Illustration | Tanuj Kumar
On gender, science, and the atmosphere of STEM academia
The Strand: What’s your research about?
Professor A.W. Peet: Physicists generally like to divide themselves into categories. In the past, physicists would usually divide themselves into theoretical or experimental physics. Nowadays, you might really say there’s three aspects to doing physics: computational, experimental, and theoretical. My expertise is in theoretical physics, and specifically I work in theoretical subatomic physics, so I’m interested in the structure of forces and matter, from the very shortest length scales, up until way out to the very edges of the universe. So I guess what we try to seek is “Universe OS,” like how we have iOS or Android OS on your smartphones. We’re looking for the underlying set of instructions that run the universe. Within theoretical subatomic physics, I do string theory, which is one way of imagining theories of quantum physics and gravity, and trying to describe all of the forces together. And my particular interest in string theory is in the gravitational side of things. Gravity’s my favourite force in the universe, and I want to figure out more about how it works—especially deep in the heart of a black hole.
How did you feel about the gravitational wave reveal?
So excited! The first gravitational waves were predicted in 1916, and it wasn’t until 2016 that we first saw them. You know, they were very determined, squashed a lot of bugs, and eventually made things work.
How did your colleagues react when you first came out as trans and nonbinary? What about your students, and was there any difference between their reactions?
When I first voiced as genderqueer and trans, there was a range of responses. It wasn’t only determined by age; before I told various colleagues and students, I had somehow thought that their response would probably be determined by the person’s age. If they were younger they were likely to be more progressive, and probably it would be the oldest folks who would be the most reactionary or surprised. That wasn’t borne out entirely in observations.
A number of colleagues and students were really cool about it. In particular, some of my undergraduates, graduate students, and postdocs were really great. Some of my older colleagues were also really great about it, even some 80 and 90-year-olds. Not all of them were in physics: they were colleagues in other departments—from conferences, and so forth. But there were also a number of responses that were hostile and not welcoming. I think it correlates fairly strongly with the person’s general politics and not so much with the person’s age or racialization or cultural background or whatever else.
What’s something you’d tell trans and nonbinary students studying sciences in their undergrad who are currently uncertain about the future?
Well, I’d like them to know that there are more senior people in the field like them. We exist. You’re not alone, you’re not in this alone, and finding others like us can be difficult when we’re new at this. If we’ve only recently voiced, it can be lonely and isolating. But we can still seek community with trans people, whether through social media or in person. If somebody asks me who else I might know who is trans or nonbinary, I can’t volunteer that information because that’s not mine to share. But I can point them to places where they’re more likely to run into these individuals, and so on.
I’m only really knowledgeable about physicists in physics culture, and I know a little about mathematicians and maths culture. One of the things that can be difficult about hard scientists is that we don’t generally have language for understanding anti-oppression. So, there can be some difficulty in that colleagues or our students may not know about these concepts. But the flip side is that these subjects aren’t something we study, so our scholarly expertise doesn’t cover these aspects of humanity. But because we’re not experts in social science, we usually don’t think we know the answers already. So that I’ve found that if we have the energy to try and educate the average physicist about gender, they don’t usually respond with being a know-it-all. Some of them, of course, still think they’re know-it-alls, though!
You’ve explained your gender in the context of wave-particle duality. How did this come about? And do you have any general comparisons between gender and physics?
The way it arose, actually, was when I was prepping for a first-year physics seminar course. I was really racking my brain over how to explain to my students about how something like an electron could have both particle and wave properties. Suddenly I was thinking how an object could have two different aspects of behaviour and still be consistent—it’s still an electron, with wave and particle-like behaviour with different properties in different contexts. So then I say, “Well, that’s just like a nonbinary person, like me,” and I realize all of a sudden, I’ve just disclosed this to my graduate students. For me personally, I sometimes behave like a masculine person in some contexts and a feminine person in other contexts, and these are both integral aspects of my identity. And they were like, “Huh, that’s easy.” I’m not confused, and I’m not a hot mess—I just happen to have both of these properties.
I don’t have any general analogies, but sometimes when people try and explain nonbinary gender identities, they try and think of it like a linear slider: X% female versus 100 minus X% male, and so on, like the genderbread person. That’s too restrictive. It’s not just a linear spectrum. There’s a bigger dimensional universe of gender.
(See Peet’s gender and wave-particle duality explanation on their website!)
Is the atmosphere of inclusion in physics getting better or is it slow and rigid to change?
I think both. It has been getting better at times, and yet there are still rigidities in the way we think about things. It depends very much on local culture. The answer for how UofT has been getting better is not the same as how it may be getting better in other places. For example, if you’re in California, compared to being in Texas, the environment for how that’s improving has been different. So, I think individuals pushing for greater inclusiveness can have a really big impact in departments, especially in departments that do not practice inclusivity, and don’t understand the true value of multiaxial pluralism.
