Queer Astronomy, Part 2: Building a more inclusive community

Rainbow Pride flag made of astronomical images.

Author’s note: This piece references harassment and other potentially uncomfortable experiences.

Yesterday, I discussed just a handful of the challenges and inequities facing queer astronomers, including harassment, persistent deadnaming, and inadequate support in an area even one ally can make an enormous difference. There’s a lot to be justifiably cynical about, but some of the 14 astronomers I interviewed expressed hope that the field can move past the troubles of the present and into a more inclusive future. Dr. Kaitlin Rasmussen, a postdoc at the University of Michigan, says, “I really think that in 20, maybe even 10 years, we will have the changes that I’m hoping for.” What are these changes? What shifts will we have to make to ensure that LGBTQ+ astronomers feel safe and welcome in their field? That’s today’s topic, and it starts with assembling the right group of people to lead the charge.

Making an effective DEI committee

Many departments have some sort of formal group or committee to work on diversity, equity and inclusivity (DEI) problems, which is a wonderful start to addressing inequities. However having a DEI committee is decidedly not the same thing as using it properly. Taylor Hutchison, a PhD student studying distant galaxies at Texas A&M, says that her department’s climate and equity committee was initially ineffective: “They didn’t really know what to do, because mostly it was these older academics trying to do something, but then not knowing how to actually be good allies. . . . The department thinks that they’re welcoming. But there also aren’t any structures in place. It’s not like they’re not welcoming. It’s just not really actively spoken about.” Winter Parts, a PhD student at Penn State University, notes that their department’s climate and diversity committee used to be so powerless that one problematic faculty member was included because there he would “do less harm than [in] other places.”

Two ingredients seem to drive effective DEI committees. The first is a healthy mix of junior researchers — undergraduates, graduate students, and postdocs — who tend to move more urgently to solve climate problems than faculty do. At the same time, committees without any faculty members are usually helpless. Macy Huston, a PhD student at Penn State studying microlensing, implores those in positions of authority to join DEI efforts: “We really need senior people who have safety and security in their jobs and who are respected and listened to. They need to be speaking out regularly.” Committees need powerful faculty members, and those members need to use their power and privilege while not holding back others.

The second requirement is that the underrepresented groups the committees aim to support must be adequately represented, because allies alone can only contribute so much. Dr. Claudia Antolini, a science communicator, emphasizes that “there has to be a consideration that the people that will know the most about a community will be people that belong to that community.” Again, though, there needs to be balance, because asking marginalized people to single-handedly solve systemic inequities is itself extremely inequitable. Nicole Man, a data scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, testifies to the strain she felt as an undergraduate and queer woman of color shouldering much of the burden of organizing DEI initiatives: “We did invisible labor, and failed our tests because of it.”

What can departments do?

Assuming a department has a functioning DEI committee with the power to improve the climate for queer astronomers, what things should it focus on? It would help to start by ensuring that, like astronomers starting any new project, all of the committee members have done their background reading. There are several white papers and best-practices documents that are far more comprehensive than this Bite and would be good starting points. The American Astronomical Society published the second edition of their best practices guide or LGBT+ inclusivity in 2018, and Rasmussen recommends two papers on non-binary individuals in astronomy (one of which was covered by Astrobites in 2019). A third white paper is being worked on, and the authors hope to submit it to a peer-reviewed journal upon completion.

With those resources in hand, there are a host of simple yet effective ways a department can begin to make itself more inclusive for queer astronomers. A starting point would be to address a recurring theme in these interviews: most departments lack gender-neutral restrooms. Avery Kiihne, an undergraduate at Rutgers University, mentions that they need to trek to another building to use a non-gendered bathroom. Megan Thompson, an undergraduate at the University of Texas at Austin working on wide binary systems, notes that while the building they work in has two gender-neutral restrooms, they lie on the ground floor and 14th floor of a 19-floor building serving three separate departments. Converting more — or, in some cases, any — gendered restrooms into gender-neutral restrooms should be a simple task, but many departments and universities inexplicably refuse to do so. 

Normalizing pronoun usage during introductions can also contribute to a more welcoming environment. It can be awkward for nonbinary and transgender folks to attract unwanted attention to themselves by being the only ones to specify their personal pronouns at the beginning of a course or meeting, and so departments should encourage all members to be open about their pronouns if they feel comfortable doing so. This does make a tangible difference in the paths students take through academia; one person I spoke with says, “Going into undergrad, one of the things that I started to look for in terms of someone that I might be able to approach was if they put their pronouns in their email signature.”

