Queer in STEM, one month in

rainbow flag : banner, harvey milk plaza, castro, san francisco (2012) Happy Pride! Have some data. Photo by torbakhopper.

Over at the blog for the Queer in STEM study, I’ve just posted an update on the project’s progress about a month after we first launched it. In short: it’s going really amazingly well.

Back on May 7, we opened an online survey of folks working in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, and queer. As of today, 1,523 people have answered the call—out of which, 1,180 participants have completed the key survey questions on their identity and experience.

Our “snowball sampling” method of asking participants to pass along links to the study has been extremely successful: we know that the survey has been mentioned in at least 185 tweets, recommended 467 times on Facebook, and shared 20 times on Google+. We’ve been linked from websites we know well—like It’s Okay to Be Smart and Minority Postdoc—and also from new friends like Geek Feminism, The Asexual Agenda, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Lab and Field, and many, many folks on Tumblr.

To find out what’s next for the project, and to help spread the word (or even answer the questionnaire, if by some tiny chance you haven’t yet), go read the whole thing.◼

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Equality

IMG_6311 The dome of the Minnesota State Capitol. Photo by ckschleg.

Almost exactly six months after the election in which Minnesotans decided they didn’t want their state constitution to ban the legal recognition of same-sex relationships, their elected representatives provided that very recognition.

Last Thursday the state House passed a bill allowing the state to recognize same-sex couples in all the same ways it recognizes straight couples; today the Senate passed it, too; and tomorrow Governor Dayton will sign it into law. It’s almost exactly two years since another bunch of state legislators passed bills to amend the state constitution with a ban on same-sex marriage—which makes this some kind of record turn-around.

Of course, that turnaround happened because those two years contained an uprecedented campaign against the amendment by Minnesotans United for All Families leading up to a huge get-out-the-vote effort on election day that, incidentally, also saw the Democratic Farm Labor party take control of both houses of the state legislature. Almost immediately after the election, MNUnited moved to take advantage of the new, friendlier state government, re-tooling into a lobbying effort for the legislative measures that just passed.

I wasn’t anywhere near as closely involved in that new effort as I was in the campaign against the amendment—I made a couple donations, but otherwise stayed home and kept an eye on the news. This time round the action was in lobbying legislators, and I’d already helped get the out the votes to win DFL control of the legislature, and both my state rep and my state senator were co-sponsors on the House and Senate versions of the bill. Once again, a bunch of distant strangers were voting on the fullness of my citizenship—only this time the group of strangers was smaller, we already knew how most of them would vote, and there didn’t seem to be a lot of use calling up representatives and senators on whom I had no electoral claim. But the folks who did the work behind the scenes—and the folks who did call legislators and show up to rallies at the state capitol and generally keep up the pressure once the bills had been introduced into committee—made it happen.

This is far from the end of the struggle to achieve full equality before the law for all queer Americans—notably, there are 38 other states and at least one big Supreme Court decision to go, just on the single issue of civil marriage.

But it’s a mighty big step for the state of Minnesota—and it feels like we might just be riding the historical moment of inflection for the rest of the nation.

Edited to add: here, via the Minnesota Public Radio YouTube channel (with hat-tip to Joe My God), is what things looked like in the Capitol rotunda after the Senate’s vote today:

Because, duh.

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New project: Surveying LGBTQ folks working in science

Rainbow leds Photo by Julio Martinez.

I’m pleased and excited to announce that a project I’ve been working on for the last few months is finally ready to launch: A new, nationwide survey of queer folks working in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

You may recall that back when I hosted the first Pride Month edition of the Diversity in Science Carnival, one of the recurring themes was that, although we know lesbians, gay men, and bisexual and trans* folks work in STEM fields, our presence isn’t very visible. A few months ago, I started poking around the peer-reviewed literature, looking for studies of LGBT folks in science. I didn’t find much. Studies of LGBT folks in academia either focus primarily on undergraduate students, or consider faculty and staff across all academic disciplines as a group, or they consider very small, localized samples. And careers in STEM extend well beyond the campuses of research universities—what about folks outside the ivory tower?

I brought this up with my friend Allison Mattheis, who just happens to be the perfect person to talk to about this kind of thing: she’s just finished a Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development, and who is starting a faculty position in the College of Education at California State University Los Angeles this fall. Together we decided that, yes, there’s a real gap in the existing literature—and we want to close that gap.

So, in our not-very-considerable spare time, Alli and I have been putting together the first stage of a study to answer the questions we have about queer folks in STEM: who we are, what we study, and how our identities have shaped our interest in science and our experiences of working in research. That first stage is an online survey, which we’re hoping to distribute as widely as possible using a strategy called (heh) “snowball sampling”—asking folks who take the survey to pass it on to their friends and colleagues.

