Expert panel discusses gender and sexual diversity

Posted on Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Student walking across the pride crosswalk on campus

Invisibility — it’s one of the major ways that members of LGBTQI2S+ communities protect themselves from social stigma. It’s also one of the key reasons that they are underrepresented in research and why Canada’s policies and programs often fail to meet their needs.

In mid-May, the Office of the Vice-President, Research invited an interdisciplinary panel to identify the challenges that members of LGBTQI2S+ communities face in research, academia, and in the arts, in science, and in technology industries. They also discussed strategies for building environments that are more gender and sexually diverse to benefit us all.

Here are a few highlights from the panel discussion:

Some of the quotes below have been edited for brevity and clarity.

The paradox of staying hidden

“The primary challenge that lesbians face in many societies is the struggle against dehumanization due to a reduction of their individuality to their gender and sexuality,” explains Dominique Bourque, a uOttawa professor at the Faculty of Social Science’s Institute of Feminist and Gender Studies and the Faculty of Arts’ Département de français.

“For many of them, lesbianism does not represent an identity so much as a strategy of resistance against the expectations that weigh on women in general,” she explains. “Lesbianism provides them with a way to invent their lives.”

Bourque’s research on the artistic and analytical achievements of French-speaking lesbians in the North offers us a glimpse into their priorities and their own definitions of what it means to be part of that community. It also offers an example of the consequences of staying hidden from the public eye.

“Visibility is not among the top priorities of lesbians. Their concerns centre more on violence against people, particularly violence that targets women. By distancing themselves from media, they distance themselves from environments that stereotype them, but remain invisible to young lesbians and those who are isolated or who are not yet out.”

Professor Dominique Bourque

Dominique Bourque

A need for LGBTQI2S+ support in STEM

For Naoufel Testaouni, the co-founder and president of QueerTech, an organization that empowers LGBTQI2S+ people in the tech industry, the first challenge he sees is the lack of data about individual groups.

“There is so much complexity, so much intersectionality — sexual orientation, gender identity, ethnicity, and so much more,” he says. “There is an absence of studies around bisexual, transgender, intersex and so many other communities, especially in the technology industry. And we tend to just lump everyone into one group when we talk about their challenges, when we do research, when we offer training or programs, etc.”

When analysing the data QueerTech does have, Naoufel points out that many members of LGBTQI2S+ communities report barriers at work, within the hiring and onboarding processes, and in their day-to-day lives.

“A lot of LGBTQI2S+ community members feel that they are left on their own to fight discrimination and racism, and that there is no support from their companies or their work environment,” he says. “And that trickles down to academia. Many students report not having that sense of belonging and will leave STEM because of the pressure they feel.”

Naoufel feels that training, programs, and policies need to be more intersectional in their approach, more tailored to the needs of individual groups within LGBTQI2S+ communities. He also mentions a need for greater representation in tech industries and the necessity for more entrepreneurship opportunities and empowerment for these groups.

Naoufel Testaouni, president of QueerTech

Naoufel Testaouni

Sustainable funding is crucial

“One of the biggest challenges civil society organizations face is chronic underfunding and funding cuts,” says Debbie Owusu-Akyeeah, the executive director of the Canadian Centre for Gender and Sexual Diversity (CCGSD), an LGBTQI2S+ civil society organization based in Ottawa that empowers gender and sexually diverse communities through education, research, and advocacy.

“Through our community-led research, we’re painting an accurate picture of the people who are the most marginalized in our community so that we have the data to best advocate for their needs. But our organizations have to be very creative with project funding and how we stretch it out to be able to do this important work.”

She points out that sometimes, gender-equality policies and funding programs exclude funding for gay, bi, and trans organizations because they’re not centred enough around women’s rights or do not feature enough women’s programming.

“And that ignores the reality that homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia play in gender-based violence,” she says. “Without core sustainable funding, we can’t gather that important data to advocate for the communities we represent and belong to, and we almost force underfunded, under-resourced, and overworked groups of trans and queer people to carry out this social change without much support.”

