Conversation with Prof. Olivia Jensen, Professor at the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, McGill University

Interview transcribed by Ms. Margaret Whelan (she/her), and Ms. Meghomita Das (she/her)

Question

Please introduce yourself and your research!

Answer

Dr Olivia Jensen, Professor at the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, McGill University

I am Dr. Olivia Jensen and I have never taken a geology course in my life! I did, however, complete my undergraduate and graduate degree at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Geophysics and Astronomy as they were considered closely related at the time. UBC was very comfortable to me. I played the industry game in Texas for a while after my undergrad and master’s but ultimately came back to UBC and British Columbia (my home province) to complete my Ph.D. I came to McGill in 1973 and joined the faculty of Engineering in what was then called the Department of Mining Engineering and Applied Geophysics. In 1984, I and my colleagues, who considered ourselves to be scientists and not engineers, joined the Department of Geological Sciences. The 1980s were a very difficult time for the university and eventually, the department morphed into what it is now called: the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences.

At present, I am not conducting any active research but what I used to focus on were the characteristics of the processes happening in the deep earth. I was trained as a seismologist but my background is in physics so I have a very physical view of the earth sciences. More recently, my role in the EPSC department at McGill is teaching/lecturing undergraduate introductory courses. I don’t know if that has been affected by my being transgender (it isn’t the case as far as I’m concerned) but I do feel I became ever less involved in the research community after I went through my transition in 1989.

 

Question

What induced your move from UBC to McGill?

Answer

I came to McGill intending to stay one year but my life changed dramatically when I met my wife here and started a family. At this point in my life, I was doing research that was quite interesting to the public which involved looking at how time may be changed due to the rotation of the earth through general relativity. We ended up being entirely wrong and sometimes I joke that my way out of such a major blunder was to change my sex and name (this was obviously not the case). Anyways, I was smitten by this person who planned wonderful international research trips at McGill and decided to abandon my aspirations to work at other universities. We ended up divorcing in 1989 because I am me and while I do play father really well, I don’t do it looking like a father all the time. I am no longer attached to anybody but I think I am happy however I am still not sure I fully understand what happiness is.

 

Question

What does EDI mean to you?

Answer

The EDI concept is new to me. I feel that the policies related to EDI blossomed very late at McGill. When I transitioned back in the 80s, I found McGill to be an insular place that wasn’t welcoming to differences amongst its members. It had a very conservative outlook. Over the years, the growing student population has somewhat “shaken McGill’s tree” and forced the faculty to consider all types of people on this planet. I like to think of it as a flower that has been growing for a long time at McGill but now it has finally blossomed. 

 

Question

Have you ever taken part in initiatives/projects similar to this in the past? If so what shortcomings do you feel those had and what can we do to improve these initiatives? Is there room for McGill to do more?

Answer

There was a group called LAGEM (Lesbian and Gay Employees at McGill) which was formed by a few McGill faculty members in the 1980s. They were about 5 people, composed of gay men and one lesbian woman, and they would regularly meet at Thomson House but entered through the backdoor so as not to be seen. I didn’t join the group until 1991 and I joined as an associate member because, while they were nice to me, they still didn’t quite understand my experience. I really didn’t understand the need to hide our identities and so at these meetings, I would use the front door to enter. I refused to be closeted after my transition and wanted to be seen as me.

LAGEM disbanded in 1995 or 1996. After that, I started giving lectures about my trans identity and personal history for a course at McGill called Human Sexuality and Its Problems, run by the Department of Psychology. I quickly became a regular guest lecturer for this course and still am to this day. Over my 25-or-so years doing this, I have seen a considerable shift in identities through my interactions with the students. In the courses early years, I would start the lecture by asking if anyone had ever met a transgender person; very few students would raise their hands. Now when I ask the same question, I get more responses and some students are even comfortable sharing their own identities during the class. I think this is largely due to LGBTQ2+ people becoming visible people. For the longest time we were invisible. I like to think that my standing up and deciding to be visible had something to do with this.

 

Question

Do you have any formative experiences or reasons for pursuing earth sciences that you wish to share? These could be from your childhood, undergrad, grad school, or professional career.

Answer

I would like to talk about the transition first. People like me at that time (in the late 80s) typically transitioned after a rather desperate feeling known as gender dysphoria. Which is basically the feeling of being trapped and held away from “being” altogether. Around this time I began organizing my coming out by talking to psychologists and therapists over quite a long time. I really didn’t want it to be a “medical coming out” whereby the procedure is highly medicalized and people essentially manage your (my) life. In 1989 I remember my first time going into work at McGill as Olivia. It was rather an interesting experience. The chair of the department at the time, Bob Martin, was actually sitting outside my office and all he said to me was “hello” before he walked away. It wasn’t the most hostile of welcomes but it definitely wasn’t welcome. There was a professor in

Dr Olivia Jensen before her transition.

the faculty of engineering, John Jonas, who left me a letter inviting me to lunch. He has since been a very supportive figure in my life. The last thing that was particularly interesting to me that day was my interaction with the janitor. He would normally throw open the door to do his duties. On that day in 1989 he threw open the door, looked at me, and exclaimed:

“Hey, what’s this?”

To which I gave him a short explanation of the direction I was heading. He responded:

“That’s okay.”

