Content warning: This article discusses homophobia, transphobia, and identity-based violence.
On Wellesley Street, bordering the eastern edge of U of T’s St. George campus, hangs a banner depicting various pride flags. The text on the banner, displayed as a part of U of T’s “Defy Gravity” campaign, reads: “Breaking barriers to create change.”
The advertisement irritates CJ Conlin whenever they see it coming home from class. A material sciences engineering major in their Professional Experience Year (PEY), Conlin finds it frustrating that, despite U of T’s advertising as a progressive and inclusive institution, they still face administrative and institutional barriers — such as seeing their dead name on their TCard and being unable to find a bathroom they are comfortable using — as a nonbinary student at U of T and within the faculty of Engineering.
Over the last 50 years, Canada has made notable legislative and institutional progress for the LGBTQ+ community. From the first protests for LGBTQ+ rights in Canada throughout the 1970s, to 2005 when Canada became the fourth country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage, the country has made significant and steady progress in terms of LGBTQ+ rights.
However, this progress in legislation does not tell the whole story. In particular, fields such as science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), both in the workforce and in higher education, tend to lack diversity and are composed of an overwhelmingly large number of white men. This is especially true for the physical sciences, computer science, and engineering.
Though, in recent years, there have been pushes to increase gender and racial diversity in STEM at U of T and beyond, there is still a long way to go. In particular, there are significant gaps in the research on the experiences of LGBTQ+ people in STEM, both in the educational system and the workforce.
The optimistic message of that banner on Wellesley Street serves as a façade for a far more complicated issue. Speaking with STEM students and faculty members at U of T who are members of the LGBTQ+ community revealed many challenges and barriers that they still face.
An environment of discomfort
“People can be bigoted, but just not [say] anything,” Conlin said in an interview with The Varsity. Being openly queer in academic and professional fields has historically been stigmatized as unprofessional. Conlin feels that they have to hide aspects of their identity in academic settings after experiences where they felt like professors “very viscerally” reacted to queer students’ presentation. “I will tone down queerness around professors so as not to paint a target on my back… That’s just an [assumed] behaviour,” they said.
Katherine Jia, a mechanical engineering major who just finished her third year, echoes Conlin’s sentiment: “Older professors definitely give off the aura that they are not welcoming.” She points out that professors in her courses purposely use gendered terms such as “sir” or “ma’am” to address their students and show visible confusion when people present in a way that doesn’t strictly conform to gender norms.
“[The word] ‘ma’am’ just makes me feel uncomfortable,” she adds. “Because I’m fully a 20-year-old… last night for dinner, I ate yogurt, a Nutella bar, and a banana. I have no sense of authority over anybody.”
In STEM departments that don’t have much diversity, it’s not just professors that perpetuate an environment of discomfort toward queer students; other students contribute as well. “There’s… definitely some of that kind of boys’ locker room vibe to the whole thing,” said Zed Hoffman-Weldon, a fourth-year physics and public policy double major. They recall an online physics lecture they attended, where the professor mentioned that Schrödinger was a philanderer, and the chat responded with praise for Schrödinger’s actions. “[It was] just gross.”
Hoffman-Weldon also finds that, even though their peers aren’t misgendering them out of malice, it’s still exhausting to constantly correct them about their pronouns. “It’s even more tiring when you have to do it to the same person more than once… why does it have to be so hard?”
Hoffman-Weldon attributes this unintentional misgendering to the expectation that everyone in the physics department is a man, and the lack of diversity that results from that perception. “People do not really make an effort to be actively inclusive of nonbinary people. There’s kind of an expectation that if you’re in physics, you’re cis.”
In a field with an overwhelming number of straight men, Jia feels a need to constantly present as correct and competent in her field to be respected by others. “If I [am] in a situation [where I am] coming up with ideas… I kind of hold myself back from [expressing them] sometimes just because I don’t want to be wrong, and [give] people a reason to doubt me,” she says. “I try to come across with enough competence that if somebody were to doubt me, I know for certain that I’m right.”
Jia acknowledges that this pressure she feels to never make mistakes has to do with her intersecting identities of being both a woman and a member of the LGBTQ+ community, and not just from being an LGBTQ+-identifying person in STEM.
Disconnect between image and action
Hoffman-Weldon makes it clear that they don’t believe the lack of true inclusivity for queer students is a problem specific to STEM departments. “At least in my experience, if I left for social science or humanities, I’m not sure I’d really get something better,” they say.
Conlin echoes Hoffman-Weldon’s sentiment: “It’s not even an engineering-specific issue. It’s a [broader] university issue.”
