“Ask Kai: Advice for the Apocalypse” is a column by Kai Cheng Thom to help you survive and thrive in a challenging world.
Have a question for Kai? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’m currently studying industrial design, a field that is very much dominated by straight, white cis men. There has only been a handful of other out-queer people in my classes and, to my knowledge, no other trans people. I love what I’m doing and learning, but the isolation and microaggressions that I’m currently experiencing—and which I feel will most likely continue throughout my career—make me question if it’s all worth it.
My question is: Should I keep forging a path in this field and hope other trans people come out of the woodwork, or try to find another area where I feel more welcome?
All the best,
Indecisive in Design
The first thing I think when I imagine you pursuing your passion for industrial design as a lone figure in a white sea of cisgender men, is that you must be brave. It takes courage to dive into the belly of the beast—of course, simply living as a trans person in this transphobic world requires an inordinate amount of courage to begin with, let alone being trans and breaking into a notoriously cis male-dominated field. Every day, I am astounded by the strength of trans people who continue to break new ground for our communities. You are a part of that.
The big question is whether you want to be a groundbreaker in this particular way. Is it worth it for you to struggle on in your program, when the toll on your mental health and quality of life might be very high? Only you can answer that question—and as someone who doesn’t know you personally, I can’t go very deeply into that aspect. It may be something you wish to discuss with a mentor, guidance counsellor or psychotherapist. What I can do is give you a few different ways to think about the matter as you continue to consider what’s right for you.
First of all, the impact of professional isolation and microaggressions on overall health and well-being are serious workplace and educational issues. Research shows that racial microaggressions at work, at school and in one’s personal life are significantly correlated with depression, negative affect (feelings like sadness, frustration and anger) and low self-esteem. Further research shows that repeated exposure to the “micro-traumas” of microaggressions provokes a physical stress response that can accelerate aging and increase the likelihood of heart disease and stroke.
It’s important to note that all of the above research work is focused on the impact of racist microaggressions on people of colour—there haven’t been many studies specifically on the effect of microaggressions on trans people yet—but I think we can safely extrapolate that microaggressions aren’t good for anyone.
An additional thing to consider is that, beyond microaggressions, factors such as isolation, professional discrimination and being forced to worry about how people will treat you based on your gender identity can create an environment that is deleterious to mental health. This is known in mental health scholarship as the minority stress model or minority stress theory: The idea that life as a marginalized person can create a predisposition to anxiety, depression, trauma and other mental health issues. Some scholars have gone so far as to suggest that the increased incidence rate of suicidality in trans communities is caused by minority stress.
I’m not saying all this to scare you, Indecisive. I believe that you can do this, and there is a long legacy of successful trans folks in white-male-dominated fields such as design, engineering and tech that prove it is indeed possible to thrive. For example, computer scientist, electrical engineer and inventor Lynn Conway was fired for being trans by IBM in the 1960s, but later went on to rebuild her career and become a superstar in her field. Composer and electronic musician Wendy Carlos came out as trans in 1979 and composed the scores for successful films such as A Clockwork Orange, The Shining and Tron.
Legacies of trans brilliance remind us of what we are capable of. Of course, Indecisive, you might be wondering if it’s possible to be successful as an industrial designer and be healthy and happy. While acknowledging that some amount of minority stress and transphobia are inevitable, I wonder if there are strategies that might help you to feel grounded, supported and safer as you finish school and break into your field. We might turn to resilience theory for guidance on how to go about this.
Resilience theory is a set of ideas in psychology, social work and sociology that examine how human beings who have experienced trauma, or who live in circumstances of enormous stress, are able to successfully resist or “bounce back” with minimal (or, at least, less-than-expected) psychological symptoms. Studies in this area show that specific factors—such as supportive parental figures or meaningful opportunities to contribute to one’s community—can strengthen or limit an individual or group’s resilience, though these factors may vary across cultures and contexts.
You don’t need to be an expert on resilience theory to become an expert on your own resilience, Indecisive. I’m guessing that you may already have some sense of what helps you to feel strong, capable, comforted or supported. I think that the key survival strategy for trans folks—especially those of us working in highly challenging, potentially hostile environments—is to become extremely aware of our resilience factors and maximize their presence in our lives.
Common resilience strategies that I’ve talked about with trans folks over a decade of community and mental health work include the importance of having supportive relationships and interpersonal connections. If you can’t find these in your educational environment, you may need to seek them out in your social life. Seeking care from a mental health counsellor can be an essential part of developing a support network for resiliency, but I believe that having connections to your community are equally important.
Social life is often the first thing that busy, career-oriented students and professionals drop, but it’s important to remember that, especially for trans folks, our social connections are frequently our lifeline—what Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha calls a “care web.” When we lose contact with our care webs, we can lose touch with our sense of safety and well-being, and the essential belief that we are cared about and that we matter. It may be useful to have explicit conversations with the people that we count as a part of our care webs to let them know what’s going on and to ask them for help. Remember: The more specific we are able to be when asking for the type of care we need, the better the chance that we will receive it.
Another resilience strategy might be to intentionally lean into the role of pathbreaker (which you already occupy, regardless). Instead of simply hoping for other trans folks to come out of the woodwork, what would it feel like to actively work to create space for them? Could you team up with the other queer people in your program and start a social hangout, a support group, a “queers in industrial design” revolutionary party? Would you feel safe (or safe enough, at least) to try?
If you have never done political organizing before, this may sound daunting. But queer organizing doesn’t have to be elaborate or fancy, and you don’t necessarily need to do anything huge. Simply finding a date and place for trans, queer and questioning students (and maybe also allies) in your program to meet up, have snacks and talk about your experiences can make an enormous difference. You may even draw out teachers and professors in your program who have been waiting for the chance to support trans and queer students! Creating a space opens up a world of possibility. And if you attend a college or university, there may already be a campus queer and trans group outside of your specific program that may be interested in helping you. There are also organizations dedicated to supporting trans folks in the field—Transtech Social Enterprises is one example, and Pride In STEM is another.
Organizing queer and trans social spaces, along with other types of political organizing, can provide you with a sense of empowerment and efficacy, because doing so means that we are taking an active role in changing our circumstances rather than submitting to them helplessly. If you do decide to take up organizing, remember to be kind to yourself, seek support and proceed slowly—you don’t need to start up an Industrial Design Revolutionary Army overnight (and I would recommend against trying). The point is that when you work to create space for others, you create more space for yourself, and vice versa.
If, Indecisive, you ultimately come to the conclusion that this field just isn’t the one for you—or that it is, but the circumstances make it too unhealthy for you to be there right now—then know that there is nothing wrong with that. Pursuing our dreams is something that ought to make us happy, at least most of the time, and no political change you may make is worth your own precious health and life. There’s no rule saying that you can’t try something else and then come back to design if you need to.
I spent years working in psychotherapy, a field that I loved, only to leave it because of health issues of my own. It can be difficult stepping away from something you’re passionate about, but loving ourselves sometimes means creating more space in our lives—space to dream new dreams and explore our different gifts.
I don’t doubt your courage, Indecisive, or your capacity. What matters most is which of your gifts you choose to grow at this time in your life. You have so many gifts to give.