Queer voices in palaeontology

Riley Black and their dog Jet on site in Colorado

Riley Black and their dog Jet on site in Colorado.Credit: Riley Black

Earlier this month, I packed up my gear and headed west for the fossiliferous desert of central Nevada. It was my first expedition of the summer — a search for marine reptiles the size of whales that paddled through the ocean more than 200 million years ago. The dust of previous field seasons remained on most of my field gear — a sturdy tent, a cozy sleeping bag, sunscreen, hand tools — but before setting out this time I double-checked to make sure I’d remembered two additions. These were oestradiol and spironolactone, hormones commonly used in male-to-female transitions. Being in the middle of a juniper-studded desert, I wouldn’t have easy access to the drugs.

I’m a palaeontologist and writer, and I’ve worked under the name Brian Switek for years. It’s been only about six months since I came out as non-binary and transgender, although this was no sudden realization. I’d been reflecting on this part of myself for a long time, trying to fit myself into a gendered box that was reinforced by my relationships, but the collapse of my marriage late last year opened an array of possibilities that allowed me to step beyond the suppressive influences of my old life and move closer to who I am. This isn’t a process of adding on to who I was. This is erosion, washing off years of fear, depression and anxiety as I get closer and closer to who I am underneath.

Most official forms give you the binary demographic choices of ‘male’ and ‘female’, but I don’t feel comfortable assigning myself to one or the other for my gender. I was born physiologically male, but have come to realize that I’d feel more comfortable in a more feminine body. That’s why I identify as both non-binary and trans without any sense of contradiction. Sex, gender and sexuality are inter-related, but not synonymous, which makes me all the happier that Chicago’s Field Museum in Illinois ended the ‘boy or girl?’ discussions about the Tyrannosaurus rex specimen ‘Sue’ and opted for gender-neutral pronouns in March 2017. We don’t know the dinosaur’s sex, and we’re 66 million years too late to interrogate that T. rex about its gender.

I’ve found a ubiquitous part of the trans experience is continually having to explain yourself to the world at large. Why change? Why now? What’s going to happen? At times it feels like the best solution would be to write a frequently-asked-questions pamphlet, kept readily at hand for the next Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting. Even when questions are meant well, the persistent queries can turn into an endless grind: I wind up feeling like I’m being asked to justify my existence.

Even if not actively hostile, palaeontology presents queer people with terrain as challenging as any fossil-flecked desert. It’s easy to feel invisible. Although queer people in palaeontology are raising their voices and supporting each other, the fact is that the field might as well be frozen in the nineteenth century when it comes to representing and honouring the diversity that already exists in it. This discipline, like many others, is still struggling even to find equity between cisgendered men and women. People of colour, queer scientists, members of Indigenous communities and others still struggle for recognition in a discipline dominated by white men, some of whom intentionally cultivate an ‘Indiana Jones’ image — a long-lasting, popular representation of a palaeontologist that excludes many cultures, personalities and narratives.

A lack of inclusion, and understanding, has real consequences. For transgender palaeontologists, maintaining mental and physical health is absolutely essential. Being trans is different for everyone, but therapy, hormone replacement and surgery are common parts of transitioning and as important to our health as are annual check-ups and other essential medical procedures. University hiring committees and researchers taking on graduate students, among others, need to know these facts.

None of this is frivolous. Looking in the mirror and not being quite pleased with who you see is a common experience, but imagine living in that space — feeling that your body isn’t right, not representative of who you are — every day. Taking care of mind and body is crucial, especially in a time when transphobia still looms large and is even encouraged by some political leaders. For me, care involves cognitive behavioural therapy to cope with dysphoria and depression, prescribed hormones, blood tests to monitor my health, laser hair removal and, if I so choose, surgical options to help to bring my mind and body into a more comfortable union so I don’t have to walk around feeling like my own body isn’t really mine. Insurance companies can sometimes be resistant to offering assistance to people like me, requiring trans people to bear the burden of out-of-pocket costs and a lack of health-care support. That can severely limit already-restrictive career opportunities if these needs aren’t considered by others in the field.

There remains a push–pull relationship between contributing to the field as anyone else would and educating those around us about some of the unique challenges we face that often go overlooked. For example, the spironolactone that I take twice a day was developed as an oedema drug, which means that its main purpose is to jettison fluid from the body. Its androgen-blocking abilities are a side effect that have turned into a specific advantage for people like me, who need to suppress those hormones, but I’m going to quickly find out how many bottles of water I need to guzzle in a day to stay hydrated in bone-dry environments. That’s a matter of personal safety that others need to be aware of, and they cannot be until I tell them.

Carrying out fieldwork is another matter altogether. I work in the US Southwest, so every summer I join expeditions to states where the local vibe can be so virulently conservative that even federal employees are shot at. In the past, when I identified and presented as a man, I didn’t have much to worry about beyond the biting gnats. But I wonder how the dynamic might change now that I’m out and present as more feminine, or as someone not easily assignable to an expected category. During my excursion to Nevada, for example, a local rancher introduced himself to our crew by way of a racist and homophobic rant. When I walked away, he loudly started talking about the guns he keeps in his truck, and what a ‘dead-eye’ shot he is. The threat of violence is all too apparent, and isn’t just a US issue. Although I haven’t participated in international fieldwork, there’s now an entire list of countries that would be incredibly dangerous for me to travel to because of their policies of institutionalized violence against queer people. There’s a trade-off between the places I want to go, the work I want to participate in and all the equations that my mind is constantly running about my safety and how to remain vigilant.

I know I’m not entirely alone in this. On coming out, I very quickly found that many of my friends and colleagues were ready to call me Riley and talk to me about old bones just as they always have. My body is going to change, but not my affection for prehistory.

But it didn’t take long for the transphobia to emerge. In reaction to my first piece under my chosen name, which was critical of macho palaeontological tropes, I was accused of having an axe to grind against cisgendered men because I’m different. But the entire point of this transition is that I no longer want to be defined by other people’s expectations. Piece by piece, I’ve been removing the overburden of my past and digging into my true self. It’s a process carried out through therapy, prescriptions and introspection rather than through hammers and plaster, but the end result is much the same. I want to uncover the nature of myself as much as that of any dinosaur.

This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged. You can get in touch with the editor at naturecareerseditor@nature.com.

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