Collaborations, Slurs, and Being Heard

TW: Discussion of homophobic slurs

There have been plenty of times in life when I’ve had men assume that I don’t know what I’m doing or saying, and treat me accordingly. I’m mostly used to it when I go to a car shop to pick up oil, but have recently had it happen in one of the most egregious manners I’ve ever experienced within academia.

I hold a service position in a lab where I’ve been tasked with talking to people from all of the collaborations associated with it about any concerns or issues that they might have, and then I bring those concerns and issues to the higher-ups who run the lab. We hold meetings a few times a year to provide this communication line, and at a recent one nothing I said was heard until it was repeated by a more senior male colleague. Every single point I raised had to be filtered through him before the administration would listen to it without immediately telling me why what I was saying was either wrong or unimportant and therefore should be ignored. Once my male colleague repeated it, though, it suddenly was an important point that warranted further discussion. It was beyond frustrating, and leaves me feeling simultaneously like I should thank my colleague who had my back and made sure the administration heard the concerns that were brought to me, while also being upset that he felt the need to repeat everything that I had just said.

Along with concerns about this lab in particular, one of the things I brought up is my field’s tendency to use slurs within collaboration and equipment names. In particular, I’ve been seeing a number of talks at international conferences where the term “FAG” is included as an acronym, usually with an extra letter before it, and pronounced as you’d expect it to be. When I first encountered it, it was during a plenary talk given to hundreds of scientists, not one of whom (other than myself) seemed to have a problem with it. Seeing it there in all caps brought back memories of people who have screamed it at me threateningly, and made me think of so many of my friends who have had it weaponized against them immediately before and during more physical violence. Curious of how wide-spread the term was, I did a literature search afterwards and reading through the papers that had the slur written in all caps, repeatedly, on every page. It brought me right back to the gas station in Michigan when a number of men in a large truck drove by screaming it at me before slamming the breaks and turning back around towards me to chase me out of town. Back to walking the streets in Philadelphia and being followed by men loudly proclaiming it alongside the t-word and how they felt about me being in “their city”. To walking around as an undergrad and being terrified of using the restroom as shouts of it made their way down the halls. It’s a hateful word, and has no place within academia except in instances where it’s being either reclaimed or deconstructed.

I brought this up to this group of senior colleagues, particularly since I’m concerned that the wide-spread use of the term will further alienate LGBT students coming into the field. At first they seemed confused as to why that particular combination of letters would cause a problem, until they realized the word it formed and began using the term in discussing how they felt about it. How they felt about it was largely that the acronyms had been around for a long time, and that they shouldn’t have to change it “just because someone might get offended.”

The combination of hearing a large number of older straight cis men discussing how they felt about a homophobic slur and using it repeatedly while refusing to hear a word from the one person in that meeting who understands why having that in a collaboration name is a problem was a terrible combination, and has left me beyond frustrated and angry at the state of my field.

6 thoughts on “Collaborations, Slurs, and Being Heard

  1. Pardon me if I’m being dense, but the usage here seems to be an actual acronym with accepted use in the field, similar to how a “fag” is a cigarette in the UK. While I understand completely why that word is triggering to you, my guess is most people in the field read the word using the field definition and don’t intend it as a slur at all. Further, it seems that changing the convention would put the scientists you work with out of step with the field. So, I’m not sure what the best solution is here, though I sympathize with what sounds like an immensely frustrating experience.

  2. The acronym thing is ridiculous. You should never have had to go through those experiences in the first place. Being forced to relive these traumas in a professional setting (or anywhere) because someone is too lazy & disrespectful to change an acronym is just heinous.

    As for the meeting– does the senior male colleague realize that this was going on? If you have a good relationship, it might be a good entry point for you to just make him aware. You could even just show him this cartoon:

  3. “We hold meetings a few times a year to provide this communication line, and at a recent one nothing I said was heard until it was repeated by a more senior male colleague. ”

    Your comment gave me pause to wonder if the effect you observed was not sexist in nature, but hierarchical. I’ve had plenty of employment experiences where, as an underling (and male) my voice was often not heard… but, at times my ideas would come to fruition because someone higher up the food chain pursued them. I never took offense to it, but just accepted these are the ways hierarchies operate.

    Your story about the acronym is interesting. Science is chock full of them, and I wonder how many others might conjure up sensitivities. Slang terms come in and go out of usage very frequently. I haven’t heard fag used nearly so often as a gay insult as I did growing up- in the 70s & 80s. So I wonder if *fag* is slipping out of our vernacular as a term of derision.

    • I think it was a combination of both. However, the structure of the group is such that there’s a chair and then everyone else with equally weighted positions even though the membership is composed of people at a variety of points in their careers. I was brought into the position specifically to bring concerns to the administration, which makes it frustrating when outside politics and hierarchies make it unnecessarily difficult to do the job I’m supposed to do.

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