Isolated, invisible: LGBTQ scientists talk about their experience at workplace

Published on Jun 21, 2021 12:38 AM IST
Throughout her pre-transition period, A Mani, a mathematician and scientist at the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata, remained closeted, introverted and preferred working alone
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HT Image
ByPriyanka Sahoo

Throughout her pre-transition period, A Mani, a mathematician and scientist at the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata, remained closeted, introverted and preferred working alone.

“Some teachers, colleagues at times did try to say anti-gender diverse stuff to me because I appeared too femme. But I never bothered about them and their degenerate views,” said Mani, one of the very few lesbian trans-women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Collectively, people from sexual minorities such as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer persons and their allies are referred to as the LGBTQ+ community. Even as campuses endeavour to create safe spaces for sexual and gender minorities, past trauma, invisibility and discrimination is rife in this marginalised community.

In celebrations to mark the Pride month — which recognises the community’s impact on history locally, nationally, and internationally — HT interviewed LGBTQ+ scientists about their experiences in STEM. A nagging sense of invisibility lingered among all the scientists interviewed by HT.

Visibility matters

While there are no surveys that can ascertain the number of LGBTQ+ scientists in India, community members said there were only few in number. Out of fear of ostracisation, many preferred to hide their identities.

“I don’t see any reason why I can’t or shouldn’t openly assert my sexuality now, but because of the stigma and taboo experienced in the past, I don’t feel like going through the process again” said a professor at the Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay (IIT-B), on the condition of anonymity.

While many of his friends and colleagues know that he is gay, this professor has “not come out of the closet entirely”.

“So far I have not received any backlash, but that could be because I have shared my truth with only a selected group of people. I come from a time when discussing sexual orientation and gender identity was absolutely damned. During my school and undergraduate days, I had started to believe that I am the only one in my species. It was not until the beginning of social media in the early 2000s when I came across support groups discussing LGBTQ+ rights online that I realised the extent of invisibility,” he said.

To address this lack of representation and alienation, this professor and his two friends formed Pravriti — a pan IIT support group for LGBTQ+ members of faculty, students and staff. In 2018, 20 members of Pravriti, excluding the professor, had filed a petition in the Supreme Court against section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalised homosexuality and any ‘unnatural sex’.

“Invisibility itself is at least a two-fold problem: one can invisibilise the LGBTQ+ scientist or invisibilise the LGBTQ+ scientist’s work. Needless to say, both have tremendous impact on the person’s work and mental health. Queer-trans scientists, who are not out, have to deal with constant mental stress of living double lives while dealing with the immense pressure of practising science in formal settings. Even queer-trans scientists who are out are met with discrimination and dismissal,” said Sayantan Datta, a queer-trans science writer, who holds a master’s degree in neural and cognitive sciences from the University of Hyderabad.

Another fallout of the invisibility is that without role models, sexual and gender minority students find STEM less welcoming. Last year, IIT-B renamed its women’s cell – meant for handling sexual harassment complaints – to the gender cell.

“Gender violence can happen to anybody, irrespective of their gender. It sends a message to students of all sexual orientations and gender identities that we see you and your struggles,” said Abhijit Majumder, associate professor and faculty advisor to Saathi, IIT-B’s official LGBTQ+ resource group for students, staff and faculty.

Out and proud, yet isolated

Mani transitioned medically and legally between 2012 and 2014 during her doctoral days. Prior to that, she preferred working independently.

“The very idea of a workplace is rather new to me. Visibility meant that I had to learn to interact. Yes, it takes some effort to get used to. Many people are not aware or are ill-informed. I think that means many people may be avoiding any interaction or that they may be acting against my interests. So I have to work against the tide,” she said.

Stigma, casual sexism, misgendering, jokes and hidden discriminatory rules aggravate the alienation.

A 2019 survey of 1,000 UK-based physical scientists found that almost 30% of LGBTQ+ scientists and half of transgender scientists said that they had considered leaving their workplace because of an unfriendly or hostile climate or because of discrimination.

Discrimination against women is a symptom that the system of academia is not healthy, said Prajval Shastri, an astrophysicist retired from the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bengaluru.

