Dreaming of the 'Dr.' title
For as long as I can remember I’ve dreamed of being addressed as “doctor.”
To be able to be reminded upon every introduction, every email signature, and every header, that I accomplished something tremendously challenging and worthwhile would be greatly affirming and rewarding. But this prefix would be dually affirming for me in that it’s gender-neutral, honoring my identity as a non-binary person while eliminating the typical dance around whether someone wants to address me with gendered titles.
As much of the world goes through life comfortable with the gender assigned to them at birth, they aren’t usually aware how gendered society is. When addressing an email, we choose Mr., Mrs., or Ms., usually looking for context clues such as a gendered first name when selecting which to use. In typical bonding activities at events such as college orientation, teams may be divided into “boys versus girls.” Sports teams overall are typically separated by gender, as are most bathrooms. New parents have entire parties dedicated to revealing the assigned gender of their child, opting for specifically gendered colors as indicators. When your existence falls outside of those norms, it can feel very confusing, isolating, and othering.
On my first day as a graduate student, I was asked to read and sign a number of forms. When any of them described a student, they would say “he/she,” rather than the much more efficient (and inclusive) “they.” While a seemingly mundane and ephemeral event, that use of language stuck with me the rest of the day, leaving me contemplating whether I was not being authentic when signing those forms as the lack of a gender-neutral pronoun caused me to sign as someone I wasn’t.
Later that day, after struggling to work up the courage to tell my classmates about my identity (and more importantly, my pronouns), I finally broke down. I needed to know there was someone official at my school who knew my identity and could help to ensure it wouldn’t be a barrier or source of discrimination at any point in my graduate school career.
Through a long discussion I was assured I would be respected, affirmed, and helped to succeed in my graduate program. An already welcoming and accepting student body and faculty would be helped to understand non-binary genders through diversity trainings, and Title IX would ensure I wouldn’t be harassed or discriminated against without consequences. My ID and email would be changed to reflect my chosen name rather than my legal one, and upon graduation my diploma could have my chosen name as well. And through that discussion, I was also informed that I was a first. The graduate school had never had an openly non-binary student before.
While I shouldn’t have been surprised given the size of the program, the information did take a moment to sink in. I was the trailblazer, meaning for many professors, PIs, fellow students, and faculty, I would be the first non-binary person they would interact with. And as someone who had only accepted this identity several months before and was only able to be open about it upon moving to school, the concept was daunting. I felt this responsibility to know everything about my identity, to be so sure of myself, able to advocate for any potential graduate students like me in the future, and to carry the title of “the trans student” proudly. I was fully expecting this responsibility when it came to my sexuality, a part of my identity I’d discovered and accepted years prior, and something I tried to make rather obvious. In a class of eighteen students, I was very prepared to be the only gay student. I hadn’t considered I could be the first non-binary student…ever. Combined with having moved across the country, spending long days at orientation, and trying to compile a list of potential PIs for my first rotation, the stress left me drained and anxious for most of the day.
Yet in the moments of abject panic, where I’d question my decision to be open about my gender identity and bear the title of “first non-binary student,” I’d recall the interactions I’d had with peers and faculty, word-for-word if my memory allowed. Where every time I said I identify as non-binary and used they/them pronouns, I was met with acceptance and a promise to try. I opted to make things easier on myself and others by taping a bright blue post-it with my neutral pronouns onto my badge, and knew that people who had initially gendered me as female may take some correcting if they accidentally defaulted to she/her pronouns. I didn’t know of any gender-neutral bathrooms on campus, but knew I wouldn’t be harassed for defaulting to where I was most comfortable. Whereas in undergrad I would have feared for my safety and the loss of friends and allies for being myself, in graduate school I finally felt welcome.
It’s very fitting that I waited until beginning my graduate program to live openly as a non-binary person and be referred to with gender neutral language. For as I’m truly given hope by the people who accepted me as I am within moments of meeting, I’m pursuing the degree with a title that will affirm me as not just an exceptional scientist, but a non-binary one as well.
Bask Biology is the pseudonym of a first-year PhD student in Southern California. Bask is pursuing a PhD in biology and hoping to specialize in DNA Repair. Their passions also lie in epigenetics, genetic conditions, and LGBTQ+ rights. Outside of navigating grad school as a non-binary student, they enjoy spending time with their partner and their emotional support cat. This story was published on Bask’s blog Enby PhD, (available here), and has been republished here with their permission.
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