Once departments take steps to ensure they’re not actively alienating queer astronomers, they can move on to actively supporting them. Shavonne Morin, an incoming PhD student at Penn State who has done work on lunar volatiles, points out that queer folks face different challenges in different fields; while campus-wide LGBTQ+ centers can be helpful, individual departments should consider offering discipline-specific resources. Hutchison and Parts discuss the student-driven codes of conduct in their departments as a way to hold individuals accountable, and both noted the importance of recognizing the accomplishments of queer scientists; Hutchison also mentions the Unique Scientists program she helps run, which promotes representation by confronting stereotypes of what scientists truly look like. 

Allies can go beyond all of this, of course. Fletcher Waller, a master’s student at the University of Victoria says, “I would have loved it if there was a trend of people who consider themselves to be strong LGBTQ allies, just putting a little rainbow flag sticker outside their office door or something — just a really small hint to [say], ‘Hey, you can stop in here.’” Implicit or explicit statements of allyship do change perceptions and the paths people take through academia: Parts mentions that they thought highly of one professor because he chose to come to meetings of the department’s climate and equity committee – despite not being required to.

Resources for queer astronomers

If support from a department is lacking or even nonexistent, there are astronomy-specific resources and support networks available for queer astronomers. The American Astronomical Society’s (AAS) Committee for Sexual-Orientation and Gender Minorities in Astronomy (SGMA) has spent a decade advocating for LGBTQ+ astronomers and providing resources and support. Several folks I interviewed are or have been a part of SGMA and encouraged others to learn more about it.

It can be difficult for SGMA to reach undergraduates because they tend to be less involved with conferences and national organizations; Kiihne points out that “As an undergrad, it’s very hard to connect with the more national [groups].” This is particularly important because college is a time when students are vulnerable to leaving the field thanks to a lack of formal departmental support systems. Many queer astronomers have looked to informal structures or grassroots efforts for additional support. Connecting with other queer astronomers on Twitter has provided a source of encouragement, and several group chats and discord servers have brought members of the nonbinary astronomy community together in recent years. Says Charlotte Olsen, a graduate student at Rutgers, “I now have people who I call my friends who I’ve never met in person.”

Another helpful resource — particularly for students applying to universities and astronomers searching for faculty positions — is the Astronomy and Astrophysics Outlist, maintained by Yao-Yuan Mao and Omer Blaes. It’s a place for both queer astronomers and allies to sign their names, increasing LGBTQ+ visibility and showing where those who need it can find support. This can make an enormous difference for queer prospective students and faculty and staff looking for academic positions.

This Bite wasn’t designed to be a comprehensive overview of what departments can and should do to protect queer astronomers – nobody can do that in just a few thousand words. It was designed to put names to concepts and groups that are too often discussed solely in the abstract and the aggregate. Gender-neutral bathrooms aren’t just for non-binary and transgender folks; they’re for Avery Kiihne and Fletcher Waller and Megan Thompson. Welcoming environments aren’t just fostered by DEI committees; they exist thanks to hard work by Taylor Hutchison and Macy Huston and Winter Parts and Kaitlin Rasmussen. Harassment and bigotry aren’t just an issue for underrepresented minorities as a group; they’ve caused pain and harm to Shavonne Morin and Claudia Antolini and Charlotte Olsen and many, many more. As Nicole Man puts it, “It does feel like scientists look at numbers rather than who those numbers are.” I think that needs to change – and it needs to change now. Astronomers need to listen to the stories of the most vulnerable members of our community, including queer astronomers.

Yes, the bulk of the responsibility for creating a more inclusive community falls on allies – as it well should. It’s not the job of repressed groups to dig themselves out of the holes others have thrown them down. This is by no means an easy task, but astronomers have risen to the occasion time and time again when faced with seemingly Sisyphean challenges. We’ve taken pictures of a black hole tens of millions of light-years away, simulated the conditions in the hearts of the hottest stars, peered billions of years into the past, and detected ripples in the fabric of spacetime itself. As Antolini puts it, “Don’t fall for, ‘But it’s hard.’ Yes, guess what? It is hard. So you can either keep saying it’s hard and not care, or break the chain that has stigmatized and vilified minoritized and marginalized queer people for centuries. It’s one or the other, you know – on which side of history do you want to be? For you, it’s a choice. We don’t get to choose. So choose us.”

Astrobite edited by Lili Alderson and Luna Zagorac.

Featured image credit: Laurie Raye

About Graham Doskoch

I'm a first-year graduate student at West Virginia University, pursuing a PhD in radio astronomy. My focus is on neutron stars and pulsar timing, a method of detecting gravitational waves by monitoring arrays of pulsars over the course of many years. I'm an associate member of NANOGrav, and I'm starting to help with their ongoing timing efforts. I love running, hiking, reading, and just enjoying nature.

Leave a Reply