This was a very important affirmation for me, for some reason. It was a good day.

Around the same time as my transition, two other notable things happened to me. I remember there was a big inter-university meeting regarding the broader part of my research and someone had said to me that what I had done was going to ruin my career. This wasn’t terribly important to me at the time because I am not terribly career-ist or career-oriented anyway. I was never chasing awards or seeking to impress, I was more so doing a job. On the other hand, a colleague of mine told me to be twice as good as everybody else after hearing about my transition. I thought to myself, I’m not going to do that that’s ridiculous.

I think that every trans person that I know (perhaps) knew there was something different about them by the time they were maybe four years old. So, from about 4 years old, I tried to keep the whole story hidden from others. One thing, in particular, I had to hide was my early interest in cross-dressing. This lifestyle took me to about 50 years old when I finally said to myself I have to do something about this, I can’t hide forever.

 

Question

Do you feel that being transgender has brought about any specific challenges in your academic career that you feel comfortable sharing?

Answer

I think LGBTQ2+ people are discounted, without question. Women are also discounted, without question. Something positive I have noticed, however, is that women seem to have blossomed in geosciences. This is particularly the case for seismology and structural geology where there are now more women seismologists than men. Once upon a time, this would not have been possible.

I would also like to talk about my history of going to the American Geophysical Union (AGU) annual meeting. Well into the 1990s, the AGU was still very one-dimensional and nondiverse. There were zero BIPOC people and an incredibly small group of LGBTQ2+ people. In fact, I was the only openly transgender person until another American scientist came out. What I found interesting was that shortly after, in the same venue, the American computer scientists held their annual meeting where there would be almost one hundred LGBTQ2+ people. I think this demonstrates how geology was once a very “macho” discipline and how now when you look through our department, in particular, the female and international presence is not only strong but numerous. This is an incredible shift.

 

Question

How did you overcome these challenges? 

Answer

My approach to overcoming any challenge is pure defiance and no apologies. I remember my signature line on my emails after my transition basically said I wasn’t going to apologize for being who I am. People in the LGBTQ2+ and BIPOC communities once felt they had to apologize for being who they are. You don’t have to apologize for this! Once we show our defiance and stop apologizing, things work out for us. We belong too and we have to say it. I had to support my own defiance by repeating this to myself.

 

Question

Is there anyone, perhaps a role model or mentor, that got you through these tougher periods? If there isn’t anyone, do you think that’s a reason trans people feel discouraged to join fields like this? 

Answer

There were very few role models out there in the 1980s. The Montreal trans scene basically came out of the cabaret world and I enjoyed that world. However, there was no success for trans people outside of this scene and so, no, I don’t think there were any models to follow. Someone whom I have never met but do know about, named Dr. Carolyne Van Vliet of the Université de Montréal, was a strident trans person. She sued Sears (the department store) because a guard had abused her for using the women’s change rooms. I think she actually won a substantial damage claim and I’m not sure there have been “change room issues” for trans people in Quebec since.

One other notable person in Montreal is Dr. Vivian Namaste. She was appointed as Principal of the Simone de Beauvoir Institute at Concordia University in 2006-2008 and is one of the only trans people I know that was hired into a university position after transitioning. I think this was a very good thing.

 

Question

Do you feel any pressure being a role model for other trans people in STEM or the Earth Sciences specifically? If so, how do you deal with that and how do you feel you can be supported?

Answer

I don’t think being a role model is the pressure or my goal. I am just being me and I might not be a very good role model actually. In the 1980s people wanted to transition and become invisible, but I knew that could never happen for me because you can’t just erase your history; history comes with us. We actually have to live with this history, and it’s so much easier to live with it than to try to re-hide or go “stealth” (a common term for going invisible at this time). The fact of the matter is this doesn’t work, and there is always a hole in your story. You might as well confront this story upfront and say well this is who I was and this is who I am. I think that who I was, is a very important part of who I am because who I was, was a strong enough person to become who I am. I would never hide that person.

 

Question

Do you have a closing message to the students (both old and new), faculty, and staff who will likely see/read this interview? 

Answer

I think in general students have been very good to me. I remember a time when I was being seriously challenged by a group of students (who have since become friends) and they actually held a presentation to ask if I could no longer teach them any classes. This was sort of the last challenge I really experienced in the department. Nowadays, people coming into this department from all sorts of different backgrounds, will generally TA one of my introductory classes by default and they display no hostility towards me. I think the students in this department are remarkably good at accepting all people of all kinds. 

I would also like to say that many of the stellar hires in recent years have been women. We have gone from a predominantly male department to one with some very remarkable and “high-flying” female scientists. I suppose my message is that I want people to know there are opportunities out there for them despite the gender box they tick on their applications.

 

Resources

https://speakingofgeoscience.org/2020/10/28/queer-visibility-in-geoscience-has-been-almost-nonexistent-for-decades-a-new-generation-is-working-to-change-that/

https://eos.org/articles/shining-a-spotlight-on-lgbtq-visibility-in-stem

Honourable Mentions

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Blog authors are solely responsible for the content of the blogs listed in the directory. Neither the content of these blogs, nor the links to other web sites, are screened, approved, reviewed or endorsed by McGill University. The text and other material on these blogs are the opinion of the specific author and are not statements of advice, opinion, or information of McGill.