Pride: Stories about coming out in science

To close out Pride Month this week, we're sharing a special bonus episode featuring stories about coming out in science! 

Part 1: Science educator Charlie Cook experiments with coming out to students.

Charlie Cook is a non-binary stand up comedian by night and a non-binary science educator by day. Their favourite topics include queer theory, entomology, and outer space. For more information on their work and to find out where they're performing next, visit them on Instagram @onmygnome

Part 2: Marine biologist Shayle Matsuda adapts to his new identity as a transgender man while on assignment in the Philippines.

Shayle Matsuda's story originally aired on our podcast in November 2014. See details here.

Note: This June, The Story Collider is celebrating Pride Month by highlighting stories about the intersection of science and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer issues. Each of our five weekly episodes this month will include one of these stories, and you can follow us on Twitter and Instagram this month as we also share highlights from our back catalog as well. 


Episode Transcript

Part 1: Charlie Cook

I get misgendered a lot.  People look at me and think that I’m a woman when in fact I am a swarm of bees.  Really, I’m a non-binary trans person but it would honestly be a lot easier if I was a swarm of bees, because then people would be like, “Oh, Charlie’s gender is on the endangered species list.  Aww.”  Or, “Ah, I was stung by Charlie’s gender once so now I give it a lot of space.”  Or, “Their gender is really scary to me but I respect the importance to the ecological systems of our earth that this gender provides so I respect their ability to live freely in the world.” 

It’s pretty exhausting to be a trans person on a daily basis.  When strangers catcall me, it’s because they assume that I am a sexy lady.  When servers are trying to be polite, they'll usually call me ‘Ma’am’ or ‘Miss,’ and if I don’t make a case for it beforehand when I’m performing, the assumption is always that I’m a woman and I lose valuable minutes of my stage time defending my identity. 

For a long time, I pretended that I was just a cis woman and that made me happy.  But it’s 2016 and I’m talking to a friend about acting and about the things that I want to get to do that I don’t feel authentically able to do.  And this friend suggests that they start calling me they/them pronouns.  It’s kind of like a series of things all just kind of fit into place.  All of these ways that I really felt connected to myself, all these ways that I felt uneasy in the world just kind of go away. 

It makes it really important for me to find spaces where I can feel safe.  I start hanging out with a lot more queer people who are less likely to slip up my pronouns.  I start dating people who aren’t going to box me into one gender role or the other.  And I decide to come out at work. 

I’m fairly lucky.  Other than the whole trans people being marginalized and pushed off to the fringes of society thing, I’m lucky because I work in the science and education field and, on average, those people tend to be a little bit more accepting than the daily public.  When you spend your time disproving anti-vaxxers, dispelling Flat Earth Theories or just trying to keep two kids from killing each other, you've got a lot less time to worry about what’s going on between people’s legs.  But this doesn’t mean that I was any less scared to come out to my co-workers and bosses who had known me for too long as a woman. 

So I work with kids at Science World and it’s this really great opportunity to bring a role model to this community who kids probably normally don’t get to interact with.  Because most kids don’t go to dispensaries or tattoo parlors so they’ve never met an employed person with colorful hair and a septum ring. 

I start an email to my co-workers and my bosses.  I title it “The Pronouncement.”  And then I stare at my email box for about an hour trying to find the right way to phrase my small, tiny request that it would be cool, if it’s not too much of an inconvenience to people, to just maybe kind of I'd really like it if people started using my pronouns. 

My hands are shaking.  I’m sweating through my shirt and I send it.  

The response I get back is kind of a more professional equivalent of, “Okay.”  For all of the fear that I had built up it really didn’t give me all that much.  Really, I think that’s because science is all about challenging assumptions and it’s about things that are outside the gender binary.  You can’t study hermaphroditic snails or fish that start their lives as male and transition to become female later in the life and believe that there are two, three, four, any number of finite genders. 

I construct a hypothesis.  How will seven-year-olds react to the presentation of a person who is outside of the gender binary and how will they handle they/them pronouns?  I decide that for eight weeks of summer camps I am going to come out to the children that I’m working with as a non-binary and just see how that goes. 

The other week I met an adult and, in our conversation, I found myself going, “They… they… they” like a broken pronoun record until this person finally clued in that I was saying something to them and went, “I’m sorry.  What is a ‘They’?”

So I didn’t have very high hopes for telling a bunch of seven-year-olds.  Granted, my control group is the men I work with in the stand-up comedy field and they're a little less mature than the seven-year-olds that I teach.  So at least I had that going. 

I’m sitting in this group, this circle with these children who have never met me before and, for all I know, their parents believe that people like me are out to corrupt them with the homosexual agenda.  I start by asking them if they know what a pronoun is.  A few of them do. 

