Amid lagging research into transgender issues, some transgender and non-binary students feel neglected and erased by the scientific community.
Braelyn Smith, a senior and the Fullbright College Representative for UA Out in STEM, said being transgender and a member of the STEM community can be challenging and marginalizing, partly because he often feels overlooked by the scientific and academic communities.
Studies examining challenges faced by transgender and gender-non-conforming people can be hard to come by despite the unique medical and social issues facing transgender and non-binary people.
“It’s very easy to feel very invisible,” Smith said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that approximately 14% of transgender women have HIV. Despite this, HIV prevalence, preventative measures and treatments in transgender people have been widely under-studied. The problem is especially severe in regards to transgender men, who are the least well-studied, according to the CDC.
Of respondents to a 2015 survey of 26,957 transgender and non-binary people, 47% of transgender people reported having been sexually assaulted in their life. Transgender people also have high rates for sexual assault in jail, prison, or juvenile detention (20%) and at homeless shelters (17%).
Ren Pepitone, assistant professor of history, teaches the UofA’s only LGBTQ+ history course, which she first taught in fall 2019. Pepitone thinks transgender and non-binary erasure has been a systemic problem in academia because of bias and prejudice, she said.
Pepitone said she thinks one reason it can be difficult to advance the study of gender minority issues is because researchers are trained to build off of existing models and data sets.
“And then because there aren’t those existing models, people undertaking future studies don’t have something to look to where they can account for that,” Pepitone said. “And so you see again and again the replication of studies that marginalize gender fluidity.”
A 2017 review of scientific literature identified 2,405 transgender-specific articles published in major journals between 1954 and 2016. Just .04% of articles published in the four highest-impact core medical journals from 2010-2015 were related to transgender or non-binary medical and sociological issues, according to the review.
Bryce Hughes, an assistant professor at Montana State University who has studied LGBTQ+ issues in science, technology, engineering and mathematics education, is currently working on an analysis of transgender student representation in STEM.
Hughes said it can be challenging to study such issues because there is scarce quantitative data on transgender experiences available to researchers. One reason for this inadequacy is that, for decades, nationwide surveys have been designed in ways that exclude or disregard transgender people, Hughes said.
Some institutions, such as private religious schools, refuse to participate in surveys that target transgender populations because of transphobia and a desire not to know, Hughes said.
Smith said transgender issues being under-studied makes him feel “completely and utterly overlooked, unimportant, unseen and to some extent unaccepted and unwelcome.”
Troy Warfield, a sophomore and non-binary person who uses the pronouns they/them, said it can feel lonely to be a member of a gender minority group. Warfield has become so used to feeling excluded and overlooked that they feel numb to it, they said.
“I mean, it’s not a great feeling, but you kind of notice after a while that people tend to forget about your group,” Warfield said. “I’m not unique in this, I don’t think, where I just don’t really pay attention to them anymore. Because if I did it would just make me feel more excluded.”
Another factor hindering scientific advancement is that the consensus on gender identity’s separation from biological sex is a recent one, Pepitone said. Some scientists still do not agree, and some treat being transgender as a mental illness.
“If you can’t take people’s identities seriously or you pathologize them, what’s the purpose of studying them?” Pepitone said. “Or you’re going to study them, but you’re going to study them in the context of mental illness.”
Beyond the pain of exclusion and stigma, Smith and Warfield said they worry that inadequate medical, scientific and academic research can harm the health and welfare of transgender and non-binary people. Warfield, a biology and public health major, is especially concerned about the medical field, they said.
“A lot of times, they’ll look at (transgender) people, and they’ll just assume that it affects them one way because of one specific thing,” Warfield said. “But since no one’s actually looking at (the details of transgender experiences), sometimes the data’s severely off.”
One-third of transgender people who saw a healthcare provider reported having at least one negative experience related to being transgender, and 23% did not see a doctor out of fear of being mistreated, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality’s 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey.
Bellamy Brooks, vice president of the Transgender Equality Network and a transgender woman, said one of the biggest challenges the organization faces is the scarcity of scientific data on transgender medical issues.
The Transgender Equality Network is a Fayetteville nonprofit that provides resources to the transgender community in Northwest Arkansas.
Brooks said adequate information on the efficacy of certain medications and the long-term physiological effects of hormone replacement therapywhich an estimated 49% of transgender people use to medically transition, can be hard to find. As a result, transgender people and advocacy groups are often forced to rely on anectodal evidence and community-based advice, she said.
“Basically people who are trans have to figure out that they’re trans on their own, do research on medications on their own and hope they work,” Brooks said. “It’s all just kind of a crapshoot.”
Smith said he thinks there is much work to be done to create an inclusive, affirming scientific community that prioritizes advancements in transgender research.
He thinks the most necessary step is improving education about gender minority issues and teaching researchers to treat transgender and non-binary individuals as people whose identities and issues matter.
Until more institutional reforms are undertaken, Smith and students like him will have to use their presence in STEM to sensitize and educate their fellow scientists and researchers, he said.
“I think not being as aware of (trangender people’s) existence–which partially comes from not knowing a person so you’ve not seen it as much– is definitely a big part of it,” Smith said. “Just the culture: the cis-normativity, the heteronormativity, the sheer lack of education.”