Kyle Trenshaw: Featured LGBTQ+ ChemE Professional

7/24   in the series Featured LGBTQ ChemEs & Allies

AIChE presents the most recent post in this series featuring LGBTQ+ engineers and their allies as part of an ongoing effort to bring about inclusion and diversity. Other related efforts include the LGBTQ+ Inclusion in Engineering (Workshop & Panel), held at the 2018 Annual Meeting, and leadership receptions for LGBTQ+ members and allies. Here are photos from the most recent reception at the 2018 Annual Meeting.

All aforementioned initiatives are supported by the AIChE Foundation's Doing a World of Good Campaign.

In the eighth installment of our series, we interviewed Kyle Trenshaw, who shared his story as an LGBTQ+ STEM professional working at the University of Rochester.

Where did you complete your chemical engineering education?

I received a BS in chemical engineering from Mizzou in 2009 and an MS (2011) and PhD (2014) in chemical engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Tell us a bit about your job and your job responsibilities. What’s a typical day at work?

I am the educational development specialist for natural sciences and engineering (I know, quite a mouthful), which means that I use my expertise in STEM education to train undergraduate peer leaders in introductory STEM courses. 

I also consult with STEM faculty interested in redesigning their courses to include more evidence-based teaching practices, and I serve graduate students and postdocs in STEM fields (including medical students) by offering a variety of professional development opportunities around their teaching practices and job search processes.

My typical day includes sitting at a desk and sending hundreds of thousands of emails; just kidding, I generally teach a section or two of a peer leader training course and meet with colleagues to plan and assess our programming at the center. I really enjoy my work and find it perfectly suited to my skills as an engineer-turned-educator.

The biggest thing allies can do is talk about LGBTQ+ issues. Say your pronouns at meetings and in courses you teach. Mention the lack of all-gender bathrooms in particular buildings on campus. Join LGBTQ+ advocacy work by doing things like marching in a Pride parade or attending LGBTQ+ programming in your community, and then talk about doing so with your non-LGBTQ+ social circles.

Tell us a bit about your experience as an out LGBTQ+ professional working in engineering.

Having only come out as trans professionally a couple of years ago, I am still negotiating my outness on a daily basis and learning the professional expectations of different spaces on the University of Rochester campus.

In general, I try to be as out and vocal as possible in a given space, which to me means explicitly stating my pronouns even when I am not prompted to do so and always bringing up LGBTQ+ folks as a consideration for our programming, from making inclusive survey questions to discussing identity in STEM courses.

Certainly, there are folks who become standoffish after hearing me both discuss my LGBTQ+ identities and advocate for systemically marginalized students and colleagues, but I find that the vast majority of folks in engineering are overjoyed that I am a “different kind” of STEM role model for their students and welcome my ideas about infusing more humanity into engineering.

In particular, folks from multiple engineering departments on campus have actively included me in their course planning efforts and have been open to discussing courses like “Queer Lights” as a multidisciplinary approach to reinforcing the engineering identities of diverse students. Overall, I feel that engineering at the U of R has space for and values folks like me, which is absolutely wonderful to experience!

What are the most important issues that LGBTQ+ engineers deal with in the workplace today?

I think some of the most important issues stem from invisibility and erasure. Folks in general, not just engineers, make a lot of offhand comments that they do not realize are hurtful because they don’t even consider the possibility that LGBTQ+ folks might be in the room. From the gendered way we speak to one another about significant others to the assumptions we make about one another based on our voices, hairstyles, clothing choices, etc., there is a never-ending stream of negative connotations about being LGBTQ+ in most industries and, really, just life in general.

Further, in the current political climate, discussions that might seem innocuous can now do real harm to systemically marginalized folks, including LGBTQ+ engineers. Hearing that a colleague went to a rally for a particular politician or marched in a parade for a particular cause can now generate fear, worry, and mental stress that distracts from work and reduce general well being.

In engineering, there is no place for those draining experiences to be debriefed, as most LGBTQ+ folks are either not out or expected not to discuss their outness because of the common misconception that engineering and other STEM fields are apolitical and identity-independent. So, invisibility, erasure, and then having no outlet to explore those constructs in a professional setting leaves a lot of LGBTQ+ folks feeling alone, misunderstood, and unwanted in engineering.

How can people help foster a more inclusive environment for LGBTQ+ chemical engineers?

I would say the biggest thing allies can do is talk about LGBTQ+ issues. Say your pronouns at meetings and in courses you teach. Mention the lack of all-gender bathrooms in particular buildings on campus. Join LGBTQ+ advocacy work by doing things like marching in a Pride parade or attending LGBTQ+ programming in your community, and then talk about doing so with your non-LGBTQ+ social circles.