So I present them with the activity, Respecting My Identity, and the instructions: use they/them pronouns when referring to me. 

Charlie Cook shares their story in May 2018 at the Fox Cabaret in Vancouver. Photo by Rob Shaer.

Charlie Cook shares their story in May 2018 at the Fox Cabaret in Vancouver. Photo by Rob Shaer.

We’re in the galleries at Science World.  I’m running around trying to keep track of all these kids making sure nothing gets broken and one of these kids come up to me.  I always get kind of conflicted when kids ask me if I’m a boy or a girl because, partly, why does any stranger, let alone a child, need to know the shape of my genitals?  But on the other hand, if my mere presence somewhere prompts a child to question what they know about the gender binary then I kind of feel like I’m doing something right. 

So this kid asks me if I’m a boy or a girl, and I tell them I’m neither. 

“But everyone is a boy or a girl.”

“No.  Some people are neither.  Some people are boys.  Some people are girls.  Some people are a bit of both.”

“Oh, so someone could start their life as a boy and then become a girl?”

This kid was six years old, and in the span of a few short words they went from believing that gender was a rigid thing, which is prescribed to all of us before we’d even drawn a friggin’ breath, to seeing gender as a personal spectrum. 

I started to feel safer in the group I was in.  I realized that even if this kid didn’t fully understand it, even if they didn’t get my pronouns right half the time, this kid didn’t call me ‘gross’, didn’t tell me that it was just really hard for them to wrap their head around this concept or that, “they/them pronouns just didn’t really make sense in a singular way,” which are all things that adults have told me. 

So I went on.  Every week, I would come out to these kids wondering if this was eventually going to be the time that one of them told me I was going to hell.  To keep my mind off of this impending trans-phobia, I started coming up with variables for my experiment. 

What would happen if, instead of asking kids to use they/them pronouns, I focused on the fact that I’m not a boy or a girl?  What would happen if instead of calling the kids ‘guys’ we referred to them as ‘friends’ or ‘scientists’?  What would happen if I gave a table of boys pink goggles to wear during their experiments?  The answer is if you don’t make a big deal out of it, kids don’t really care. 

But over the course of the summer I still got pretty tired.  Imagine for a moment that you love bees, but for some reason people wherever you go, usually before actually talking to you, look at you and assume that you hate bees.  And no matter how many times you correct them, people keep forgetting this and keep insisting that you must hate bees, that you are a person who hates bees. 

And you can remind people over and over again that, no, you love bees.  You can try and make changes to your appearance and start wearing accessories which might better indicate to people that you love bees and people that you work with on a daily basis might still forget that you're trans, I mean, love bees. 

I got worn down by the cis-tem, if you will.  I wear a chest-compressing binder.  It helps to flatten my chest and create a more androgynous appearance in exchange for squishing the air out of my lungs.  Even with my tits in this fucking jail, parents would still refer to me as ‘she’ and that just doesn’t seem fair. 

Eventually I get tired of fighting for myself, of being the only one saying anything.  So when a kid in an older summer camp points at me and says, “Is that a boy or a girl?”, instead of educating him, I walk away.  I work at a summer camp in order to teach kids about science, to play with them and keep them safe, not to be a Show-and-Tell of another gender. 

And as I’m walking away, I hear a kid go, “Well, Charlie is neither a boy or a girl.  They're a person.” 

I try to treat every kid that I work with equally but that kid may or may not have gotten a bit of special treatment that week. 

I started feeling bolder.  Later that day, we’re building with blocks and creating this big towers and a kid refers to me as “she.”  Normally, I'd let this slide but this time I ask this kid if they could stop calling me that because it doesn’t make me feel good.  And instead of telling me no or that I was wrong, they said, yeah.  “Yeah, you're not that.  You're a person.” 

So the summer was ending and it was time for me to analyze my data from this experiment.  While not every kid walked away from that camp using my correct pronouns or really getting it, maybe, I felt safer coming out to these kids as who I am than I've ever really felt coming out to a roomful of cis adults.  No offense to all of you. 

Ultimately, that’s why letting trans people exist, whether you're a scientist or a friend or anywhere in your life is important because I’m not a swarm of bees.  I’m a person. 


Part 2: Shayle Matsuda

So I’m a marine biology graduate student and I’m in the Philippines on my very first scientific expedition.  We’re all at our lab benches and we’re going over our specimens.  Everyone is working really hard and then all of a sudden I hear it from across the room.  “Oh, what’s this species?  I've never heard of this before.”  The room gets quiet and my heart sinks into my stomach because, you see, I know what happened. 

Earlier that day, I'd given him a list of all the different scientific names of the creatures that we had collected and I had spelled one of the scientific names wrong.  Now, why was this such a big deal, right? 