Marissa Sterling, director of Diversity, Inclusivity and Professionalism in the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering, wrote in an email to The Varsity that along with providing funding for student equity, diversity, and inclusion initiatives, the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering “was the first in Canada to create an engineering-specific Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Professionalism, which provides training and builds equity programs to increase access.”
Sterling wrote that, in terms of faculty training for LGBTQ+ issues, “[the] Engineering faculty can take part in an array of university facilitated equity and inclusivity training opportunities, as well as toolkits and events created specifically for engineering (such as the Indigenous Cultural Competency Toolkit and the Black Cultural Competency Toolkit; more, including a toolkit focused on sex and gender, are in development).”
A spokesperson for U of T added in an email to The Varsity that “The ambitious Defy Gravity campaign seeks to raise $4 billion for the university’s highest priorities – one of which is building inclusive cities and societies by eliminating systemic barriers. That includes examining our own practices, policies and processes, creating pathways for secondary school students and new Canadians, and leading research and teaching on race, gender and sexual identity with the goal of driving social change.”
“There’s a lot of talk, but the action is very limited,” Jia says. She sees most often that the efforts to actively make the faculty or department more inclusive come from the actions of individual professors who care about LGBTQ+ issues. “[It’s not a] full faculty effort. It’s just these little groups that are doing their own thing.”
Conlin agrees with Jia about U of T’s inaction. For them, the university showcasing its inclusion efforts often feels performative. Conlin mentioned a post on the Faculty of Engineering’s official Instagram page that prominently displays QueerSphere — the student group for Engineering students in the LGBTQ+ community — whose booth visibly displayed both the pride and trans flags.
The post frustrates Conlin because they feel like this celebration ignores the tangible action LGBTQ+ students need from the university. For one thing, according to U of T’s official map, the engineering faculty only has one all-gender restroom in their buildings: in the basement of the Galbraith building. The combined number of single-stall and multi-stall all-gender bathrooms on the St. George campus is 12. The total number of all-gender bathrooms at UTM is 11, and UTSC has seven all-gender bathrooms.
Conlin also tells The Varsity that they felt discomfort when seeing their dead name on their TCard and Zoom profile. Conlin argues, “Students should be able to [access] a system that allows them to… change their preferred name [and state their pronouns]. It’s entirely possible that these things exist, that I’m just apparently completely unaware of them. But if I’m unaware of them, then that’s a problem.”
U of T has a program called Display First Name, which allows students to use their preferred names on some university platforms. Zoom is not included on the list. Moreover, access to the Display First Name program — and the program that allows students to change information on TCards — is not widely advertised in most student-frequented spaces.
In an email to The Varsity, David Pereira, acting director for U of T’s Sexual and Gender Diversity Office writes, “The Sexual & Gender Diversity Office (SGDO) is particularly focused on improving the experiences of 2SLGBTQ+ members of our community, including those in science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs.” In response to students changing display names, Pereira writes that “the SGDO sets out the steps to change one’s name (without legal documentation of a name change) on its website. This information can also be found at all Registrar’s Offices.”
The difference inclusion makes
Dionne Aleman is a professor in the university’s Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering and is the only prominently out member of the LGBTQ+ community in the Faculty of Engineering. In an interview with The Varsity, Aleman highlighted a unique issue that STEM fields face regarding inclusion, where prioritizing objectivity and being apolitical makes it so that change and active efforts toward the inclusion of marginalized groups can be slow and hard to enact.
“You get into a mindset [where] everything is technical, everything is numbers. ‘How can there be [Equity, Diversity and Inclusion) problems when [we’re] all… so objective and not susceptible to bias?’” she says. “We are taught to think very technically. But the fact of the matter is, engineers are humans too. They’re prone to all the same fallacies.”
Aleman is frustrated when she hears peers deny that there are inclusion and representation issues in engineering. “It’s sort of upsetting because I’ve experienced bias. I’ve been excluded from things as a woman in engineering. Not here at U of T at the faculty level, but definitely from students. You can tell a lot of the times some students really blatantly treat their female professors differently from others.”
She also recalled feeling compelled to quit her Formula SAE design team in undergrad because of having her ideas constantly rejected because she is a woman. “Even if there aren’t problems in the classroom, there are problems… To pretend that STEM isn’t as impacted as anyone else or any other field is wishful thinking.”
Sometimes, the focus on objectivity and the technical nature of STEM fields can be a good thing. Hoffman-Weldon was pleasantly surprised when people in their physics classes positively reacted to them being nonbinary — the complete opposite of their expectation of the physics department as exclusionary and unwelcoming. Hoffman-Weldon believes that the nature of physics itself eliminates the opportunity for their professors and peers to make overtly homophobic or transphobic comments in the classroom. “Because politics comes up so little [in physics], there’s just less opportunity for anyone to actually be transphobic or anything like that. [There’s a] tacit acceptance of everything that’s going on.”
