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"You're Not Supposed to Be Human in STEM": Exploring Queer and Trans Belonging in STEM

Fri, April 22, 11:30am to 1:00pm PDT (11:30am to 1:00pm PDT), Marriott Marquis San Diego Marina, Floor: North Building, Lobby Level, Marriott Grand Ballroom 13


Although policymakers and industry leaders continue to call for an increase in the number of STEM degree holders, STEM fields can be especially inhospitable for queer and trans (QT) people. Two recent studies have shown that a sense of belonging may be a mediating factor that helps QT people persist in a STEM major (BLIND; Stout & Wright, 2016). The purpose of this study is to explore what it means to queer and trans students to belong in a STEM field.

Sense of belonging was originally introduced by researchers as a critique of the centrality of integration for college student persistence (Nora et al., 2005). Belonging is a basic human need that encompasses a person's requisite for cohesion with and mattering to one's community (Strayhorn, 2012). Belonging reflects how students with multiple identities navigate membership across various communities (Hurtado & Carter, 1997). In this study, a sense of belonging reflects how QT students in STEM are able to present themselves authentically and be recognized as someone who engages in STEM work.

We conducted a qualitative study using focus group interviews at two national conferences, the 2019 national oSTEM conference in November 2019, and the cancelled National Conference on Undergraduate Research (NCUR) in March 2020 (virtual focus groups with students who planned to be at NCUR). Six focus groups were conducted with a total of 30 students, encompassing the spectrum of gender identities, sexual orientations, and STEM majors.
Interviews focused on what it was like to be QT in STEM, where students most and least belonged in STEM, and why they think QT students are more likely to leave STEM majors. A preliminary thematic analysis of transcripts involved a two-step process. We first segmented transcripts by interview topic and then subcoded within each of these broader areas. We will reanalyze the transcripts to further develop themes for the final paper.

Preliminary themes reveal a complex portrait of the ways QT students described belonging in STEM. Many participants pointed to particular QT-affirming niches in STEM, but these places of support were not the result of institutional efforts. Location was especially influential for students who found themselves in a remote location for fieldwork or school, where they faced potential harm. Professional standards for appearance mattered especially for women/femme and nonbinary students. Allies do exist within STEM, but they need to be more visible and ready to intervene when problematic interactions occur.

Previous research has demonstrated that QT people encounter a hostile, unwelcoming environment in STEM (Cech & Waidzunas, 2011; Linley et al., 2018; BLIND), and feel pressured to compartmentalize being QT when engaged in STEM contexts. This environment leads to a higher proportion of QT people leaving STEM during their degree programs and to a higher percentage of QT people considering leaving STEM in their careers (Cech & Waidzunas, 2021; BLIND). This paper extends previous research on QT students in STEM by exploring how students’ meaning-making regarding belonging in STEM reflects the influence of context on being QT in STEM.