Attend Black Pride as a way to understand that LGBTQ+ and “white” are not synonymous, and then share your story of that experience with others. Listen openly to your LGBTQ+ students and colleagues when they discuss the challenges they face, and amplify their voices by bringing attention to those challenges where you have the power to do so.

Read the news and offer condolences to your LGBTQ+ students and colleagues after occurrences of national or international reverse-progress on LGBTQ+ equality. Facilitate moments of silence in spaces you preside over after events such as the terrorist attack on Pulse back in 2016.

Be as explicit and vocal as possible in every possible space in which it is safe for you to do so, because as an ally, the number of spaces that fit that description is so much higher for you than for LGBTQ+ folks, so your voice can make such a huge, huge difference for all of us!   

Tell us a bit about your personal life.

I am married to a wonderful man and we have two children together. He is a stay-at-home dad, which means that I can really focus on giving my all in my professional life without sacrificing a work-life balance. We are really committed to lessening our impact on the environment, so we do a lot of things like composting and sourcing our electricity from sustainable sources. 

We are also both working toward becoming meat-free, since beef and pork are such high-resource food sources. I think you could safely call us nerdy hipsters without risking inaccuracy. The hobbies that I am pretty psyched about right now are practicing aikido, learning Mandarin, meditating, trying new Paleo/AIP/vegetarian/vegan recipes, shopping at farmer’s markets, playing video games with my husband and children, and making progress on my full-back tattoo. I live a super full and amazing life, and I am really satisfied with how everything is turning out for me as a trans 30-something, 45th president of the United States notwithstanding.

Do you have a coming out story that you'd like to share?

The first person I came out to as trans was my (then AND now) husband. I bracketed the revelation by saying that I understood if he felt like I had tricked him since he didn’t know my true gender identity before our wedding (we had been married for a little over two years at that point) and that I understood if he wanted to get a divorce since we hadn’t had any children together yet and didn’t have much shared wealth to redistribute as 20-somethings.

My (cisgender, straight) husband’s response: “What? No, I love you. I married you because you are the person I love, and nothing about you has changed other than me knowing you a little better, so as long as you are still you, then why would we get divorced?” There are so many trans folks who lose everyone and everything they care about when they come out, often having to basically leave their homes with the clothing on their backs and start again because of the level of animosity they experience from their loved ones, landlords, employers, etc.

I am so infinitely thankful every single day that I chose to marry someone who not only accepted me for who I am (and accepted why I waited so long to share it), but who also had the strength of character to step outside of societal labels like “straight” and say, “You know what, I love this man, and just because I identify as straight does not invalidate our relationship.”

My transition has been a deeply collaborative process with my husband and me each renegotiating our expectations of ourselves and each other with each new step, and I feel much more whole because of it. I am becoming the person I want to be in such a kind, supportive, thoughtful, communicative environment that I get the physical sensation of being wrapped in a warm comforter in a nest of the softest possible pillows when I think about it. So yeah, if you can’t tell, I think my husband is pretty neat overall.


Do you have a story about an effective or inspirational professional ally you'd like to share?

While working at Brown University as a postdoc in STEM education, I was part of a conversation with two old, white professors who both happened to be men, about a non-binary student in a physics course. The conversation went something like:

Prof. J: It was so great that [a non-binary student] trusted me enough to tell me about their gender identity and name change.

Prof. D: Yeah, I’m glad to know students are willing to talk with us about these things. I want to be approachable for anyone.

J: Just knowing that there are diverse students in my classes makes me hopeful for the future of the field. I want fresh ideas and new directions, and you can’t get that talking to the same six guys for your whole professional life.

D: I totally agree. Our students get more diverse and more impressive each year.

Neither of them knew I was trans at that time, but that conversation was one of the main reasons I chose to come out professionally as a postdoc about my gender identity. If two old, white men in a science field could have a conversation like that when no one other than a lowly postdoc was watching them (i.e., not trying to win brownie points with administrators or alumni), then, surely, I would be safe to share my true self with my friends, family, and close colleagues.

What’s your dream getaway?

Literally not leaving my house for more than a month. Just getting all my groceries delivered, watching Netflix, and chilling with my husband and kids with nowhere to go and nothing to do for a whole gosh darn month. Incredible.

Who is your favorite LGBTQ icon?

Probably George Takei. He goes hard in terms of his present-day activism for systemically marginalized folks, and I am nostalgic about his contributions to my childhood through Star Trek. He’s just a rad dude overall, in my opinion.

Gaydar: Does it exist?

If it does, mine is broken.

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