For Pride 2020 we asked Ashar Aslam, undergraduate and LQBTQ+ representative for Workplace and Equalities Committee, to reflect on studying at Oxford and his experience of being LGBTQ+ in Earth Sciences.
What made you want to study Earth Sciences?
This is very much a personal statement-style question and though I started this course in 2017, memories of personal statements still freak me out, but I actually didn’t really know much about the subject until I was in sixth form! My sister did Geology at university, and then went on to do a PhD in Physical Oceanography, and that really sparked my interest in the Earth Sciences. This was only supported by my addiction to natural disaster documentaries (always dreamed of going storm chasing one day), and shows related to the Earth. It was a weird transition considering I was so passionate about Modern Foreign Languages during my GCSE years! Since sixth form, I knew I wanted to go into scientific research in some form – my interests are in meteorology, atmospheric physics, oceanography and climate and I knew the course incorporated these topics within the curriculum. However, the sheer breadth of Earth Sciences in terms of taught material acts as a really good springboard into research, industry, or even non-STEM pathways, though I’m certain I’ll end up down the research route. Whatever your interest, you’ll definitely find something right up your alley. I’m doing a project this summer (before 4th Year starts) on the parameterisation of tropical cyclones in different styles of climate models and it’s safe to say that I’ve found my direction in terms of the scientific portion of my life, which is such a nice feeling.
A simple answer could be, as the cool kids say, “just to flex”. But no, there is much more to Oxford than the name. It’s opened a wide range of opportunities to me on the social front, being able to engage in campaigns and activism, and to actually have my viewpoints heard. It helps that you’re surrounded by so many like-minded students – sure you may not have the same interests, but people are willing to listen and understand what you do and why you think in such a way! The collegiate system was also very enticing. As someone who was a lot more reserved (that one friendly kid who never said anything) at school, being able to get closer to others and build stronger bonds really helped me come out of my shell. I could say I’ve blossomed as a result of having the extra connections and the new-found voice within me, and bathe in my own self-validation, but seriously, everyone has been so helpful in getting me out of the cocoon I was hiding in, from my friends to even some of my tutors! The tutorial system is definitely a way of testing your ability to think beyond what is taught, and even take a more philosophical approach, but also allows you to relate it to what’s going on around you where applicable. I knew this was something that would appeal to me in the long-run, and something I dearly appreciate.
Which letters (L, G, B, T, Q, etc) apply to you?
I identify as a cisgender, gay male who uses he/him pronouns. Sure, I’m out with regards to my homosexuality, but I’ve always been questioning my sexuality and how I perceive gender. For example, last summer, I was convinced I was bisexual, and was trying to quantify it (I thought I was like 80% gay, 20% straight). I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m just homosexual, but have also realised: who really cares? It all exists on a spectrum and you like who you want, when you want and how you want. I was on the Oxford University LGBTQ+ Society committee as Racial and Ethnic Minorites Rep for 2 years, and it really opened my eyes to the LGBTQ+ world in all its glory. One thing I enjoyed was learning about the ‘fuzzy cloud of gender’ which my trans* and non-binary friends spoke about. I’m naturally stuck in a cisgender bubble, where I can’t see gender as completely multi-dimensional, but I know it exists in such a fashion, and I’m definitely educating myself to think in such a manner. Even if you struggle, it’s worth respecting and trying to understand how others in the community perceive it!
What is it like being LGBTQ in the earth sciences in general?
I feel it’s very similar to being LGBTQ+ in STEM as a whole – it’s not the common stereotype. A gay male is stereotypically associated with subjects within the Humanities and Arts, and some may go on to specialise in their final year with a dissertation that may relate to the LGBTQ+ community, be it with regards to demography, poetry or media portrayal. There’s no real way of incorporating the stereotype into a lot of STEM subjects, especially Earth Sciences. I can’t necessarily do a master’s project on ‘How did LGBTQ+ representation influence the carbon isotope record in the Oligocene?’ or anything, but there definitely isn’t the requirement to fulfil the stereotype/caricature that is painted of LGBTQ+ identifying individuals. After all, they started from negative and most definitely ‘prejudiced’ roots, if you get what I’m saying. It’s great to see many organisations, such as Pride In STEM, aiming to show that LGBTQ+ individuals can have their voices heard and presence valued in the scientific community.
What is it like being LGBTQ in the Earth Sciences Department at Oxford?
In honesty, it doesn’t feel too different from being a normal student, as the department is so well-integrated and close-knit, in that all opinions and beliefs are respected and appreciated. I’m currently the LGBTQ+ Representative for the Workplace and Equalities Committee, and it’s great to see that we have such roles and committees in place for discussion of issues pertaining to those groups in the community. Having peer supporters and staff trained to deal with welfare issues also helps – I haven’t necessarily felt the need to approach any as of yet, but I know they can be useful for many struggling with their identity, and the implications it may have on their studies and/or research, the progress they’re making with their respective courses, and their mental health in general.
What advice would you give to other LGBTQ people considering working here as a student or researcher?
Don’t feel pressured to hide or suppress how you feel or want to express yourself. I’m not necessarily expressive in terms of my sexuality or identity (sure, I have the odd flamboyant eccentricity which flies out of my mouth or appears in my actions, but that’s literally just me, and nothing tied to forcing myself to show who I am, or even my sexuality!). Therefore, similarly, you don’t need to force your identity, and have it on show – people should be able to acknowledge that people in the LGBTQ+ community, while existing on a spectrum of identities, are also on a spectrum in the way in which they want to express themselves! The Earth Sciences community in Oxford is very tight and understanding, and are willing to be educated on LGBTQ+ matters. Particular mention goes to my year group – they’ve been phenomenal when it comes to listening to me blabber on about LGBTQ+ inclusion and university/societal policies, or the events I’ve been running for the university’s LGBTQ+ society. Additional mention goes to my tutors – extra-curricular activities are something to definitely participate in at university, and I found my home and new liberty in the LGBTQ+ community, and being able to talk about my participation within it (running LGBTQ+ events and being a member of the Glitterball (LGBTQ+ Ball) committee) alongside my studies, which I’m equally passionate about, is something I value so highly and am thankful for. Whoever is considering to work here as a student or researcher, you’ll find comfort and, if need be, solace in this community.