One of the biggest challenges navigating physics academia as a nonbinary person is that the way we think about gender as it relates to physics is so binary. We binarize the way we even have discussions about gender in physics. For example, I’m actually chairing the Committee to Encourage Women in Physics of the Canadian Association of Physicists this year. But still, they’re thinking of gender as “men do X, women do Y.”
The way we’ve been talking about gender inclusion in physics is often that the troubles that women have with sexism in physics are often described in terms of a “deficit model.” This is the model in which the masculine norms are the “default” and if women don’t have these behaviours that many of the guys had, then this must be a deficit that must be “remedied,” we can “train up the women so they’re just as masculine as the guys,” and then they’ll succeed in physics, is sort of the assumption underlying all of this.
One thing that trans and gender nonconforming people understand really clearly is that gender is anything but a binary. Certainly, even sex is not a binary—it’s not even phenotypically or genotypically or, you know. The karyotype, the phenotype, there’s levels and levels of complication. If you look to the animal kingdom, there’s even more variability, and the way sexing works, and all that sort of stuff, even within mammals, you know. None of these things is a simple binary. And to assume that it is, is violent.
It’s violent to trans people, because as a trans person I may not “pass,” I may not look thoroughly convincing to a cis person in the gender that I am living. And if people have very rigid concepts of what a man looks like, or how they behave, or similarly for a woman, that can be very degrading and dehumanizing for say, a trans woman who really works hard to be recognized as a woman. And often physicists can be either clumsy or hostile to these people.
I think nonbinary people get treated as if we’re somehow “making up” our gender. I find this part of the discussion very unhelpful. Certain people who have expressed bloviating opinions about this have made very clear what they think about these questions. But I know the reality of this is that there are feminine cis men, masculine cis women, trans women, trans men, nonbinary, genderqueer, genderfluid, lots of different people in the higher dimensional universe of gender. And I think nonbinary people are treated like we’re “snowflake unicorns,”—“oh your gender is an affectation” is the message we get from people. It’s disappointing, but it happens. If people could be less binaristic about thinking about gender, it would help a lot of people—not just nonbinary people, but trans and genderqueer people more generally.
I get misgendered all the time. I used to be called “ma’am” and now I’m called “sir” and neither of them are accurate! One of the things I think would be good is if we stopped using honorifics so much. What is a good gender-neutral version of “sir” or “ma’am”? “Friend,” maybe, but it’s not formal enough for some contexts. That’s why I encourage people to call me Dr. Peet or Prof. Peet, because none of that is gendered. But what if you don’t have a PhD?
Washrooms. There are very few buildings that have gender inclusive washrooms. And I don’t mean washrooms with some hybrid half-trouser half-dress creature depicted on some sign. The best washroom for a nonbinary person is one with a picture of a toilet. That’s the best symbol for what is a gender inclusive washroom. But places to pee, there’s incredible difficulty. I got invited to speak at a conference at Waterloo last year. They invited a nonbinary, trans, disabled person to speak, but they didn’t have a gender inclusive disabled washroom? But they managed to get it sorted out by the time I got there, so I told them, you know, I’ll need to pee, could we make sure that’s taken care of.
With the logistics of having nonbinary people, having a gender inclusive washroom you can use regardless of what your gender is or what anatomy you might have, is important. Being able to pee is really one of the most difficult aspects of going to conferences. That’s why I fought very, very hard to have gender inclusive washrooms in the physics building!
Whenever I’m in the physics building, I’m unfortunately usually by the labs where the washrooms there are very gendered.
Very gendered, very non-private. Whenever I’m down there I usually just hold it. Trans, and to some degree, genderqueer people have higher incidents of kidney and other such urinary and bladder problems because of having to hold it so much, not being able to be comfortable going in a public space.
What do you think is something that cis people could do to make these places less cisnormative and more accessible and welcoming?
Bathrooms are an important thing, for sure. Sometimes I’ve come across people and you know, they noticed these changes, I’ve had chest surgery, I’ve grown a few inches taller, and so on. And then they ask me about my genitals. And I’m like, you really went there? So, professors, some of whom are women, you might think they would be more clued about gender mistakes, but no, they stumble right into it!
So, one piece of advice I could give colleagues who think about reacting when someone voices as trans or gender queer around them: never ask a trans person what you’d never dream of asking a cis person. You wouldn’t ball up to a colleague and ask them “what’s in your pants?!” My response is typically: “what’s in my pants are molecules, which are made of atoms, which are made of protons and neutrons, which are made of quarks and gluons. What’s in my pants is physics!”
In the sciences, I think we’ve got some general understanding that gender can be pertinent to how science is done, in the sense that there have been ways in how femininity interacts with scientific work and collaboration in a different way than masculinity does. Of course, individuals have variegations. But we often don’t have an understanding of how this style of how we do physics is informed by the normalization of masculinity in physics.
