The Problem With Science

[Content Note: Transphobia; misogyny; objectification; dehumanization of sex workers; exploitation.]

The current issue of Science features a special section on Australia's successful* approach to combating the spread of HIV/AIDS. To highlight the topic, Science plastered the cover with a photo of the disembodied legs of several women of color. When several people took to Twitter to complain about the dehumanizing photo, Jim Austin, the editor of Science Careers replied:

screen cap of tweet authored by Prosanta Chakrabarty reading: 'When we said we wanted more women in Science this is not what we meant.' followed by a reply from Jim Austin reading: 'You realize they are transgender? Does it matter? That at least colors things, no?'

Okay, sure. In response to an observation about the male gaze, the same editor opined:

screen cap of tweet authored by Jacquelyn Gill reading: 'I'm not sure how you get that, at all. To me it's just another dehumanizing male gazey image.' followed by a reply from Jim Austin reading: 'Interesting to consider how those gazey males will feel when they find out.'

Eventually followed by:

screen cap of tweet authored by Jim Austin reading: 'Am I the only one who finds moral indignation really boring?' followed by a response from Janet D. Stemwedel reading: 'Are you sure you're not confusing moral indignation w/sensitivity to a problem that you didn't notice on your own?'

So, the editors of one of the world's leading scientific journals used a dehumanizing picture** of trans sex workers of color to advertise a special section on HIV/AIDS, and the editor of its careers journal—whose mission "supports the American Association for the Advancement of Science's (AAAS) commitment to furthering careers in science and technology, with an emphasis on fostering greater diversity among the scientific community"—made a joke about how dudes would feel after learning they lusted after trans women.


I have thoughts on this. I'm probably going to come across as bitter, so first let me give some background.

My so-called career

I had no problems getting into academic science. As an undergraduate, I got a full scholarship to a major research university. When I applied to graduate programs, I snagged yet a prestigious National Science Foundation graduate fellowship. During this whole time, I was in the closet about being trans.

A year or two into graduate school, I found myself in a serious relationship, and began really seriously confronting my lifelong struggle to present to society as a man. In 2005, the fourth year of my graduate program, I finally came out.

By an unhappy coincidence, this was also about the time that I went on the job market. I’m not going to dish too much about my graduate career or my job search (although I do have a book chapter out on the latter), but:

I endured painfully awkward job interviews.
I dealt with the bizarrely abrupt termination of at least one proposed collaboration.
I certainly felt like I had a much, much harder time finding work than any of my colleagues.

I had tons of great colleagues (and even a few genuinely enjoyable job interviews). I'm not going to make anyone specific feel uncomfortable with my praise or criticism (after all, this is about s/Science). But I will say this: If you haven't been a PhD student or come out as trans, they're both pretty impossible when tackled on their own. And I did both at the same time.

While I don't want call out individuals or institutions, there is one exception. The administration of my school (the University of Wisconsin-Madison) offered me very little support. At the time, the LGBT center had no resources (I understand they've improved). Despite having the largest, most prestigious medical school in the state, all UW-Madison could offer me was the assistance (for a fee) of one (awesome!) speech pathology graduate student.

In addition to weekly electrolysis appointments in Madison, I had a weekly therapy appointment in Milwaukee. I found doctors in Chicago, and made regular 150 mile (each way) weekday trips to the city. All of this was at my expense (while, I might add, on a graduate student's salary). This meant that in addition to all of the time I spent researching for and traveling to my medical appointments, I took a second job to pay my medical bills. It didn't take long for my employer to fire me. I don't have conclusive evidence that he let me go because he didn't like the idea of a queer interacting with his customers, but that's most definitely what I think happened.

Still, I managed to complete my thesis. There were plenty of things I would have done differently if I hadn't spent two years curled up on a futon in my apartment, but it was pretty fucking decent, regardless of the circumstances,

I eventually landed a tenure track job. It wasn't necessarily what I was looking for, but it was what was available. And while I worked with some rock star colleagues (and administrators), it was quickly pretty obvious that I wasn't "a good fit" for the institution. I started looking for a new job by the end of my first year. It took me close to two years to receive a job offer in the private sector (I had zero job interviews within the academy during that time, despite primarily applying for academic jobs).

This was also the time that I finished a particularly scarring review process. It was clear to me that if I wanted to keep my job, I'd need to fight for it. This was also the the time that the faculty recommended a (cis male) colleague for tenure on a voice vote without being asked a single question. (He did a ton of paperwork, but it was actually me who had to deal with tough questions from the senior faculty). I took the job offer.

Am I bitter? Absolutely. I am so. fucking. bitter.

I miss teaching, but I've realized that it's not a profession that's valued (neither in K-12 nor in the academy).

I miss research, but I also realize that there's no real support for the kind of research I'm interested in (theories of evolution that question the primacy of heterosexuality, among other things). I realize there are people who studies those things, but there's no way I could build a career on such studies. I'd be biased.