As of today, that survey is live and accepting responses at a dedicated website, QueerSTEM.org. If you’re lesbian, gay, bisexual, or trans*, have at least a Bachelor’s or technical degree, and are currently working in a STEM field in any capacity—from grad school to tenure-track faculty to corporate R&D to government employees to teachers—then we want to hear from you. Go take the survey, and then help us spread the word by sharing the short-link http://bit.ly/queerSTEM on Facebook and Google Plus, tweeting it (with the hashtag #QueerSTEM, if you please), or e-mailing it to folks who should contribute.

The plan is to leave the survey open for sampling until we’re satisified that we’ve collected a large, thorough sample of queer folks working in STEM in the U.S. I’ll share prelminary results as they become available—both here and on the blog at QueerSTEM.org—and, with any luck, we’ll ultimately publish what we find in an appropriate scholarly journal. We’re very excited to see the picture of sexual diversity in scientific careers that emerges from this work.◼

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Bully-land

Anti-bullying Respect Tour 2009 What would it take to eliminate bullying? Photo by Working Word.

In 2006, just about when we were all starting to see the light at the end of the Bush Administration, Sarah Vowell totally rearranged my perspective on U.S. politics:

High school … is the most appropriate metaphor for life in a democratic republic. Because democracy is an idealistic attempt to make life fair. And while high school is the place where you read about the democratic ideal of fairness, it is also the place most of us learn how unfair life really is. Who you are is informed by who you were then. And every nerd has an anecdote or two to tell about how Nerds versus Jocks is not just some epic mythological struggle but a pesky if normal way of life.

Vowell’s essay “The Nerd Voice” (originally published in as part of buy it over on The Partly Cloudy Patriot) starts from the observation that the differences between Presidential candidates Al Gore and George W. Bush are neatly encapsulated in the high school archetypes of Nerd and Jock, and from that spins an entire worldview. Alongside the Nerd are the poor kid, the undocumented kid, the disabled kid, the gay kid—the Democrats’ patchwork coalition of the unpopular lunch table. Arrayed against them: the Jock’s friends the rich kid, the casual racist, the popular kid who never has time for less-popular kids, the socially powerful who need not even acknowledge that they have power. Natural-born Republicans, every one.

More than a decade later, it barely counts as a metaphor to invoke the social strata of the schoolyard in reference to politics. The image of the Bully and the Bullied—the only slightly darker angle on the Nerd and the Jock—is routinely conjured by folks on both sides of the political spectrum to directly describe the actions They want to perpetrate against Us. In this atmosphere, where bullying is simultaneously a political issue and a unifying theory of politics even as the political discourse feeds back to shape the interactions of children in the schoolyard, Emily Bazelon’s book Sticks and Stones offers the hope of understanding not just our own high school traumas, or the experiences of children who are bullied today, but the way social power is wielded in American society.

Sticks and Stones grows out of Bazelon’s extensive writing on bullying for Slate. The book is structured around three specific cases: a girl bullied by upperclassmen for (a least initially) picking the wrong haircut; a gay boy in a rural school district; and a girl accused of contributing to a classmate’s suicide. The details of each case study inform Bazelon’s accounts of the others, and all three serve as starting points for discussion of broader context: the history of public schools’ legal responsbilities to protect students from bullying, historical and ongoing social research, and the evolving role of online media in teenagers’ social lives.

Bazelon’s handling of all this material is clear, precise, and cautious, even as she maintains empathy with (almost) everyone concerned in her three case studies. Early on, she establishes a working definition of bullying (from on the work of pioneering psychologist Dan Olweus), as “verbal or physical aggression that [is] repeated over time and that [involves] a power differential.” This allows differentiation between bullying and “drama,” or jostling for social status among near-equals.

That can still be a difficult line to draw, as the accounts in Sticks and Stones demonstrate—interviewing the bullies in her first case study, Bazelon rapidly establishes that what feels like bullying to the victim is percieved, by the bullies, as normal and necessary social interaction. They’re concerned to learn that the bullied girl, Monique, couldn’t handle their taunting, but not that they’d done something inappropriate.

Monique, in the eyes of these girls … hadn’t learned how to play the game; how to mock other kids and be mocked by them. This was the key to scaling the heights of middle school, if that was your goal. If you wanted to be one of the popular kids in Aminah’s mental chart, you had to learn how to trade barbs, to give as good as you got. … “You have to defend yourself,” Gianna told me.

Sticks and Stones also draws a distinction between kids who bully from positions of social or physical strength (think Mitt Romney, the son of a governor and CEO), and those who bully to shore up a precarious position low in the social pecking order. As Bazelon recounts the case of Jacob, a gay kid dealing with anti-gay bullying in a rural New York high school, it emerges that his chief antagonist may fall into the latter category, the “bully-victim.” Jacob’s bully goes after him in a broader social climate in which queer kids are fair game—where a school administrator can shrug off reported harassment by blaming the victim: “To the extent that the child isn’t ready to project their sexuality in a responsible way, the peers may not respond appropriately, either.”

