LGBTSTEM Day: James Oliver

Posted on July 5, 2019   by Microbiology Society

The International Day of LGBTQ+ People in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths is held to raise awareness about the challenges LGBTQ+ people face in STEM. This year, our Member Engagement Officer, Eve, interviewed two of our Champions about their journey as LGBTQ+ individuals in STEM. In this interview, James Oliver, an undergraduate BSc Biology student at Edge Hill University, talks about his experience as a bisexual transgender male in science.

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© James Oliver

To start off, can you tell me a bit more about yourself?

My name is James, and I’m a 21-year-old trans male (he/him) studying general Biology at Edge Hill University. My current professional interests are forensic microbiology, specifically the links between the necrobiome and saltwater decomposition, and astromicrobiology as a general field.

I was straight for maybe five minutes of my life. The first time I looked at a boy (when I identified as a girl) and thought “Gee, he’s handsome”, I turned my head and looked at a girl and thought “Gee, she’s beautiful”, and that was that. I never actually came out as bisexual – I just always have been. I ‘figured out’ I was trans in March 2013 (age 14) and came out to my entire friendship group within 30 minutes as I didn’t quite realise what a big deal it was. I came out to my family six months later. I threw myself into the system within a month of figuring it all out, but I didn’t get a GIC (gender identity clinic) appointment until October 2016. I started hormone replacement treatment in August 2017, and then started it again in a different format in June 2018.

My gender identity discovery came about quite easily, after I had the thought of “I wish I was a boy who could kiss other boys”. One quick Google search and a couple of NHS checklists later, and I was trans. I’d never even heard of trans people until that day. This is one of the reasons I am so open about my identity – by the time I figured it all out, it was too late for me to start hormone blockers and I was deep in the throes of female puberty. One of my goals is to prevent this from happening to other trans children, to give them the opportunity and the space to consider their gender identity before starting puberty, so they don’t experience the same grief I did.

Despite what it sounds like, my identity as a trans person isn’t the most important thing about me. I love music, of every genre. I love to write and read nerdy books. I love to grow my spider plants and do my laundry. I love to go on drives with my friends and create pasta sauces with way too much garlic. I love doing historical re-enactment. I love art, playing board games, and creating a well-organised farm on Stardew Valley. I love writing emails and talking to the academics I admire. I love writing endless to-do lists on the back of my hand, and never doing half of the things on them. I love playing Dungeons and Dragons and creating characters for it with my housemates. I love my dog, and seeing my family be happy. I love myself, and the person I have fought to become.

I am a lot of things. Being LGBTQ+ is only one small part of my whole.

It’s LGBTSTEM Day on 5 July, are you doing anything this year to raise awareness?

I had a few ideas for this day, but as I am currently 100-odd miles away from my university for the summer break, I had to focus on online activities. So my role will mostly include sharing information and relevant media on Twitter. The impact Twitter is having on academic inclusivity is growing every day, and I plan to spread the word as far and wide as possible.

Have you ever had any concerns about going into academia as someone who is openly part of the LGBTQ+ community?

Honestly, very few. When I started university, I strongly considered staying in the closet as much as possible regarding my gender identity. I have lived in a small town for most of my life, which made me conscious of stigmas surrounding LGBT+ individuals, especially trans people. Despite the fact I had been out at home for three years before starting university, I was worried about the prospect of meeting strangers who could have had very negative reactions.

Thankfully, I ended up not living in the closet. I met another trans person on my very first day, and a dozen more in the first week, and I was completely open about my identity from then onwards.

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© James Oliver

Do you think the STEM community is becoming more open to talking about issues surrounding LGBTQ+?

Slowly, yes. There have been some massive jumps forward lately, and a few strides backwards, but overall I believe that the STEM community is embracing its LGBTQ+ members. LGBTSTEM Day is a brilliant example of that. I never expected in a million years that I would be talking publicly about my experiences as a trans person in science, yet here I am!

