Erin Cech and Tom J. Waidzunas’s paper “Navigating the Heteronormativity of Engineering: The Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Students” (PDF) summarizes the results of surveys and interviews in 2008 with 17 queer engineering students (11 gay, four lesbian, two bi) at “a major US college we call ‘Gold University.’ ” In short:

  • Straight-male engineering students, if pressed, would begrudgingly claim that engineering is an ostensibly neutral or technical discipline. The lie is put to this presumption whenever any student comes out to even the least degree; coming out is viewed as disruptive. Essentially, being gay is deemed off-topic.

    People are accepting [of me as a gay man] up to a point. They’re fine with you being gay, but they don’t want you to talk about having a boyfriend. They’re fine in the abstract, but let’s just not go there. And the fact that they talk about their girlfriends in the lab I find kind of hypocritical.

  • In study groups and lab groups, pressure to stay in the closet is even worse. In fact, straight-male students give orders and can “assign” you “to the menial tasks.”

  • If you’re gay you pretty much can’t even bring your boyfriend to the office Christmas party.

  • Gay jokes are not considered funny by actual gays. But casual joshing and joking around are decoy measures that allow uptight straight students to half-assedly discuss the elephant in the room. Actual gay students, who conclude they have no choice but to go along with it, feel like dirt.

    Before I was out… I happened to laugh in a very gay way and [another student] mocked my laugh in the same kind of gay way that I laughed and then asked me, with obvious hostility, “Are you gay?” Other people were around him at the same time. And I said, no, I was not gay. [Respondent looks visibly uncomfortable at this point; he grimaced as he said this line, tugged at his shirt, shifted in his seat between “no” and “I was not gay”] Fortunately, the conversation ended there, but he really hurt me by that. He made me feel unsafe and denigrated based on my sexuality. I never forgave him for that.

  • Butch dykes have it mildly easier, apparently because male engineers figure they’re already too masculine to be pretty and just masculine enough to do engineering. Femme dykes aren’t taken seriously, which is consistent with my own experience with the sole bombshell girl in our engineering class; no one save for her masculine, handsome, self-assured boyfriend took her seriously.

  • The more a discipline deals with things and abstractions, the farther its remove from people, the manlier it is. “[R]espondents consistently ranked biological and chemical engineering departments as the most tolerant, and electrical and computer engineering and computer science with average tolerance. Mechanical, aerospace, civil, and structural departments were perceived by respondents to be the least tolerant fields.”

  • “If you come out to someone [and] they don’t like it, then they have to deal with it. But if everyone just assumes you’re straight, then it becomes your problem.”

Essentially, the only way to be out without ridicule or undermining is to become “indispensable” or have a position of power, like that of teaching assistant. It was this finding that brought back memories.

  • My tendency to overprepare and insist on reading everything written about a topic before so much as venturing an opinion on it developed early on. The fact I started out in university in a technical field made matters worse, as did the related fact that, of my engineering pals, I was the only one who was any good at math and chemistry (A+ in both), meaning there were many evenings at 10:00 or later when three or four guys would show up to shake me down for answers to homework. Why would they do that? It’s how engineering groups work; everybody has a specialty. But they also did it because I always had the answer. I had made myself indispensable.

    This tendency toward pluperfection is usually a strength, I see now, but it also gets in the way. It is another of the numerous un-Canadian traits I share with a few people here and with many who left the country. (Canadians would prefer to just go off half-cocked and get away with it. Expertise is viewed as anti-egalitarian. It is – but your work is the problem, not the fact somebody corrected you.)

  • We had a very fit and handsome blond teaching assistant for the class that none of us could understand in the slightest, circuits. (We all scraped through by the skin of our teeth. You either natively understand circuits or you don’t. None of us did.) Of course he was gay, and I see now I made him uncomfortable, sometimes overtly. But he would have been only a few years older than I was, hence not that much more mature. That means he had fewer defences available; he couldn’t just laugh it off. I remember comparing homework and there were all sorts of sarcastic notations (“Don’t be so lazy – draw a diagram”) on mine, not theirs. Almost in the style of mid-century blackmail, a closeted teen engineering student undermined an instructor.

And now, Praxis II

In two of the last three years, I was a guest at the UofT Division of Engineering Science Praxis II events, an apparently unique program that unites design and engineering. In the events I was invited to, students were divided into groups and assigned one of a limited number of tasks – all TTC-related, in this case.

I didn’t know what I was in for the first time, an excuse unavailable to me the next. Before judging day, I invited student teams over to give them advice and as many files and pictures as they could duplicate onto their laptops, an offer two groups took me up on. The professors always greeted me with enthusiasm and warmth. Even the 6′5″ ginger took it in stride.

It fell apart when a pissant of a student, who quite possibly is a child of or a future member of the Russian mob, lost his shit on me in public. I received another gracious invitation the next year, but simply couldn’t risk this sort of thing happening again. An undergraduate pisher had undermined an outside expert. Sins, it seems, revisit.

But something else happened that I have only now come to understand. From the minute I showed up for the second year’s exhibit I had a curious-looking photographer following my every move. He was also an engineering student, but apparently not in this group. I was baffled and had no way to “process” it, you might say. I am pretty sure I caused him embarrassment at the least and probably hurt his feelings.

Now, though, I suspect this fellow had been reading my work all along, looked up to me, and was thrilled he got the chance to meet me and tag along. I had no idea that was going on. A young male engineering student looked up to an older gay male.

This ever happened to you? Then maybe you understand my confusion.

So: Was he gay?

The Karaoke Test

If you work in a scientific or technical field, how accepting are your friends really?

If Web development is what we’re talking about, these are the most liberal technologists the world has ever known. (Even the Mormons, who treated me like a king.) But how many of you are there versus how many of them? (Do you have to scrounge and cajole to pull together a single boys’ night out?)

Do you feel like Klaus Nomi that time he appeared on television against his own better judgement with shaggy, open-shirted backup guitarists? That isn’t meant to be an obscure reference (it’s in The Nomi Song). In fact, you can try your own musical test.

If you’re out at karaoke with your coworkers or just with your friends at a conference, and it’s your turn at the microphone, and you’re willing to actually give it a go, do you feel you can really actually sing along to a number like “The Only One I Know” and change the pronouns so they aren’t all about the opposite sex?

No? Why not? Is it you or is it them? Doesn’t matter; it’s there. If you can’t do it, you’re surrounded. You’re the only gay in the village. Do you have a problem, or are you the problem, or are they?

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2010.10.18 15:03. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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None. I quit.

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