In that context, a socially marginalized boy looking to prove his toughness has an obvious target.

Bullying Photo by JLM Photography.

Bazelon also finds that the roles of bully and bullied can shift rapidly, as demonstrated in the experience of Flannery Mullins, one of several students at South Hadley High in Massechusetts who were accused of bullying a classmate, Phoebe Prince, until she committed suicide. (Bazelon wrote extensively about this case for Slate.) However, it emerges that most of what came to be understood as bullying in the wake of Prince’s suicide originated as interactions that could have looked like nothing more than standard high-school drama over dating relationships—until they interacted, tragically, with Prince’s family life and fragile mental health.

Except, what does that say about what we’re willing to consider “standard high-school drama?”

The picture built in Sticks and Stones suggests that although bullying has become strongly associated with particular parts of society—queer kids, most notably, in the era of “It Gets Better”—there is something about bullying that is quite independent of any particular characteristic that may currently attract bullying. That is, to borrow a thought from Tony Kushner, it is conceivable that some future American society might treat queer young people just the same as it treats straight young people—and still allow all its young people to bully and be bullied, as part of the “normal” cost of growing up.

In other words, the problem of bullying is not about who, specifically, suffers the slings and arrows of life at the bottom of the social ladder. It’s about the existence of the ladder, and what we—parents, school staff, peers—allow teenagers to do and say to establish and enforce their places on it. Sticks and Stones surveys efforts to change exactly these things, and while Bazelon’s description of some specific programs seems hopeful, it’s also clear that they require sustained effort by teachers, administrators, students, and parents—and everyone involved must start from the shared realization that a school’s culture needs to change.

And, on some level, cultural acceptance of bullying is not about particular schools (though, of course, some are worse than others). It’s about our expectations for the very experience of high school. Fixing that will take more than local anti-bullying programs, or legalized marriage equality, or even the best anti-bullying laws. It will require Americans to re-examine how we treat each other, and how we treat those less powerful than us, in the schoolyard and beyond.◼

I was able to read Sticks and Stones for free in advance of publication, via NetGalley.

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Nothing in Biology Makes Sense: Making sense of same-sex orientation in humans

This week over at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense, I’m taking a look at a much-heralded new journal article that purports to solve an evolutionary puzzle that has particularly personal interest to me: how same-sex sexual orientation could evolve in the face of its selective costs. Of course, I’ve previously discussed a long list of possible answers to this question — but the new paper suggests that the best solution may lie in the epigenetics of sexual development.

Epigenetics is an appealing explanation for same-sex attraction because we have, at best, a fuzzy picture of the genetic basis of sexual orientation. Homosexuality definitely “runs in families”. That is, people with gay or lesbian parents, siblings, aunts, or uncles are more likely to be gay or lesbian themselves; and pairs of identical twins, who share pretty much all their genetic code, are more likely to have the same sexual orientation than pairs of fraternal twins, who share only half their genes.

Yet more sophisticated methods to identify specific genes associated with sexual orientation have failed to find any consistent candidates. (Though, as a caveat, the only genetic association study [PDF] I’ve seen suffers from small sample size and considers a very small number of markers by modern standards.) Moreover, while identical twins share sexual orientation more than fraternal twins, they don’t share it with complete fidelity — only about 20% of gay men who are identical twins have twin brothers with the same orientation.

For an explanation of what exactly epigenetics is, a full description of the new study, my evaluation of it all, and even some gratuitous — if, I hope, educational — beefcake, you’ll have to go read the whole thing.◼

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Blowout

Big Gay Race-DSC_6042- 9.29.12 The crowd at the Big Gay Race, in support of Minnesotans United for All Families. Photo by Joe Bielawa.

Last night’s election was a nationwide blowout for gay rights. Maine and Maryland passed ballot initiatives legalizing same-sex marriage, and although Washington’s mail-in balloting slows down the vote-counting, it looks like that state passed marriage equality, too. And here in Minnesota, we soundly rejected the proposal to put a ban on same-sex marriage in the state constitution — the final vote looks to be about 51% against the amendment.

Edited to add: Here’s video of Minnesotans United Campaign Manager Richard Carlbom learning the resut at almost the last minute before the campaign’s election night party had to call it a night — 1:45 a.m.

I didn’t find out about the Minnesota result until I woke up this morning — it was close, and the friends who came by to watch returns had already headed home before President Obama finally gave his acceptance speech, and I’d spent most of Election Day helping Minnesotans United get out the vote in the student-heavy neighborhoods around the University of Minnesota’s Minneapolis campus. Canvassing proved to be way better than spending the day refreshing political blogs and not getting anything else done. Walking around campus towards the end of the workday, I saw MNU’s bright orange “I voted NO” stickers everywhere.

