What I wish people understood
about being a trans scientist

Published October 01 2019

Every morning I wake up wondering: How many times will I be misgendered today? How many times will people call me something I am not? How many times will I be called a girl? How many times will I have to correct people awkwardly when they say “she” instead of using “they”?

How many times will my identity be invalidated today?

I’ve been out as a queer, nonbinary trans person for almost two years. I realized I was nonbinary my senior year of undergrad and came out my first year of graduate school in a place where there were no other trans people for support and very few LGBTQ people. My entire life I have dreamed of being a scientist, exploring the world and spending my time learning. Being nonbinary has changed many of my interactions within science and academia. Coming out as a trans scientist immediately isolated me and made the simplest tasks hostile and full of fear. A day in the lab wasn’t just spent learning and working but also questioning how much invalidation I would endure.

Questions of identity and identity invalidation plague many members of the trans community. I know I’m not alone. Many of us are scared and have to spend time assessing if a space is safe before we enter it, trying to determine if we are welcome. But being a trans scientist seems to make these questions more common.

Academia lags far behind in becoming an inclusive environment for many marginalized communities, but there is a particular isolation that comes with being a trans nonbinary scientist. I look around my institution and I don’t think I can name more than one other transgender individual working as a scientist. I certainly can’t name a trans member of the faculty. In my entire Ph.D. training, I will never have a mentor who shares my identity and my experiences.

And that is one of the most isolating truths that I have to endure every day.

Most of the faculty and students I work with still struggle to use my pronouns (they/them) on a regular basis. On top of my normal lab duties, grant writing and planning for qualifying exams, I have to go through each day being beaten down and invalidated. People I’ve met many times refer to me in emails as “she” and “her.” On an average day, at least five people will misgender me (if not more). I don’t always have enough energy to correct them. If my day is filled with meetings, by afternoon I’ve had to affirm my gender in my head about 30 times after others have projected an incorrect gender on me. I try to spend most of my time in the safe haven of my lab or my desk. At least the cells I’m culturing won’t misgender me; at least the few people in my lab understand and make an effort to use my correct pronouns.

I experience gender dysphoria if I go out in public without binding my chest, but then some days I have to stay home because my body is sore from binding my chest, and it is too dysphoric for me to go out in public without wearing my binder. I’m not trying to skip out on being productive, but this is difficult for me to explain to my colleagues. I feel tired and degraded, and all of this affects my ability to do science. While most graduate students are worrying about their Western blots or their qualifying exams, I’m also worrying about whether insurance will cover the services I need, gritting my teeth at having to gender myself on forms and struggling to breathe in my chest binder.

I also question my safety. In bathrooms I get yelled at or catch people giving me side eye. I have to remember where the nearest gender-neutral bathroom is on campus; there isn’t one on any of the research floors in my building. Walking around the city or in the halls of my institution, people stare at me. I hear cat calls and slurs from passing cars.

Every time I reach out to someone to start a new collaboration or get advice on a project, I wonder if they will refuse to work with me because I am trans. Will my science be impeded because someone believes that I shouldn’t exist? It’s a fear that I have to live with constantly, every time that I branch out and meet someone new. I have yet to experience this level of discrimination, but when I see headlines every day about another trans person being shot or courtrooms determining whether my identity exists, it keeps the fear alive in the back of my head.

The idea of presenting my work at a conference is both thrilling and terrifying, because there’s a good chance I’ll be the only trans person there — the only person who has scratched their pronouns on their name badge. I wonder if people will judge my science differently because of my identity.

Existing as a trans scientist means compartmentalizing that fear whenever I meet new people, hoping and praying that I won’t have to answer dehumanizing questions like “When is the surgery?” or “Are you a boy or a girl?” or “Why does it matter if I use they/them when referring to you?”

Being a trans person in science means bearing the weight of ignorance. I work overtime to advocate for myself at my institution. I’m trying to teach my department and institution how to create an environment that is safe for me and other trans people. I find myself doing an incredible amount of uncompensated work with the diversity departments in my institution just because of my trans identity.

Some days, being a trans Ph.D. student feels like getting an education in hard mode.

Despite all this, I am incredibly proud of my identity. I am loud and outspoken about being nonbinary and trans. Coming out turned me into a more confident person, and I really enjoy the person that I have become. I am more comfortable in my own skin than I have ever been. I can dress in the way that I feel comfortable, and I have become less apologetic about doing so. I like to wear T-shirts that say things like “Nonbinary Icon” or “No TERFs” (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) because I feel affirmed in my gender and my beliefs. Unfortunately, being out and proud as a trans person comes with the baggage of misgendering and discrimination. That’s the price I have to pay to be myself.

With the confidence of feeling comfortable in my own skin, I have improved my speaking skills, and I am more willing to be a champion and speak for those LGBTQ people who aren’t out or aren’t comfortable speaking out against the injustices in STEM. Being isolated from my graduate school peers makes me want to work harder to be the nonbinary mentor in science that I’ve never had.

I am connected to many LGBTQ scientists through Twitter. They have helped me navigate some of the ins and outs of being trans in science and commiserated with me about identity-related pressures that pile up on my already stressful plate as a Ph.D. candidate. We’ve discussed what it’s like to have to come out every time I meet someone new in school — or decide whether coming out is the smart thing to do. In addition to relating to another trans person about day-to-day struggles, it’s incredible to be affirmed and see that other trans scientists are doing wonderful work. I don’t get to see them doing their science in person, but Twitter helps me feel less isolated.

I am proud to be a trans nonbinary scientist. Despite the difficulty and isolation, I will continue to be myself in every way. Some days are better than others; I don’t always have the support of allies around me. But I will never be able to do science successfully if I don’t put every ounce of my own identity forward. To push the forefront of science to be more inclusive and diverse, I must make academia a better place for up-and-coming trans scientists.

My name is TL Jordan. I am trans. I am nonbinary. And I am proud of who I am.

TL Jordan TL Jordan is a predoctoral student at the Mayo Clinic and an ASBMB Advocacy Training Program delegate. Follow them on Twitter.