Frey Fyfe, Postgraduate (DTP), Queens 2015

For LGBT History Month 2018 we asked Frey Fyfe, a third year DPhil student, about their experiences of being LGBT in Earth Sciences.  

What do you study?

I’m doing a DPhil in Volcanology, working to understand the eruptive behaviour of Popocatépetl volcano in Mexico. Popo has a history of large eruptions in the last 23,000 years. Many were effusive lava flows, but at least six were large, explosive, Plinian eruptions. Popo is currently active, and if a large eruption were to occur today, the style of eruption would greatly affect what hazards are posed to the 20 million people within 70km of the volcano. The eruptive style is broadly controlled by the behaviour of volatiles (gases) in the magma, which can be recorded by pyroxene and apatite minerals that grew in the magma at the time. I use chemical analyses of these minerals from previous eruptions to see if the magmatic volatiles are controlling the eruption style at Popo.

What inspired you to get into Earth Sciences? 

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t completely fascinated by all things Earth, space, and nature. It occurred to me in a Year 8 Geography lesson that I could probably get paid just to learn about volcanoes, and 13 years later, with an Earth Sciences degree, here I am.

Which letters (L, G, B, T, Q, etc) apply to you?

I describe myself as being agender and queer. Queer is a general term for “not heterosexual” whereas agender refers to having no gender identity. Most people, regardless of anatomy, have some internal sense of being a man, or a woman, or somewhere in between, or something else entirely. I don’t. I find it incredibly uncomfortable when people refer to me in gendered terms or by she/her pronouns, and find that I’m a lot happier interacting with people if they refer to me as a person, and with they/them pronouns.

Because having no gender identity doesn’t fit into western society’s two boxes of Man or Woman, being agender can be considered a “non-binary” identity. As this does not match what people assumed I was going to grow up to be when I born, this can also be considered a transgender identity. So in terms of letters, I go for Q (queer) and T (trans). 

What is it like identifying as queer in Earth Sciences?

 So far my experience has been that the department and the field in general does accept, but doesn’t yet specifically encourage LGBT researchers. No one’s batted an eyelid at overhearing me talk about things related to my sexuality, but equally, I haven’t come across any top down initiatives to explicitly offer support. My suspicion is that there’s a certain amount of awareness training going on for the staff, but the message of “LGBT researchers are welcome and supported here” doesn’t actually get visibly conveyed to everyone. This is important to do, because as found by the Queer in STEM 2013 survey, LGBT researchers who are unsure if a department is welcoming are just as likely to conceal their identities as those working somewhere openly hostile. This wastes energy we could be using to do great science instead.

Thankfully, I know of two LGBT volcanologists so there are possible role models and mentors out there, but as I write, I don’t know of any LGBT academic or administrative staff in the Earth Sciences department here in Oxford.

What is it like identifying as agender, non-binary, and trans in Earth Sciences?

This has been quite lonely. Of the trans and non-binary people I know, either in real life or on Twitter, none of them are Earth scientists, and of the Earth scientists I know, none of them are trans or non-binary. In a way I feel a pressure to be one or the other, and any time I’ve wanted to talk about gender identity in an Earth sciences space (even now, writing this) I’ve had to fight through this inner voice telling me that it is somehow inappropriate and not okay to bring up. That voice wins about 95% of the time.

It’s therefore not a surprise that getting people to use the right pronouns is proving fiendishly difficult and wrought with anxiety. On the rare occasion I actually manage to bring the topic up, people tend to forget again quite quickly. And yes, of course that will happen, but it doesn’t feel like it would be okay to correct anyone, and to keep having that discussion with people. Despite any of my colleagues’ actual intentions, it ends up feeling like there’s a quiet insistence that I have to pretend to be a cisgender woman, something I quite fundamentally am not.

The social aspect of doing research in Earth sciences can be uniquely challenging. Being comfortable in meeting people and networking on field trips or at conferences would require outing myself to many people I don’t know, before the idea that I’m a woman gets too firmly ingrained, and I never know beforehand what reaction this will get. Sometimes it’s just easier to avoid people instead of interacting and having to hide my actual feelings and discomfort just because it might have negative consequences if I didn’t.

What would you say to others experiencing this?

On a more positive note, I have had the occasional conversation with supervisors and other volcanologists online that suggest that there are people who care about the welfare of queer and trans people in Earth sciences, even if they’re unfamiliar with the issues. From what I’ve seen, our research community is actually pretty open to listening to people and trying to change for the better. It’s a tall hurdle, but I am ever hopeful that talking about these experiences will help in finding others who share them, and start us down the road of improving things. I have my fingers crossed.