately rejected my plea.” For Anasuith, this segregation has extended to even the university fest: “I do not attend the university fest.” Even for self-identifying trans, GNC and GNB who do not report dysphoria, having to use washrooms and to live in hostels that do not align with our preferred gender identity cause severe distress and discomfort. Having lived in a men’s hostel of the University of Hyderabad, I, as a visibly transfeminine individual, was constantly under the fear of being abused, bullied or harassed by the prevalent hypermasculine environment in the hostel.

I had gone to the administration with an application requesting them to allow me to use the washrooms that aligned with my preferred gender identity. They immediately rejected my plea.

Respondents also record instances of increased scrutiny and lesser privacy on campuses. Vidya, a science faculty recounts how they were under a lot of distress during their student days due to increased scrutiny: “Every single time I had a haircut, one of the staff members insisted on making it a huge deal and commenting on how I looked identical to a male batchmate.” Issues of scrutiny and privacy are also intricately linked to issues of access. As Akasamitra, a researcher, mentions, “male washrooms had (have) low privacy since most doors were broken and couldn’t be closed.” Transgender, GNC and GNB people who do not conform to social expectations of how they should look are often victims of increased scrutiny and devious curiosity in campuses. In STEM campuses, where the engagement with sex, gender and sexuality is lesser, this scrutiny is manifold more.

The first elephant in the room: Harassment and abuse

Most respondents recount being harassed and abused multiple times in their places of study/work. The range of harassment and abuse varies from being ridiculed, deadnamed and ostracised to sexual harassment and abuse.

Perse, a science graduate student share their experience of being ridiculed by their supervisor: “My guide made fun of me when I was wearing a dress robe, and it has stuck out like a bad memory. I don’t [just] feel comfortable wearing dresses, I feel like myself in them. I quite literally lie about myself to get through the day.” Perse’s experience resonates with many of our experiences in STEM spaces, where we are often met with zero respect for our identities, choices and preferences. Other respondents also mention instances of bullying and mockery (both public and private). For example, Anasuith tells me, “The only time LGBTQIA+ topics come into our discussions is for mockery. This, in a way, feels like indirect bullying/aggression and might also be the reason why no one comes out as queer at my university. This has also negatively affected my mental health leading to inconsistent work.”

The other issue that contributes to harassment and abuse of trans, GNC and GNB people in STEM spaces is the fact that their cis-heterosexual colleagues rarely respect their preferred names and pronouns. Quite unsurprisingly, this issue exists at all levels, from students to faculty. Tashi, a psychology student, mentions, “It generally makes me anxious in a new group of people to continuously keep asserting my gender identity, even though everyone is kind and nice.”

The issue of names for trans, GNC and GNB people is even more complex than it seems. Since a lot of us go by names that are different from our names assigned at birth, we run into various problems. Trans, GNC and GNB can choose to go by a different name from their name assigned at birth at any stage in their lives, but this has severe implications on their professional careers. The currency of transacting in academia in general and STEM disciplines, in particular, are degrees and publications. Someone who may have decided to change their name post-publication or post-degree often run the risk of losing academic credibility. In this regard, Bittu Rajaraman, an associate professor of biology and psychology at Ashoka University, tells me, “We need regulations enabling people to transition without losing legitimate connection to degrees/publications attached with their past names.”

The only time LGBTQIA+ topics come into our discussions is for mockery. This, in a way, feels like indirect bullying/aggression and might also be the reason why no one comes out as queer at my university.

While I will not go into the extremely triggering details of the kind of sexual harassment and abuse that trans, GNC and GNB people in STEM institutions face, it is worth noting what happens when a trans, GNC and/or GNB persxn is sexually harassed or abused. Although about 80% of respondents confirmed that their institutes had a dedicated institutional body to deal with complaints of sexual harassment and abuse, only two reported that these bodies were capable of dealing with sexual harassment against trans, GNC and GNB persxns. These bodies against sexual harassment and abuse often only have cisgender members who fail to identify the subtle nuances of sexual harassment that trans, GNC and GNB people face on campuses. Moreover, the people in these bodies/committees do not have adequate training to sensitively handle cases of sexual harassment against trans, GNC and GNB people. Respondents also mentioned their hesitation in approaching these committees because of the above-mentioned reasons.

The second elephant in the room: Mental health

Anasuith says, “I have bunked many classes because I couldn’t drag myself mentally to enter these (STEM classroom) spaces that see your gender as a mental illness. Some days I say to myself that I am privileged enough to have (access to) these places. But other days it’s simply impossible.” It is no wonder that trans, GNC and GNB people facing marginalisation have to often live double-lives, and deal with several mental health issues. Along with these, they also have to deal with the extreme pressure and competition within STEM disciplines.

Although all respondents mention that their institutes and universities have mental health practitioners, they also highlighted a variety of problems with the in-house practitioners. For example, most respondents feel that the mental-health practitioners are not sensitive to issues of queer-trans people. Moreover, the services of these practitioners are sometimes not free. Some respondents highlight the breaching of anonymity by these practitioners. Often transphobic parents/guardians or higher authorities in the institutions get involved in their proceedings. All these reasons combined together lead to trans, GNC and GNB people in STEM institutions not approaching these in-house practitioners.