From the very beginning, I’ve been impressed about how truly broad the opposition to the amendment was, and how many straight people were willing to put in time and money to secure (or, at least, work towards securing) basic rights for their GLBT friends, neighbors, and family members. In the early days of phone-banking, the straights outnumbered the gays on the phones by a pretty wide margin, and straight supporters flooded the streets for the Big Gay Race and pitched in to raise millions of dollars for the campaign. I’ll second Dan Savage and say, we couldn’t have done it without them.

And let’s not forget the support of the excellent and generous readers of this very site — thanks, yet again, for helping defeat the amendment.

This is really only a first step for Minnesota — even without a consitutional amendment, there’s still a law on the books banning same-sex couples from marriage. But it’s hard to deny that change is in the air, and there’s a huge base of supporters already organized and excited about taking the next step. We’re fired up. It feels pretty great.◼

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Down to the wire

With less than two days to go before Minnesotans put the right to marriage up for a majority vote, the latest poll — and, I’m guessing, the last one before Election Day — finds a majority of Minnesotan voters opposed to amending the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage. Here’s the report directly from Public Policy Polling:

The more interesting findings on our final Minnesota poll deal with the state’s high profile amendments to ban gay marriage and require voter identification. We find both narrowly trailing. 45% of voters say they’ll vote for the gay marriage ban, compared to 52% who are opposed to it. …

The marriage amendment is trailing because of a massive generational divide. Seniors support it by a 57/40 margin but every other age group opposes it, including a 36/62 margin against it among voters under 30. Republicans support it (79%) and Democrats oppose it (76%) in almost equal numbers, but independents tip the balance by opposing it 41/55.

Polling historically overreports support for marriage equality, and by margins more than big enough to wipe out a 52-45 majority. (E.g., California’s Proposition 8.) Still, this is the first time we’ve seen better than 50% opposition to the amendment after a couple months of statistical ties. And that age gap means I made exactly the right choice when I signed up to spend Election Day doing get-out-the-vote work in the neighborhoods adjoining the University of Minnesota.

I’m hopeful, and scared to get too hopeful.◼

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Marathon number five

2012.10.21 - Mankato Marathon 2012 finisher medal They give you a medal just for finishing — which was kind of a feat, in my case. Photo by jby.

So I’m home and more-or-less recovered from marathon number five, the Mankato Marathon. Final time: 3 hours, 33 minutes, and 32 seconds. Which, it happens, is five whole seconds better than my last marathon back in June. At two marathons a year with this kind of improvement, I’ll qualify for Boston some time before my 200th birthday.

I tried to tweet a couple images, but this one was pretty rough going, and I had other things on my mind. Like making it to the finish line. I’m sure Mankato is a lovely town, but there’s not enough of it to contain a whole 26.2-mile course, so most of the first two-thirds of the race were out in the middle of open farmland, with nothing to block a pretty persistent wind. Which wind was good for thermoregulation, but made running perceptibly harder.

Even so, I finished the first 23 miles in under three hours, setting what I’m pretty sure is a personal record for a half-marathon. That was too fast — by the last three miles, I didn’t have anything left. I ended up walking a depressing amount of the home stretch. Just like the last time around, I crossed the finish line to Cake’s cover of “I will survive,” and I felt every word.

Of course, it wasn’t just about the race this time round, and Denim and Tweed readers came through strong at the finish, donating enough to Minnestotans United for All Families to hit my $500 goal before the race even started. You folks rock!

(Of course, it’s still possible to donate if you didn’t get around to it. But this will be the last time I pester you about it here, I swear!)

And but so now I’m looking forward to spending the next three days or so unable to easily climb stairs. Also, trying to decide whether I really want to do a sixth one of these things. (Spoiler: I probably will, once I can climb stairs again.)◼

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Race day tomorrow — last chance to donate!

So, tomorrow’s the Mankato Marathon, which means I’m presently in a cheap hotel room in charming Mankato, Minnesota, winding down for an early bedtime in preparation to run 26.2 miles starting at 8 in the morning. Also, since I’m running to raise money for the campaign against an amendment to the Minnesota Constitution that would ban same-sex marriage, it’s also the home stretch for donations. D&T readers have already proven to be as generous as they are attractive and discerning, and given $350 so far — thanks! — which leaves just $150 to go to hit my goal. Update: As of 6 a.m. Sunday morning, you’ve hit $500 in donations! Many, many thanks!

So if you’ve already given (some of you, twice!) maybe pass on the donation link via your various social networks?

And if you want to track my progress tomorrow, you can look for bib number 529 on the results page; or keep an eye on my Twitter feed, in case I manage to live-tweet again. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a race playlist to assemble.◼

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