It wasn’t just my first expedition as a scientist.  It was my first expedition as a man.  You see, I’m transgender and, at that point, I was just at the very beginning of my transition.  And so this really was a big defining moment for me.  It was these two large threads of my life kind of colliding at the same point.  I was trying to prove myself as a scientist but I was also trying to be accepted as one of the guys. 

Now, rewind like seven months.  It was the end of my first year as a graduate student and I was finally able to start really seeing a future for myself in science.  And this funny thing happens when you're happy.  You start picking up on all the things that are actually missing in your life.  It was kind of through that time that I really started coming into peace with the knowledge that I was never going to be truly happy until I lived on the outside as I'd always felt on the inside, until I transitioned. 

Now, this wasn’t like a really new thing.  I struggled with gender for a long time but, as a scientist, I was always looking for some evidence.  I was like, “Are you sure?  Is there proof?  Like do you really know this is you?”  That evidence didn’t even come but that clarity did. 

And with that clarity came fear.  Transitioning is a really scary thing on its own but I was really scared about what this would mean for me in science, especially science not necessarily in San Francisco.  So I did the next logical thing and I Googled ‘transgender scientists’ to see who was out there. 

Wikipedia told me that there were fourteen transgender scientists.  Twelve of them were male-to-female, two of them were female-to-male like me, one of those two was dead but the other one lived in California, which meant that there was hope.  So afterwards I began the process of coming out. 

I had a lot of experience doing that as a lesbian but like I’m saying, this whole idea of proof my girlfriend is the evidence, right?  But when you're coming out as transgender, it’s just you.  You're the evidence that you're asking people to look at and support. 

So I came up to my advisor through an essay for a grant.  I handed him this essay and I said, we should probably talk about this.  I'll be right back.  And I gave it to him and I went away and I was kind of pacing around upstairs, really sweating in my palms.  When about 20 minutes had passed, I went back downstairs and I rounded the corner and I saw him.  He was standing in the doorway to his office.  As I walked up, he greeted me with the biggest smile.  From there, I started coming out to everyone in my department one at a time. 

Now, it’s three months before the Philippines trip and I start hormone replacement therapy.  I had my first shot of testosterone.  So going back up to the Philippines, I’m at the airport.  I've got all my dive gear, I have my passport which still has my old gender marker on it, I've got syringes and I’m like ready to go battle with the TSA.  But I get through the airport and I get to the Philippines and I join the expedition.  What I didn’t realize is that I had no idea what to expect.

So Day 1.  We’re about to go on our first dive and I realize I don't have any of the right gear.  I don't have a bag to collect the specimens in, I don't have any little jars to put them in, I don't have the right tools, I don't even know what the right tools are.  So I’m running around the lab trying to grab anything I can while everyone else was loading up the boats.  I get in the boat, we get out to the dive site, we go into the water and we’re descending into a world that I couldn’t barely even imagine before. 

The water is clear.  There's bright-colored fish, corals.  It’s fantastic.  But all of this excitement starts to fade as we get to the bottom and I realize, I don't know how to find sea slugs. 

So I study sea slugs for my research and at the Academy of Sciences where I do my work, it’s really easy to find them.  They're right in the jars.  In the ocean, they're brightly-colored animals but they don’t really stand out because everything is brightly colored.  So I’m starting to swim around and getting a little nervous.  Ten minutes pass and I’m like, “What if I can’t find these things?  Can I keep studying them?  Is this going to be okay?”

Then I find one, I see one.  It’s right over there.  I swim over.  I open my goody bag and, all of a sudden, all those little jars that I forgot to put water in are trying to float to the surface.  I’m grabbing the jars, I’m trying to keep my eye on the slug over there because I’m going to get that guy.  I get everything back in, I get the slug in the jar, the dive ends and everything is fine.  

I go up to my adviser and I have this bag of all these big, bright-colored slugs.  I’m really proud of myself.  He looks in this bag and he's like, “Okay, that one’s common.  Common.  Oh, I saw a few of those down there too.”  Everything I had found was pretty common so I was like, “Oh, man.” 

He's like, “Look for the really small light ones.” 

I’m like, “I could barely find these huge, colorful ones.”  But I’m like, “Okay, it’s fine.” 

So I take the slugs over to my lab station and I just start processing them.  What I've got at my table is I have this big Tupperware bin that they're in.  I have like forceps and tweezers and I’m trying to move these really tiny, fragile animals around and it’s taking a really long time. 

So I kind of look over my shoulder and I see what my adviser is doing.  He’s got completely different tools than me.  He’s using like an eyedropper a plastic spoon and those little food containers they give you on the airplane.  I’m watching him and he's using the spoons to scoop the slugs up very gently, the eyedroppers take the little ones, and putting them in a small dish makes it a lot easier to kind of keep track of those small ones that we’re supposed to be finding. 

