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How Indian STEM Can Be a Healthier, Safer Space for Queer-Trans People

How Indian STEM Can Be a Healthier, Safer Space for Queer-Trans People

Illustration: Cdd20/pixabay.

The Indian STEM academic community is finally talking about mental health issues that affect people in STEM. Recent efforts from IndiaBioscience, The​ Life​ of​ Science​ and other science media platforms stand testimony to this fact. However, not all people in STEM are equal, and therefore, not all of their mental healths are affected in a similar fashion. For queer-trans people (or more commonly LGBTQIA+ – lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual and people with other diverse gender and sexual identities) people, oppression due to their gender and/​or sexual identities are additional factors that affect their mental health.

As a BSc student from a research institute said, ​”The stress of being closeted and trying to figure out who you are at the same time [as] concentrating on studies is very mentally challenging and emotionally draining.” Another person who wishes to remain anonymous put it aptly: ​”Simultaneously navigating being queer in the personal sphere along with dealing with academia in the professional sphere can be particularly taxing on one’s mental health and significantly affects both these roles.”

So what affects the mental health of queer-trans people in STEM disciplines? To find answers to this question, I reached out to people from these communities using a survey-based questionnaire that asked a few simple questions: respondents’ gender and sexual identities, stage of the STEM career they were in, what kind of institution they came from (state/​central/​private universities, research institutes, etc.), whether they felt that their mental health had been affected due to being queer-trans in STEM, whether they had access to affordable and queer-trans-sensitive mental health practitioners and the elephant in the room: what could be done to make the situation better.

The survey was open only to people who identified as queer-trans/LGBTQIA+ and were in STEM disciplines. Forty-seven respondents of various gender and sexual identities, coming from different institutions, responded to the survey. This report summarises the findings from this survey. It highlights various issues that affect the mental health of queer-trans people in STEM and ends with action points for the STEM community to ponder over and work upon to make STEM more inclusive for queer-trans people.

What affects the mental health of queer-trans people in STEM? When asked if being LGBTQIA+ in STEM has affected their mental health, 38% of respondents responded with a ‘yes’, while a further 38% mentioned that being LGBTQIA+ in STEM may have impacted their mental health, although they weren’t sure.

The respondents identified a few key concerns: bullying and harassment, fear of ostracisation, the silence about gender and sexuality in STEM spaces, and STEM syllabus that is discriminatory against queer-trans people.

Bullying and harassment

“I feel like the crowd in STEM fields tends to be less accepting of various communities, than in other fields … they have lesser awareness of issues such as queer-phobia and really do not understand the scale and effect of these problems. So they will often make rude remarks, and support discriminatory views in the name of ‘brutal honesty’ and it becomes very stressful to either bear with or try to explain to them why this is bad. I feel exasperated with my friends sometimes and come away feeling small.” — A respondent who is a BSc student at a private university.

Many respondents mentioned facing both overt and covert harassment for being queer-trans in STEM. This can take many forms, from disrespecting one’s gender and sexual identities to blatant discriminatory remarks. A BSc student from a private university said, ​”Some people sometimes treat LGBTQIA+ people as a joke or raise eyebrows at it, which is disturbing.”

Another respondent, pursuing a PhD at a research institute, said:

​”Unfortunately, I’ve heard inappropriate comments and unsolicited advice, even from close peers, which has been hard to deal with. I’ve also not felt comfortable enough to discuss this with my superiors including my principal investigator (PI). All the lying by omission has taken a toll on me.”

Respondents also mentioned a form of harassment on campuses that involves propagating rumours around a queer-trans person. This is quite common in a lot of campuses and can take a heavy toll on the mental health of the person concerned. It also puts the person at risk of being outed without their consent to people who they do not yet feel comfortable being out to. For a lot of queer-trans people who live double lives, it is important to not be the centre of attraction, and spreading rumours about such people not only makes them a topic of discussion against their will but also risks their safety.

Fear of ostracisation and exclusion

“A large part of my anxiety is the way I may be discriminated [against] by superiors who already would view me as incompetent if I was out to them. I had to learn to compartmentalise the two aspects of my life and move on. The constant fear of being unwantedly outed still lingers over my head,” said an MSc student from a private university. Many other respondents agreed.

Ostracisation, leading to exclusion, is a common fear among a lot of queer-trans people. Since any STEM endeavour is a collective effort, being ostracised due to one’s gender and/​or sexual identities leads to a severe impact on one’s career, confidence and, consequently, mental health.