Could you tell us a little about your undergraduate degree?

My current course, BSc Biology, allowed me to explore the different general areas of science that I hadn't considered. I assumed I would have ended up studying botany or something similar due to my love for my houseplants, but one session in my first year Cellular Form and Function module was enough to make me fall in love with the lab. Second year has just ended, and I selected the Lab Masterclass and Molecular Genetics modules to focus on microbiology a little bit. I also carried out a small research project on halophiles (salt-loving microbes) with a partner, and we later presented a poster on this at our university. Next year, I will be carrying out my undergraduate dissertation on the role of halophiles in the necrobiome (the set of micro-organisms associated with a corpse during different stages of decomposition). My university course has taken me a completely different direction to the one I expected, but I really couldn't be happier with that!

If it wasn’t science, what career path would you have chosen?

I don’t like this question, as it reminds me of my past mistakes! When I started university, I originally studied creative writing as I felt like I wasn’t bright enough for biology. I hadn’t studied biology at A-Level due to my fears of failure, so jumping from creative writing to biology after my first year was one of the scariest things I have done to date. I’m glad I did it, and I really couldn’t have prospered as I have without the support of my academic circles.

Becoming an author was my other career path, and I have several novel drafts sitting in my Google Drive waiting for me if I ever go down that road again. Nowadays, my “backups” are becoming a paramedic, or joining the Royal Navy as my dad did. I’d also make a pretty sweet PA, but I’d prefer to use those specific skills to become a lab technician if it came to that.

So far, have you experienced any bias or prejudice at university?

Very little. I am lucky in a lot of ways as my university, Edge Hill, pushes for LGBTQ+ equality at every turn. We have LGBTQ+ and trans officers in our Students' Union. We run a pride week every year and have a prominent LGBTQ+ Society. There are pushes towards having gender neutral bathrooms in every building (Including the Biology department where I spend the majority of my time!). I was able to change my name and gender on the university records with ease. I consider myself very lucky, as I know some universities are not nearly as accepting or as accommodating.

What advice would you give to someone considering coming out while in STEM / considering going into STEM?

Be honest about who you are. Not just about your identity, but about whether you are comfortable coming and being out. If you are someone who doesn’t feel safe being out, that’s more than fine. Everyone’s situation is different, and no one knows you and your social/academic circles better than you do. You are valid, and you are not alone in this. Drop me an email if you want to vent!

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© James Oliver

Do you think LGBTQ+ students get enough support in universities?

Personally, I have received more than enough support. But I know that the situation isn’t the same for everyone. I have trans friends at other universities who aren’t allowed to change their names on the university records without a GRC (gender recognition certificate), which is extremely difficult to come by – I still don’t have one, and I have been out for nearly seven years!

I’d say that the support available at universities won’t be universal for a while yet, but that support can always be found in other places, such as social media and through LGBTQ+ helplines. I hope that raising awareness – for example through LGBTSTEM Day – will get us closer to that universal equality a little more quickly.

Would you like to add anything?

Just that you are not alone. There will always be someone in the same situation you are in. My story isn’t unique, and I doubt yours is either, even if it feels that way during your darkest hours. There will always be someone in the LGBTQ+ or STEM community (or both) ready to listen, to give advice, or to fight your corner.

You are not alone.

As with all the members we interview, can you tell us why you decided to join the Society?

The Society’s goals aligned quite well with what I wanted to bring to and get back from science. I knew from the very beginning that my home was in the lab rather than the field, and I fell in love with microbes soon after starting. The Society seemed like the perfect way to extend my academic circles and learn more about the world of microbiology.

To round it all off, what would you tell someone who is considering joining the Society?

Just do it! I have learned so much since joining, both about myself and about the gazillion other specific fields that are out there. You won’t regret it, I promise.

If you would like to get involved with Society activities, or become a Society Champion, contact our Member Engagement Officer Eve at [email protected]

LGBTSTEM Day - Pride in STEM