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Queer-trans people in STEM talk about their mental health

Sayantan Datta

While there has recently been a movement towards recognizing and countering the mental health crisis in academia, such conversations often fail to take into account the nuances of aspects like caste, gender/​sexual identities, economic factors, and intersectionality. In this article, Sayantan examines the way the experiences of members of LGBTQIA+ communities affect their mental health and suggests ways in which the situation can be improved moving forward.

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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​.com 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 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 mentions, 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 puts 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. The questionnaire 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. 47 respondents with various gender and sexual identities, coming from different institutions, filled the survey. This report summarizes 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 ostracization, 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 queerphobia 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,” says a respondent who is a BSc student from a Private University. 

Many respondents mention 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 mentions, Some people sometimes treat LGBTQIA+ people as a joke or raise eyebrows at it, which is disturbing.” 

Another respondent, pursuing a PhD from a research institute, says, 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. Moreover, 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 ostracization 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,” says an MSc student from a private university. Many other respondents agree.

Ostracization, leading to exclusion, is a common fear among a lot of queer-trans people. Since any STEM endeavour is a collective effort, being ostracized 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 mention how people in STEM disciplines do not engage with questions of gender and sexuality. This non-engagement feeds into an environment where sensitization 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 do not 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,” says a respondent working as a software engineer from a state university. 

Another respondent, an MSc student from a central university, also points out how this non-engagement leads to STEM becoming an exclusionary and unsafe space for queer-trans people. He says 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 point out that the root of the discrimination might be in the STEM classroom itself. They mention how the representation of queer-trans people in STEM syllabi is often pathologized. 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 mentions, 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 jeopardizes 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.”

Anasuith P. Pridhvish, a student from a private university, also mentions how such materials in the classroom can be used against queer-trans people by their cis-heterosexual colleagues. She says: 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 the respondents mention that they are not able to access affordable mental healthcare for their mental health issues. Interestingly, although about 75% of respondents mention having a mental health practitioner on campus, 78% of respondents also mention that the mental health practitioners are either not sensitized to queer-trans issues or are available too infrequently. They mention 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 mention how accessing mental healthcare on campus may lead to a breach of confidentiality or involvement of faculty/​parents who 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 point out the following:

  1. Having mental health practitioners who are sensitized 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 the mental health services on campus are not overbooked and waiting times are reduced.
  3. Strict confidentiality clauses to ensure the safety of the queer-trans people accessing the mental health service.
  4. For queer-trans people who are considering sex reassignment surgeries (SRS), it is important that the mental health practitioners and the institution supports the people throughout the process.

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 sensitization 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 marginalizations 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 ors. vs. Union of India judgement (2013) and the Navtej Singh Johar and ors. Vs. Union of India judgement (2018) from the hon’ble supreme court of India and the Transgender persons (protection of rights) act (2019) from the government of India. 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.

Written By

Sayantan Datta (they/them) are a queer-trans aspiring feminist neuroscientist, science writer and communicator.