Silence about gender and sexuality in STEM spaces

Quite a few respondents also mentioned how people in STEM disciplines don’t engage with questions of gender and sexuality. This non-engagement feeds into an environment where sensitisation towards queer-trans issues is not considered important. This makes queer-trans people in STEM feel unwanted and takes a heavy toll on their mental health. Also, they often don’t have the option to go by their preferred pronouns, and even when they do, they are under constant fear of being sacked or discriminated against.

“In STEM, for me, gender identities/​sexual identities were also a hidden sort of thing. It’s more of a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ situation as far as I have seen,” said a respondent working as a software engineer at a state university.

Another respondent, an MSc student from a central university, also pointed out how this non-engagement leads to STEM becoming an exclusionary and unsafe space for queer-trans people. He said that the ​”lack of LGBTQIA+ representation in STEM leads us to believe that it’s difficult for people who are gender and sexual minorities to survive and thrive in this area.”

A discriminatory and disrespectful STEM syllabus

Some respondents pointed out that the root of the discrimination might be in the STEM classroom itself. They spoke about how the representation of queer-trans people in STEM syllabi is often pathologised. Moreover, such topics are often taught by people who are not sensitive to queer-trans issues, making the classes a cause of mental health issues for many queer-trans people.

For example, Akasha, a research assistant at a private university, said, ​”Biology classes with backdated syllabi rife with prejudiced/un-nuanced research have to be reviewed and critically analysed before incorporating them into the course. The teaching of such materials jeopardises the mental health of queer people like me. A diverse faculty composition would have eased my mental health as opposed to all cis-heterosexual male faculty.”

Also read: Do India’s Medical Textbooks Have Homophobic Language?

Anasuith P. Pridhvish, a student at a private university, also said how such materials in the classroom can be used against queer-trans people by their cis-heterosexual colleagues. She said:

​”Studying [a] syllabus which excludes me or claims my identity to be a disorder and realising that others who are studying along with me in the same class could use it against me if situations favour them triggers anxiety in me.”

Accessing queer-trans-friendly support for mental health issues

About 53% of respondents said that they are not able to access affordable mental healthcare for their mental health issues. Interestingly, although about 75% of respondents said there was a mental health practitioner on campus, 78% of respondents also said that the practitioners are either not sensitised to queer-trans issues or are available too infrequently. They said that often there are only one or two allocated mental health practitioners for the entire campus, and these practitioners are also available only on select days of the week. This leads to the practitioner not having enough time to deal with all the people.

Since most mental health practitioners are not trained to handle queer-trans issues, going to them sometimes runs the risk of feeding into the trauma that led to mental health issues in the first place. Respondents also pointed out how accessing mental healthcare on campus may lead to a breach of confidentiality or involvement of faculty/​parents whom they are not out to.

So what can be done to improve the accessibility of mental health services for queer-trans people in STEM spaces? The survey respondents suggested the following:

1. Having mental health practitioners who are sensitised to queer-trans issues and have undergone special training to accommodate the needs of queer-trans people. These practitioners also need to be available to students and staff either free of cost or at a nominal fee. Mental healthcare also needs to be included in the insurance policies of institutions to reduce the financial burden on people unwilling to access mental healthcare on campus.

2. More mental health practitioners, who are also available more frequently, so that mental health services on campus are not overbooked and waiting times are reduced.

3. Strict confidentiality clauses to ensure the safety of queer-trans people accessing the mental health service.

4. For queer-trans people who are considering sex reassignment surgery (SRS), it is important that mental health practitioners and the institution supports the people throughout the process.

Also read: What You Need to Know Before You Look for Mental Health Support on Social Media

Ways forward

Having discussed what affects the mental health of queer-trans people in STEM, it is important to spend some time on what can be done to improve the situation. The action points mentioned below are a starting point for people in STEM to start engaging in a more sensitive way with queer-trans people and collectively improving their mental health.

1. Dedicated bodies to tackle cases of harassment against queer-trans people in STEM.

2. Increased sensitisation on campus about issues concerning queer-trans people.

3. Better access to mental health services.

4. Acknowledging the intersectionality of mental health and other forms of social marginalisation like caste, class, gender, sexuality, disability, etc., and tailoring mental health services accordingly.

5. More queer-trans role models and mentors to support and motivate young queer-trans people in STEM.

A lot of these are also mandated by the NALSA and others v. Union of India (2013) and the Navtej Singh Johar and others v. Union of India (2018) judgments of the Supreme Court of India, and the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act 2019. However, the implementation of these legal frameworks remains poor. The onus is on the current generation of people in STEM to start working on the action points and make STEM a more inclusive and welcoming space for queer-trans people.

This article was first published by IndiaBioscience. Read the original here.

Sayantan Datta (they/them) is a queer-trans neuroscientist-in-training, and a science writer and communicator.

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