“The notion that science is all about merit and everything else — caste and religious lineage, gender and sexual identities — don’t matter is not borne out by evidence. When it comes to women in STEM, there is clear evidence that unconscious bias and hidden norms compromise merit, and institutes must acknowledge that,” said Shastri, who advocates intersectional feminism at academic spaces.

Mental health

Growing up, Mani experienced gender dysphoria—a psychological distress that results from incongruence between one’s sex assigned at birth and one’s gender identity. Being closeted only added to the distress, and she suffered from depression.

Datta, earlier this year, surveyed 47 people in STEM in India, who are from the LGBTQ+ community. The survey found that 38% of respondents agreed that being LGBTQIA+ in STEM has affected their mental health. Another 38% said that being LGBTQIA+ in STEM may have impacted their mental health, although they were not sure.

While most campuses now have in-house psychologists and counsellors, it is important to have counsellors who are LGBTQ-friendly, said Niruj Mohan Ramanujam, scientist at Indian Institute of Astrophysics.

More than a safe space

On June 17 – marked as the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia – the IIT-B professor came across a homophobic comment made by an international scientist on a global messaging group which he is a part of. The comment was flagged and the scientist was removed from the group, only to be allowed again due to procedural issues. Some members of that global group of scientists also commented that the person had the right to express an opinion, even if it is homophobic.

“Had it been a racist comment, the reaction would have been different. But when it comes to gender and sexual minorities, people are willing to offer a discount to discrimination,” said the professor.

Saathi at IIT-B became one of the first LGTBQ+ support groups at any IIT in 2011. Since then, it has been advocating the creation of an inclusive campus. In 2019, it became an official body with a say in hostel and cultural affairs at the institute.

“With the help of Saathi, we have been able to create a safe space for our LGBTQ+ members on campus. The next step is to make it more welcoming,” said Majumder.

“Sexuality of an individual sometimes evolves with time, and it is a good idea to see such an evolution getting an expressional space in the broad, plural and diversity enriched society,” said Subhasis Chaudhuri, director, IIT-B.

However, a lot more needs to be done.

“Specifically for the purpose of making campuses safer and accessible for the LGBTQ community, apart from reservation, it is necessary to increase sensitisation, have related programmes, appoint qualified feminists to help with issues, provide for inclusive healthcare and infrastructure. For example, lesbian research scholars do not get to live with their spouses in special hostels, while other married straight research scholars are permitted to live together. Most non-binary identified people do not have access to gender-neutral toilets,” said Mani, whose research areas include algebra, logic, rough sets, formal approaches to vagueness and allied areas.

The draft science, technology and innovation policy, issued by the ministry of science and technology last December, attempts to correct some of these problems. It proposes to offer spousal benefits to LGBTQ+ community, including retirement benefits to any partner irrespective of their gender.

Many feel that gender and sexuality in STEM spaces and syllabi were invisible. For example, use of the gender-neutral pronouns ‘they’ or ‘ze’ in the academic space. Artificial intelligence (AI), too, can be discriminatory.

“Many AI algorithms are trained on data sets [collected from anywhere] and the results of training are used to make predictions on other situations. Such algorithms can end up learning misogyny and toxic behaviours. People are working in this area to rectify this. Usually, it is not possible to label large data sets and rectify them. Intelligent higher order methods need to be devised,” said Mani.

Need for allies

“Institutions must make it explicit in their advertisements for students and faculty that they are striving to be welcoming of candidates from all caste and gender backgrounds, have bias-trained medical and psychological counsellors, and build unisex toilets,” said Shastri.

Diversity and inclusion committees must be set up at institutions, with outside experts, if necessary, she said.

“I believe it to be particularly important that even as all faculty must make it their cause to bring in equity, diversity and inclusion within the workplace, allyship training of the existing STEM members by expert trainers from outside the profession, in order to make the workplace welcoming of LGBTQ+ people, is critical,” said Shastri.

Mani has taken up activism, promoting lesbian rights and the free software movement.

“Within the free software communities, I have helped with codes of conduct in mailing lists, other forums, conferences, and have helped in initiating action against people indulging in sexist behaviour and harassment,” she said.

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