Hoffman-Weldon says that there’s a long history of physics and mathematical physics rejecting traditional gendered pronouns. Mathematician Michael Spivak created a set of gender-neutral pronouns that he used in his 1990 manual The Joy of TeX. Derived from the same sounds of the words ‘he’ and ‘her,’ the pronouns ‘e,’ ‘em,’ and ‘eir’ were used by Spivak to avoid gendering people in the examples he used in his manual. “I think that’s just the attitude about the whole thing… like, ‘Let’s just do math.’”
Compared to their other major, public policy, Hoffman-Weldon finds that their nonbinary identity gets treated very differently in physics. They observe that there are people in the public policy program who define themselves liberal and supporters of the LGBTQ+ community; however, Hoffman-Weldon mentioned they’ve seen students making transphobic comments under the guise of taking an opposing stance.
Jia believes that inclusion makes a huge difference in making a queer student’s experience in STEM more positive. She feels more comfortable working with professors who ask for more diverse applicants to work with them in their labs. “That’s definitely something that I found that has been reassuring, [it shows me that] this prof isn’t homophobic. Which is such a low bar! But things like that definitely make students more comfortable in classes [with professors] and communicating with [professors].”
For this reason, Aleman makes the conscious decision to outwardly present herself as part of the LGBTQ+ community. In her lectures, she makes it a point to show students that her classrooms are an inclusive space by displaying Engineering Positive Space (EPS) pins. She is the faculty co-chair of the EPS, a committee that aims to make engineering a more inclusive space, specifically for members of the LGBTQ+ community.
Staying despite the status quo
Initiatives and student-run clubs such as EPS and QueerSphere certainly create more resources that STEM students in the LGBTQ+ community can turn to. Yet, homophobia and transphobia are still very much issues that members of the LGBTQ+ community at U of T face.
Aleman cited an instance when she was a junior faculty member in which someone reviewing funding grants she had applied for wrote that she was “dangerous” and “should not be allowed around students.”
“I failed to get any of these grants because somebody was just tanking me. And I can only assume it’s because of my gayness, because why else would you say something like that? It’s just such a wildly unprofessional attack,” she said. On a similar topic, she also recalled reports from a student about hearing homophobic comments during Pride month this year.
To someone who is not part of the LGBTQ+ community, these issues may fly under the radar, but continuing to ignore the often subtle acts of exclusion and disrespect that queer students face at U of T can lead to more blatant forms of danger. The erasure of queer existence can lead to tangible acts of violence.
On June 28, 2023, at the University of Waterloo — a university located two hours north of Toronto — a 24-year-old former physics student stabbed three people in a gender studies class. Police believe the attack was motivated by hate related to gender identity and expression. The stabbing occurred amid an uptick in violence against members of the LGBTQ+ community in North America.
Aleman says that the stabbing in Waterloo was not an isolated incident. “It might be the worst of it, but it’s no surprise that eventually something like that happened.”
Despite the everyday hardship they face — and the general trend of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation and violence occurring in Canada and beyond — these members of the LGBTQ+ community won’t be leaving STEM anytime soon; they stay in their respective fields because they love what they do.
In Jia’s case, she knew when applying to U of T Engineering that the underrepresentation of both women and members of the LGBTQ+ community was a concern. Yet, she found the confidence to progress in her field because of her experiences in high school. “I was fortunate enough to be exposed to a diverse range of engineers and engineering students [at FIRST Robotics], so I was able to see myself in that career field… Also, it was something that I was passionate about, so I didn’t want that hesitation to stop me from pursuing it, because it felt like I was just giving into the stereotype.”
Aleman understands that her peers and students may not feel comfortable coming out in an industry or field where they are underrepresented — especially in the wake of increased violence against the LGBTQ+ community. Yet, she also acknowledges that explicit queer visibility is imperative to creating a more inclusive environment.
Aleman believes that by being out, she shows fellow faculty members and students who are part of the LGBTQ+ community that they are not alone. “I try to be very out because I want people to know that it’s okay, [that] there’s at least one person that you can come to if you have troubles, that you could talk with that isn’t going to surprise you with some biased assessment of your life,” she explains.
As a tenured professor, Aleman recognizes that she’s in a position of privilege that makes it easier to be prominently out in the STEM field, but she still believes that it would be beneficial for students and faculty in the LGBTQ+ community to come out when they feel comfortable, as it can help increase the visibility of queer people in STEM.
Aleman feels it’s her responsibility to serve as a role model for other members of the LGBTQ+ community in engineering. “If not me, then who?”
Editor’s note (September 6): An earlier version of this article mistakenly referred to Aleman as a professor on track for tenure, instead of as a tenured professor.