How then do we make mental healthcare in STEM institutions more accessible and beneficial for trans, GNC and GNB people? The first step seems to be to appoint queer-empathetic and -sensitive mental health practitioners whose services can be accessed for free. Along with this, it is also important to ensure that anonymity of the people accessing these services is not breached, since a lot of trans, GNC and GNB people might not be publicly out. Moreover, institutions should offer financial help that would enable trans, GNC and GNB people, to access mental healthcare from practitioners outside institutes. Ideally, it would be great if the in-house practitioners can also help trans, GNC and GNB people in the institution with their gender identity certificates and prerequisites to transition, but that definitely looks like a very long shot in the current Indian STEM climate.

Ideally, it would be great if the in-house practitioners can also help trans, GNC and GNB people in the institution with their gender identity certificates and prerequisites to transition.

The third elephant in the room: Policy

When the supreme court of India gave its verdict on the NALSA vs. Union of India case in 2013 (popularly called the NALSA judgement), people identifying as transgender, GNC and GNB saw some light of hope. The judgement not only let trans, GNC and GNB people self-identify, but also instructed the central and state governments to take steps towards the emancipation of trans, GNC and GNB people. However, even after seven years of the NALSA judgement, not much has changed.

The transgender persons (protection of rights) act 2019 remains largely silent and vague on issues of education. To quote from the act, the act mandates that “Every educational institution funded or recognised by the appropriate government shall provide inclusive education and opportunities for sports, recreation and leisure activities to transgender persons without discrimination on an equal basis with others.” The act does not go ahead and explain what “inclusive education” might mean, and how can governments and institutions achieve the same.

I looked into the national education policy 2020 (NEP 2020) for answers. The NEP 2020 acknowledges that transgender individuals fall in the category of socio-economically disadvantaged groups (SEDGs). Subsection 6.8 of the NEP2020 states, “In addition, the Government of India will constitute a ‘Gender-Inclusion Fund’ to build the nation’s capacity to provide equitable quality education for all girls as well as transgender students. The fund will be available to states to implement priorities determined by the central government critical for assisting female and transgender children in gaining access to education (such as the provisions of sanitation and toilets, bicycles, conditional cash transfers, etc.); funds will also enable states to support and scale effective community-based interventions that address local context-specific barriers to female and transgender children’s access to and participation in education.” There are a few problems with this: firstly, I am not sure when would the central government prioritise education for transgender persons. Moreover, bringing cisgender girls and transgender people in the same box leaves us with the possibility of lesser funds being used for the emancipation of transgender students. Also, issues faced by trans, GNC and GNB people face issues are often quite different from those faced by cis-girls and women. It remains to be seen how the NEP 2020 would empower trans, GNC and GNB people to continue education, and specifically, pursue a career in STEM.

At the level of institutions, it is no wonder that most STEM institutions do not have gender policies in place that mandate the institutions to take affirmative action to include more trans, GNC and GNB people in the journey of STEM.

Bringing cisgender girls and transgender people in the same box leaves us with the possibility of lesser funds being used for the emancipation of transgender students.

What is of immediate urgency is that STEM bodies like the academies, institutes and universities take cognizance of their poor inclusivity and work towards alleviating these issues. However, while the first step in bringing about a change is always acknowledging that there is a problem, I asked my respondents about what policy-level changes would enable them to pursue a career in STEM. The suggestions were all around the ideas of affirmative action, i.e., active steps from institutions and bodies to attract, include and retain trans, GNC and GNB people in STEM. Some of the suggestions are below:

  1. Fees concessions, reservations, and remedial classes: Since trans, GNC and GNB people often do not have access to money or other privileges that their cis colleagues have, it is imperative that they are systemically and systematically excluded very early on in the “STEM-race”. Fees concessions, reservations and remedial classes would allow for bridging the gap between those with privileges of funds, family support, high-quality childhood education etc. and those who do not.
  2. Compulsory gender sensitisation workshops for ALL members of the institute/university: Gender sensitisation can be done either by workshops or compulsory courses in the curriculum. This would lead to a holistic trans-friendly atmosphere in STEM institutes and also start conversations surrounding sex, gender and sexuality.
  3. Promoting and creating gender-neutral washrooms, hostels and other spaces on campus: These shall ensure that trans, GNC and GNB people do not have to conform to a gender performance that they do not feel comfortable with. This will also create safe spaces for trans, GNC and GNB people.
  4. Trans-affirmative gender policies and anti-sexual harassment policies: These would act as the guiding frameworks ensuring that no trans, GNC or GNB person in these institutions and bodies are excluded or harassed. Having such policies in place contributes to making an institution inclusive and also act as formal systems of support for trans, GNC and GNB people with grievances.

One can only hope that more voices of resistance from within and outside STEM will emerge and push the boundaries of what is acceptable in the name of inclusivity in STEM spaces.

Note: This reportage is a part of season 5 of TheLifeofScience.com, which is supported by a grant from DBT/Wellcome Trust India Alliance. An earlier version of this article was published first on FirstPost. The cover art is by Ipsa Jain.

By TLoS Team | Published on Nov 9, 2020 in Views