So I spend the rest of the week following everyone around at lunch after they eat their mango ice cream and grabbing their spoons and building my toolkit.  So I’m starting to figure out how this really works, how this field work goes.

Now, being in the field means that you spend a lot of time with everybody.  When I came out at the museum, it was easy for people to kind of just avoid pronouns for me all together.  We didn’t interact a whole lot while we’re at work.  But when you're in the field you find out that, yes, pronouns are really big deal, a really big thing that we use a lot and I was getting she-d all the time. 

Or sometimes I'd be in a conversation and this person would be saying ‘he’, this person would be saying ‘she’ and I would see them wondering.  I was like, “Do you know?  Have I told you yet?  Are you listening to each other?”  It was a lot of thinking on the fly about what I was supposed to do.

And there was a lot of people on that trip from University of the Philippines, from other institutions in the United States, experts in their field and I was trying to like prove myself as a scientist.  It was a little bit challenging to say the least.  It even affected kind of the way that I was feeling about myself as a scientist. 

So someone would say, “You know, Shayle did a really good job collecting those sea slugs.”  And I'd be like, “Yeah.”  Then they’d be like, “She…” and I'd be like, “Aah.” 

Really, though, more than the way the other people thought of me, what was really getting to me was how I was seeing myself.  At this point, I'd only been on testosterone for three months.  My voice had just barely started to change and it was before I had chest surgery.  It’s really hard to ask people to see something in you that you're having a hard time seeing yourself. 

It’s also hard to hide your body in a wet suit.  So when I would go diving I'd be wearing like briefs, board shorts, a chest binder, two swim shirts, a rash guard and a full-body wetsuit.  Now, I’m walking around in this and I felt like The Hulk but really what I looked like was this kind of like lumpy scuba diver that everyone probably thought was overheating. 

This followed me on land too.  So we had roommates and I had been assigned to room with another graduate student from the University of the Philippines but it turned out that he couldn’t make the trip.  So I found out one morning that I was getting to room with someone from the academy in exhibits who I had never met before and had definitely not told that I was transgender. 

So he shows up and I’m kind of thinking like, “Should I say something?  How do you…?  Like if he's going to be uncomfortable then I can’t really do anything about it.”

It also happened to be a shot day and so I saw him having a drink at the bar.  I was like, “Great, I’m going to go upstairs, give myself a shot of testosterone and think about this a little more, come up with a plan.” 

So I go upstairs and I’m like in my room, my pants are down, I have the syringe in my hand.  I’m about to stick it in my leg and I hear the door opening and hear, “Sorry.” 

I’m like, “It’s okay.  We probably should talk about something.”  The next day is when I spelled that scientific name wrong. 

So things started out a little bit rocky, but just like the tides, with time, things began to change.  When I'd be scuba diving I could identify the species of slugs underwater.  I knew which ones we were looking for.  I was developing sea slug eyes.  It’s like a sixth sense, I swear.  Like at the corner of your eye you see a patch of algae moving and you're just like you know that there's one in there.  And I was finding all those really small ones and getting really good at it. 

I was also getting stronger, because right before I left for the Philippines I'd gotten the thumbs up from my doctors to increase my testosterone to a full dose.  Now that effectively doubled the amount of hormones I was on.  So that in combination with diving everyday and lifting a lot of stuff, I was actually starting to bulk up.  That improved my confidence and kind of helped me have these conversations about my transition a lot more with my colleagues. 

Then finally I heard the words I've been waiting to hear all expedition.  So my adviser is sitting there over the microscope, looking at one of those really small, little white slugs that I found.  He's like, “Ah, this one’s new.” 

And I’m all like in the outside I’m like cool.  “Whatever.”  But on the inside I’m like I just hit the biodiversity jackpot.  That was my first undescribed species of slug so I was feeling pretty good. 

And we’re all kind of starting to get into the flow.  There's this funny thing about being in the field that really brings you closer.  It’s like those long nights sharing a drink after processing a ton of specimens.  And the ‘shes' started to turn into ‘she/he’ corrections, then finally just into ‘he’.  I was learning to relax and to just be comfortable in who I was.  We were all learning. 

What I was really realizing is that this journey wasn’t something that I was going on alone.  This was something that was new for everyone and we were all figuring it out together. 

So the end of the trip was near and they were all getting ready to move into their third site and I was getting ready to take off on my own for a week.  I was going around and I was saying my goodbyes.  Finally, my van pulls up.  I’m about to grab my bag and that guy who called me out for the misspelling of the scientific name walks up to me and he extends his hand. 

As I take his hand, he looks me in the eye and he says, “You're not going anywhere, young man.”

Thank you.