The SassyScience Project: Empowering minorities in STEM, one wig at a time
Over the past few years, drag has reached a level of mainstream rarely seen for queer art. Once a misfit cult form, the craft is now a media phenomenon, selling out convention centers for fans who want to catch a glimpse of their favourite queens from the past umpteen seasons of Rupaul’s Drag Race. From programs like Drag Queen Story Hour to Jasmine Masters’ memes, it is evident that many are embracing drag to get their dose of fieeerceness.
Even though drag has become more popular, gender and sexual diversity is still hard to find in STEM spaces, both offline and online. From the number of LGBTQ+ students who switch from STEM to non-STEM majors to the number of female researchers in most countries, it is no secret that sexism, racism, ableism and LGBTphobia remain very much alive in academia. Many marginalized groups, especially those in the LGBTQ+ community, have created their own online safe spaces over the past decade. One can find plenty of LGBTQ+ content on YouTube (sometimes in spite of YouTube itself) but almost none of it is STEM-related. The vast majority of scientific content isn’t aimed at minorities because our society still doesn’t see STEM as a place for minorities.
I knew firsthand the effect drag can have on people because I too was dragged (pun intended) into it. My LGBTQ+ association in Spain has a long history of doing drag—in fact, my drag mom/girlfriend and my drag sister are in there, too. Not long after starting my journey there, I started experimenting with wigs, make-up, and a look that makes me look back and say, “gurl, what were you thinking?”
At the other end of my double life, I was a PhD student in nanoscience trying to make it work at the lab. The nanotechnology research project where I am a fellow tasked me with developing a “Grand Challenge,” an individual project I had to do on either science communication, business, or both. Through this challenge, I found a way to merge three of my favorite things in the world: science, activism, and drag.
Then and there, The SassyScience Project was created by yours truly, Dr. Sass. (Or, Crisis Artrítica if you speak Spanish; it’s a long story). The project aims to create content directly directed to those minorities in a language and form that is appealing for them. Due to how visually appealing drag is, YouTube seemed like the perfect format. In other words, using my busted-ass drag—along with a fully functional set of graphene wings—I’m trying to connect to the public that has been left the most from STEM fields: women, the LGBTQ+ community, and people of color.
Drag fandom is now broader and more diverse than the LGBTQ+ community. As Rupaul’s Drag Race contestant Miz Cracker has pointed out, more and more young women who are not part of the LGBTQ+ community have joined the ranks of drag die-hard fans. Besides makeup and wigs, we all resonate with the queens’ creativity, their celebration of individuality and their passion. Let’s be honest: whether you’ve been supporting your local queens for years or you’ve discovered who Lady Bunny was just two months ago, there’s a common denominator for all the drag fandom: we like things passionately.
The SassyScience Project is divided into three distinct series. The first—and for now, most popular—is called “Queens Who Were Robbed.” Rather than lament Manila Luzon’s All Stars loss or spilling the tea on Shangela, the objective of this section is different. Queens such as Lise Meitner, Rosalind Franklin, or Jocelyn Bell Burnell have one thing in common: men got a Nobel Prize related to all of their discoveries while they did not. The series focuses on the life, history, and science of these queens—all sprinkled with a little bit of drama mama, a pinch of memes, and a lot of drag references. The series is aimed to give visibility to these historical figures in science on a platform that can reach a broader and, especially, a more diverse audience. Come for the drag, stay for the tea!
I also highlight the discrimination suffered by minorities in STEM through a series called “Why the hell am I doing this?” Using the tongue-in-cheek tone drag queens have used for years, I have teamed up with fellow friends from my STEM environment to showcase discrimination in STEM in a comic way. I go from impersonating a sexist interviewer at a job offer and being read the house down by my interviewee to talking with a friend about how being feminine makes us be perceived as “less professional,” no matter what gender we are.
The SassyScience Project is also designed to give voice to minorities who are currently a part of STEM, the role models of tomorrow. The last series of the project, “Queens of Today,” focuses on the testimony of people in marginalized communities and their experiences in STEM. As a bisexual non-binary person, I know firsthand what it’s like having the story of your community told by someone who is not part of said community—so my role in these videos is just presenting the person and then leaving. The only video up for the moment features Latysha, a Ph.D. who talks about being pregnant during her doctoral studies and how the situation was dealt with at her lab. (Spoiler alert: she is a true queen and some people in academia suck, but empowered women can truly change the world when they unite.)
My project was showcased at the European Open Science Forum last July, where I presented a poster detailing why and how I was making this project happening—all while a mini-me did the same on video in an embedded tablet. This forum created a scenario that has probably never happened before, and will rarely happen again: seeing a drag queen at the gala dinner of a scientific congress. (To add more magic, said dinner took place at the Space Science Museum in Toulouse, which holds a life-size model of the Ariane 5.) The presentation had very mixed reactions, from drag fans who were living for me to old men who would see me and walk away. Most people probably would not believe their eyes if we didn’t have a picture of the evening.
A more diverse science is not just better for society but also for science as well. It’s not just that we deserve to have the same rights as everyone else and to be accepted in every single space. As science becomes more diverse, more and different brains will work to solve science’s current problems and give us better conclusions. The subversive nature of drag can be used to get exactly to that point. Do you need sugar with that tea, henny?