There are really great things about no longer being in the academy (although most of these are grounded in not having to deal with the academy). I get to spend time with my kid, for example. Actually, after my kid was born, I spent a lot of my time in grad school with hir—my university didn't provide affordable child care. I used to do this thing where I'd drive hir to my speech therapy appointments, then nestle hir in the car, crank the heat all the way up, and drive around campus until ze was asleep. That way ze napped in the projection room for the duration of my class. Then I went home to work.

It's entirely possible that part of the reason my career sputtered was that I was missing all of the awesome networking opportunities at my school while I was busily working overtime to make up for UW's lack of support. Maybe those opportunities just didn't exist for people like me. I don't know. It doesn't matter—certainly not now.

Am I bitter? Yes, we've covered that.

Do I think that my career would have gone better had I waited until tenure to come out? Absolutely, if I would have survived, I could have probably had a career of some sort.

If I had it to do over again, would I have done things differently? Probably not.

But really, what's my point?

My point is that trans women have good reasons to be suspicious of colleagues

If you're not acting as my ally, my vocal ally, I have nothing to gain by trusting you. My experience just doesn't bear that out. I'm sure you're probably a good person and that you have great intentions, but that doesn't do me a bit of good.

Are you going to fight for my ability to take care of myself to the point that I can focus on doing my job?

Are you going to make it clear that I'm welcome, or are you going to make bigoted jokes?

Are you going to "play it safe" by staying silent and assuring yourself that nothing was meant by so-and-so's off the cuff remark?

Are you going to base your science on hackneyed, sexist, heterosexist, and cissexist stereotypes and then get defensive when folks question your assumptions?

It's a serious wonder that there's anybody in the academy who isn't a cis white guy. I know plenty of white cis women in the academy, and as far as I can tell, a lot of them spend second unpaid careers just navigating the structural bullshit that generations of good people have put into place to keep them from having careers in the first place. I know a lot fewer people of color in the academy. (Imagine that.) Trans women? There are a few. I think I can name one who got tenure despite being openly trans. She must be the most exhausted person on the planet. I think her publications should count double (she's also not a scientist, but still: her publications count double, assholes).

That Science cover isn't ambiguous. As soon as I saw it, I thought "wow, somebody definitely wants me to think that these are exotic sluts." When I saw that the special issue was about HIV/AIDS, I thought it was a pretty good guess that they were trans women in the sex trade.

If I were interested in talking about the very serious issue of HIV/AIDS among trans sex workers of color, I might actually bother to get a picture that included the women's faces. There are trans women who do sex work and know about HIV/AIDS. There are activists, even. I probably would have talked to them. Oh, and I definitely would have listened to them. It's possible that members of the population with one of the highest rates of HIV infection would even be able to teach scientists a thing or two. (It's not inconceivable to be a scientist and sex worker at the same time, BTW.) But what do I know? I'm not an academic.

What I do know is that more than one person reviews a cover before it goes to press. It's not like some guy really fucked up and decided to run with this picture while everybody else was on the can. Nobody realized there might have been a problem with that cover, hmmm?

This doesn't speak well of one of the industry's leading publications. It also doesn't inspire a lot of confidence (which, as I've already explained, I'm short on) that the folks making or breaking careers by deciding which papers are "sexy" enough to publish are going to have the professionalism to ground their decisions in something other than a creepy desire to excite their presumed readership of straight white cis guys.

And for the record, I don't give a fuck what some cis dude might think when he finds out the woman he's ogling is trans. I'm more concerned about what he might do to the trans woman. I'm also more than a little concerned that the editor of one of the world's preeminent journals on how to build a career in science thinks that jokes about trans women are, well… that he thinks about these jokes at all.

I'm not saying that transphobia forced me out of the academia or that I deserved a specific job or any job at all, to be quite blunt. However, I will say, and I'll say it until it doesn't need saying: I don't regret leaving. I regret feeling the need to make that decision, but I simply don't think academy is a safe place for people like me. It certainly isn't a respectful place (if you're wondering on what I'm using as a baseline, I work in IT these days), and there isn't a week that goes by that I'm not reminded how hard folks are fighting just do be able to do the jobs that they're more than qualified to fucking do.

I remember the exact moment when I decided to go into biology (and not some other scientific discipline). I was fourteen, and I was sitting in my parents' living room reading the Washington Post weekly edition when I read that there were far more women in biology than in fields like chemistry and physics. I knew what that meant for my future. At fourteen, I was used to paying attention and making calculated decisions about my future. After all, it's a survival strategy.

People are watching you, science. They're not just keeping track of who's doing the dehumanizing shit, but also who (and it's a lot of you) is sitting on their hands while it goes down. Remember this the next time some administrator wonders aloud about why efforts to summon diversity out of thin air just aren't working.

If science (and the academy writ large) is serious about improving the quality and diversity of research, teaching, service, and faculty (and I have no real reason to believe this is the case), folks have got to dismantle the systems that allow this shit to keep happening. It's not just one publication or one guy with a Twitter account. Hostility to the bulk of society is endemic in the academy, and irrespective of whether or not the place is filled with nice people, I need to see consistent evidence of progress before I'll believe it.


*Supposedly. Due to issues with the Science website, I haven't actually been able to read the findings.

**I'm not reposting the cover here because it's not clear to me that the women consented to being photographed, but it's easy enough to find.

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