Debbie Owusu-Akyeeah, executive director of the Canadian Centre for Gender and Sexual Diversity

Debbie Owusu-Akyeeah

Faculty members and peers need to understand the challenges

Professor Stephen Brown at uOttawa’s School of Political Studies spoke about how the world of academia and research can help create safer spaces for its LGBTQI2S+ members. Doing fieldwork abroad, for example, “can be very difficult for people who are used to being open but who must temporarily re-enter the closet in ways that they aren’t used to,” he says.

For some, traveling abroad can raise additional challenges. “Things like obtaining a visa, having the right name on their passport, with a photo that corresponds to their current gender expression,” adds Brown. “The risks to security are greater when a person is trans or gender non-conforming. So I think it’s important for faculty members or anybody else who is working with researchers to be aware of that.”

Brown also acknowledges the small things that faculty members can do to make their students feel safe. He suggests including at least one article on their reading list that addresses LGBTQI2S+ issues, especially when teaching a course in the social sciences or the arts.

“And normalize talking about it, like you would any other reading,” he says. “Including your pronouns when introducing yourself or in your email signature can be a really important signal, as can putting a sticker or a flag on your door or something in your syllabus to indicate that you’re an ally and that your office is a safe space. And if someone makes a homophobic or transphobic comment, don’t pretend you didn’t hear it. Address it.”

Professor Stephen Brown

Stephen Brown

Learning to shake off the paralysis of discrimination

“Studying or working on misunderstood topics or being the subject of prejudice exposes someone to a variety of behaviours, ranging from anger to rejection, contempt and humiliation,” says Professor Bourque.

But rather than dwell on the offensive comments she received while defending her thesis, on the requests that she not work on the topic of lesbianism, or on the inappropriate behaviour from colleagues and students, Bourque pushes past these obstacles and encourages members of LGBTQI2S+ communities to do the same, because their contributions are too important.

“The discriminatory behaviour we experience does not belong to us,” she says. “If I had been more aware of this fact, I could have avoided the toxic effect such behaviours had on me, such as the exhausting hypervigilance that I developed or the fear of interviews that I have held since defending my thesis. And I would have certainly been more aware of my own shortcomings with respect to others.”

She says that if we want to promote inclusive and open behaviour, a good place to start is to pay attention to the language we use, and more specifically, to the way we address and engage others. “Dialogue seems more appropriate than orders, not only because it gives the other more freedom, but also because it does not relegate them to a subordinate position.”

Teaching our youth how to be allies

Owusu-Akyeeah believes it’s never too early to start teaching kids about gender and sexual diversity. As stated by Diego Herrera, uOttawa’s Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Advisor for Research, some people will argue that kids are too young to hear about homophobia, “but the reality is that kids aren’t too young to exercise homophobia or to suffer from homophobia.”

“It’s about how we teach it,” says Owusu-Akyeeah. “There are educational experts who know how best to teach subject matter like this to different age groups. Young people shouldn’t have to wait until they’re in university, if they even decide to go, to be able to first hear about sexual and gender diversity or to see themselves affirmed and reflected in the curriculum.”

As a final takeaway, the panelists agreed that collaborations between civil society organizations and academia are vitally important. The symbiotic relationship between authentic data collection, activism, research, and education is crucial to filling the gaps and helping LGBTQI2S+ communities thrive.

Professor Stacey Smith?

Stacey Smith?

The Office of the Vice-President, Research hosted the panel, “Encouraging gender and sexual diversity in the arts, science, and technology” as part of its “More Inclusion, Better Research” panel series and to mark the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia on May 17.

Diego Herrera, who is uOttawa’s Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Advisor for Research, co-moderated the panel discussion with uOttawa Professor Stacey Smith? from the Department of Mathematics and Statistics and the Faculty of Medicine.

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