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STEM and LGBTQA+ identities

Monologues on self-expression, facing discrimination and finding a sense of community.| Medium Read

In honor of the 2020 Day of Silence, three Michigan Engineers are sharing monologues on the intersectionalities between STEM and LGBTQA+ identities. Based on speeches they gave at EnginTalks last December, these stories come from members of our engineering community who believe in equality and inclusivity for all in engineering. 

It’s not about the clothes

Cate Sullivan, nuclear engineering and radiological sciences undergraduate student

The summer my sister went away to college, each night, I would swallow my fear and throw on a dress or a blouse of hers for a while. I wasn’t admiring how beautifully they highlighted the features of my male body. (They didn’t.) I was pretending that the clothes fit who I was. I felt that dresses were right for me, but I longed to be right for dresses, whatever that meant. Still, the clothes chased away the crushing, smothering feeling I didn’t have words for, and so I wore them in secret whenever possible. 

Seven months later, I finally was able to come out of the closet publicly and get my own girls clothes. I felt deeply satisfied by people knowing me as a woman, but I was surprisingly neutral to the clothes. Sure, I liked how some of them looked, but they didn’t give me that feeling of everything just being right like they had before. It wasn’t until much later that I connected the dots. 

It was never about the clothes at all. It was about discovering what it meant to be me. In the absence of society knowing me as a woman, my sister’s clothes on my body were the lone message I had that I truly am a woman against a thousand messages of disagreement. 

Well, it’s not quite that simple. The clothes themselves weren’t directly making me happy, but it still hurt when people mistook me for a man. Without long hair and girls clothes, nearly everyone would see me as a man, and I’d be at the mercy of people choosing to be nice to me to ever be treated as a woman. 

At face value that makes a bit of sense. You can’t expect everyone to be able to know each other’s gender out of nowhere, so why not just keep the system? Just let “normal” people keep doing what they’re doing, and have trans people change their clothes and hair when they announce they’re switching gender presentation. 

But that’s kinda weird, right? Like that’s literally people changing the way they treat you based on whether the fabric covering your body is curvy or boxy, or whether the hair on your head ends at the ear or at the shoulder. 

That’s weird enough when people choose to fit in, but what about when people don’t? I happen to like having long hair and no stubble, but what if I didn’t? Would you still call me a woman? What if we don’t have a social role for someone that we can tell from their clothes? You can’t just look at someone and know if they’re nonbinary or just like that style. Things hardly make sense within this binary of men and women, but the moment someone doesn’t want to fit within it, it falls apart entirely.

That’s what this whole deal around pronouns is about. There are very few times you actually need to know someone’s gender, as weird as it may feel to not know. However, in English, we have gendered pronouns, and so people share their pronouns when they introduce themselves. 

Affirming clothes are cool, but they really aren’t central to the idea of gender. It’s not about the clothes, or the hair, or the voice. It’s about moving away from treating people as men or women and moving towards treating people as people.

Community

Shannon Clancy, mechanical engineering graduate student

The most defining experience I had as an undergraduate engineering student was my time in the Center for Women in Technology (CWIT) scholars program. It is a program committed to increasing the representation of women and minorities in engineering and IT fields. Anyone at University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) could be a part of this program no matter their gender, as long as they believed in our mission. 

To me, CWIT is a community. A community of people that support each other and challenge each other and cry with each other. I connected with faculty, students, and engineering professionals who were advocates of our mission in their everyday teaching, engineering work, and interactions with others. CWIT is the reason for my success throughout my undergraduate program. Enough at least to be awarded an PhD fellowship in mechanical engineering here at U-M. 

And I don’t say this as a way to talk about my undergraduate experience or the CWIT program, but the four years I spent with the people in CWIT completely shaped my engineering experience. They are people who told me I could keep going even when I was so tired of the grind. They were the people who stayed up with me until 2 a.m. to help me understand and finish my machine design project. They were the people I told my fears of not being good enough, not being smart enough. I vented and cried to them whenever I was frustrated by classes, professors, male colleagues, or just life in general. 

The point I’m trying to make is this: by having this community at UMBC and moving forward, I feel empowered and motivated to be a great engineer and accomplish my goals of being a mentor for other female and LGBTQ engineering students. But community doesn’t naturally come without the everyday little things that matter in such a big way to students like us. It takes work, and courage, and empathy. It takes strength to speak up when a male student talks over or dismisses his female group members. It takes courage to have a conversation with a student about misgendering another student in a lecture. It takes energy to explain why my perspective and why my voice as a gay woman matters in an engineering context to someone. 

But it’s important and necessary to do these things. It’s important to learn from each other and improve our mindset about each other. Community comes from truly listening to each other, putting in the effort to understand why they are feeling the way they do, and doing small everyday actions to help make sure each person feels included and heard. It makes all the difference.

Experiences of a genderqueer professor of engineering

Ann Jeffers, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering

When I came out as lesbian nearly 20 years ago, there were only two ways to describe gender identity: lesbians were either butch or femme. I knew that I wasn’t feminine enough to be femme, but butch sounded too gruff to describe me. 

Nowadays, gender is described on a continuum, with masculine and feminine being at the far ends, and genderqueer being a term that describes someone in between. I am genderqueer. I am a woman who possesses characteristics of both genders. I am in between. My pronouns are she/her, but I am both masculine and feminine.

All my life, I have been this way. I acquired the nickname “tomboy” from nearly everyone I knew when I was little. But it wasn’t long before I received negative feedback from my peers for being different. When I was around nine or 10 years old, a boy at summer camp took issue with the fact that I was a girl who looked and dressed like a boy. He gave me the nickname “shim,” which was supposed to be a cross between “she” and “him,” and he repeatedly made fun of me.

From then on, I have struggled with the fact that I don’t fit the mold of either woman or man, but in the end I have accepted that I am who I was always meant to be. 

So you might be wondering how being genderqueer affects my career as an engineering professor. Well, I am not very good at reading people, so my guess is that there are probably some who treat me differently but I am too aloof to notice. My experience is probably best described as that of any woman in engineering. I have been disadvantaged in many instances, I have a high service load, and I have even experienced sexual and gender-based harassment. 

There is only one particular instance I can think of when I received the bonus that my male colleagues sometimes get. My wife and I were trying to get pregnant with our first child. We planned for my wife to carry our first child, largely because I was newly on the tenure track and afraid of the stigma of getting pregnant. When she became pregnant, several of my colleagues said, “This is great! You can use the teaching release to get a lot of research done.” I felt like they didn’t take my role as mother seriously, and at a later time when my wife and I tried to get pregnant a second time, I didn’t disclose to any of my colleagues that I was trying to carry the baby and then experienced fertility problems. We ultimately adopted our second child via foster care, and we have a third child in the works. Nonetheless, it was a very tumultuous time in my life, and I felt that I unnecessarily suffered in silence.

For the most part, I don’t think much about my gender identity, but occasionally I am reminded that I am different. I’ll be walking into the women’s restroom at the airport, and some woman will pause, double-check the sign outside the bathroom, look at me, and remind me that this is the women’s bathroom. Feeling exhausted at having to remind another ignorant person that, yes, I am in the right place, I will say “I know” and continue on my way.


To join the Michigan community in breaking the silence, you can participate in the GLSEN’s National Breaking the Silence Rallies across the country on April 24, 3 P.M. EST. Additionally, join in the two virtual screenplays (i.e., Netflix Parties) of “Moonlight” and “Dear Ex” on Friday, April 24th from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.

See other recent DEI blogs from faculty, staff and students. For more diversity, equity and inclusion updates sent directly to your inbox, subscribe to the DEI blog newsletter.

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