The Big Bang Theory is a popular depiction of how the public sees physicists. It’s like, we’re not all like Sheldon. And by the way, that’s a terrible show with many bad stereotypes. Just realizing that “cis male” is not the default in science, and to behave like antler-crashing deer who are having competitions over who’s the most dominant, masculine person in the room, that’s the way that dude scientists relate to one another, but that’s not necessarily the norm—and it shouldn’t be.
So, some of the things that help make these spaces less cisnormative are also those which can tackle misogyny. A trans woman may be degraded by the cis men around her simply for being a woman, and in general, for the femininity she may display. A trans man trying to establish his masculinity may be degraded by the cis men around him for not being “masculine enough” to their perception. As a trans masculine-of-center person, I’ve seen some of this firsthand. So, part of it is related to misogyny, but this obviously isn’t the whole story. In physics, the stream of countering misogyny and toxic masculinity is related to the drive to help make physics a more gender inclusive environment.
What’s one important piece of advice you would give to trans and nonbinary students who wish to head into science academia?
Academia would ideally be an inclusive and welcoming place. We haven’t reached that point yet. As an academic, there will be stuff you’ll have to face, and if we are a “rare” person in these environments, we often feel pressured to conform. To give up some aspects of who we are in order to fit into the pigeonhole that we’re expected to fit into in the grand scheme of things. And while you don’t always have the choice, I encourage students to spend your time around people who are less toxic. It sounds so obvious! These students often feel pressured to go to the biggest fish in the department, because “Professor X” might have a giant reputation. Maybe they also have a giant reputation of being an asshole. It’s worth doing your research on people that you’re thinking of working with. Asking people older than you, what was it like doing a course or doing research under Professor X/Y/Z? It’s particularly important for grad students to look for an advisor who is less toxic (I don’t think it’s possible to find an advisor who is completely non-toxic). It’s important to find someone who supports you as a human being, humanizes you, and treats you with dignity. Ideally this sort of dynamic would be happening everywhere. As it stands there’s bubbles of reason and it would be good to link these up, creating a more inclusive environment. It’s really difficult.
If a trans woman told me, “it’s so hard being a trans person in physics,” or a nonbinary person told me, or you know, so on, I’d believe them every day. “It’s so hard, they’re so clueless, they’re so cisnormative, they’re so heteronormative, it’s awful, should I really have to put up with this in order to pursue my passion in physics?”
Ideally, we can build a world where we don’t have to choose between keeping your humanity and doing physics. If you do have to choose, if you decide that the strain of existing as a non-normative gender person in a normative physics world is too much, I don’t think any less of you, and I don’t think that you’ve “failed” in any sense. It’s just that you’ve recognized that this place where you’ve considered spending a significant part of your time is too toxic for you and that it may carry high health burdens. I recognize that if you choose to move away from this field, even if you love it, then that’s being true to yourself as a person. If you’re trans or nonbinary and in STEM and can’t see a way forward, and choose to move away, then I respect your choice. And if you want to stay in physics, and want to be in my department, if there’s some way that I as a professor can encourage faculty and students and the space to be more inclusive, I’ll do what I can to encourage that.
Social media can be good for finding other students and other people. Trans Twitter has been pretty great for me to learn from.
Anything else to add?
If you are trans or nonbinary or genderqueer or genderfluid, your gender is valid. You are valid as a person. You are inherently valid and worthy and deserving of support and deserving of people pulling strings to make things more inclusive. It’s a human right to be treated with dignity and to be gendered correctly, or at least not misgendered, and for people to treat you right. That’s where I’d like to go. I still have a long way to go before I can call myself an expert.
I chose to be out about my trans status while on the job, and this carries some burdens. But, I have tenure. And by the time I voiced, I had tenure. There’s many reasons why I didn’t voice earlier. But one of the reasons I didn’t was because I’m so much more secure voicing as trans with this security. This makes me much more secure than 99.9% of the trans community in Toronto, for example. The average median annual income of a trans person in Ontario is somewhere in the low $20,000s. Lots of trans people can’t get employment at all. I have a job and a pension, for goodness sake. Almost nobody has the level of economic insulation like I do, so that’s one of the reasons I decided to speak out.
With any luck, eventually there will be more of us in the field. As a student, it was important for me to have some “existence theorems,” as mathematicians refer to them. There exists a nonbinary physicist at UofT. And in fact, that there was a woman at Stanford who was in the physics department, that was important to me as an undergrad, that you could be a woman and in physics. The fact of the existence doesn’t mean you’ll be fully aligned with politics or they can give you everything you want, but the fact that they exist gives hope.
One final thing about the gender binary. One of the things we bemoan in physics is the lower representation of women as compared to men. What we are often slow to realize is that the gender inclusion story has a lot to do with the inclusion of racialized people. Even the notion of the gender binary is not as deeply embedded in other cultures as it is in white Euro-American culture. Britain, my culture, has an incredibly binarized view of gender, and imposed this violently around the world. Within what we now call Canada, there are plenty of indigenous and First Nations peoples who have very different concepts of gender than the western binary. People who think you can address gender inclusion in physics without addressing other forms of inclusion are not up with the play!