Take Pride in STEM: Your Intersectionality as Strength

By Tamuka Chidyausiku, PhD

In the immortal words of TS Madison; “Step your game up. Get a job. Own Business. *BE YOURSELF*”. It’s Pride in STEM Day, and after these last 2 years, I am the most proud to be a scientist. I am proud to be a Black scientist who was an essential worker at the height of the pandemic. I am proud to be a loud scientist who has raised awareness for this, but most of all, I take pride in bringing my whole self, part of the LGBTQ+ community while being in STEM.

For a long time, I saw my identities as a Black, gay scientist from Zimbabwe as the culmination of oppression from all directions. As a Black person living in America, I’ve faced systemic oppression, as well as racism; overt and otherwise. Having come to the United States from Zimbabwe, I’ve been an immigrant living in a foreign land for 12 years filled with applications, rejections, and constant threat of being uprooted. As a gay man who lives openly out, I’ve been exposed to homophobic attacks and I have lost relationships with people who couldn’t “accept” me for who I am. For a while, I focused on how these identities (among the rest) formed a type of Venn diagram of who I am. These parts of me that came together in pieces of how the world perceives and treats me. However, while I focused on the intersection of where the oppression from these identities culminates, I never saw the union and the potential for my own source of power.

Growing up in Zimbabwe, I was fortunate to grow up seeing myself represented in all places. I had Black doctors, teachers, dentists, and neighbors who looked like me, but whenever I opened a book or watched any of my favourite TV shows or movies to practise my English, there was a disconnect.

It was very clear that the global perception of Blackness was negative and ill-informed.

I moved to America in 2009 seeking economic freedom and a brighter future, and I enrolled at an HBCU (historically Black college or university), where I began to experience how Blackness is defined in historical terms, as well as Eurocentric terms. As a dark skinned African with a strong sense of self, I met and broke the stereotype of the “for 50 cents a day, you can save a child”. I was both what Black America had seen in National Geographic, and I also was NOT at all what they expected to interact with.

Fortunately, I attended the oldest HBCU in South Carolina at a time when Obama was ascending to the presidency. The concept of Blackness was a frequent topic of conversation in my classes, social groups, as well as on tv. My personal definition of Blackness quickly absorbed all that I was learning as I discovered Blackness more as an ethnicity than a race. It wasn’t just the color of my skin that determined my Blackness, but it also came with culture, religion, and most importantly, it came with community and a sense of belonging.

This was so profound for me that I began falling in love with all of Black culture.

I pledged the first ever Black Greek letter organization, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Incorporated, and became part of the Divine 9 community. I even started to dream in English instead of my native language of Shona. By the time I matriculated out of Claflin University I was black black, blackitty Black and ready to be a visionary in the world.

The most significant contributions to my scientific growth have been strong mentorship, as well as exploration, and I knew I was in my scientific growth spurt when I was hired straight out of college by a pharmaceutical company to be a post-Baccalaureate scholar. During that time, I explored biological questions I was considering taking on in grad school and simultaneously exploring my sexuality. I had begun my journey towards self acceptance. In Zimbabwe, it is illegal to have sex with members of the same gender, and there is no word for homoesexuality. The one that is used is a slur. Living outside the country, however, I felt free to discover love wherever my heart led me, just like everybody else.

Boston was a large contrast to living in the South and working as a professional in the biotech mecca that is New England gave me the access to my sexual education that had been lacking for so long. I steadily gained confidence and decided that I was done lying to my parents and sister, so I came out to them…a first step towards healing. But how can you heal and be visible without any language?

Being gay and Zimbabwean were in conflict in the way that being Black and African seemed to be when I’d first come to America.

My sister accepted me fully and without reservations. However, for my mother the shock was like having a death in the family. My father’s words were, “We love you, but work on it”. For me, this was progress. Having your traditional African family accept that you like and sleep with other men was a huge milestone for me at the time. It was enough that they knew, so I promised not to embarrass my mother and swore not to tell anyone outside our nuclear family.

However, graduate school has a way of wringing out everything from you. Four years later, in the penultimate year of my PhD program in Biochemistry at the University of Washington, with projects and deadlines looming and with what felt like the end of the world at my door, I fell into a depression. Things got scary. My therapist and I came to the conclusion that ultimately I could no longer hide who I was to people outside my family. Hiding in the closet was too dark and time consuming and, given the choice, my parents would likely rather have a gay son rather than a dead one, so I made a YouTube video. In 2018, I came out a proud gay Zimbabwean Black man.

The response to this video was an overwhelming mix of support, some vitriolic hate, and a lot of “we BEEN done been knew, Muk”. I had anticipated that people would reject me or that there would be a backlash, but more often than not, my communities rallied behind me. My parents came out for me to their siblings before the launch of my video. People from my undergrad, my labmates in grad school, my fraternity brothers, the LGBTQ people in my life…so many people posted themselves wearing t-shirts in support of me. When there was some hate and ignorance, even that was met head-on. These internet bullies were confronted by my communities, and I got to see colleagues using their privilege to stand up for me in spaces that were predominately homophobic and I even saw Zimbabweans cutting down bullies in my mother tongue. We found the language of support and all these communities were intersecting and weaving a thick fabric of support around me.

The following year, I published my dissertation on the cover of the Nature Structural & Molecular Biology journal and graduated with my Ph.D. I was honored to be invited to speak at LGBTQ Lavender Graduation ceremony, with my parents, sister, colleagues and friends in the audience. I introduced myself for the first time as Dr. Tamuka Chidyausiku, standing in my full truth in front of the world. My parents were lightyears from the time I had come out to them, crying and laughing and clapping their hands in the crowd. This moment symbolizes to me when the power of my intersectionality became my source of strength. As a Principal Scientist now, I often ask myself how I can use the privileges that I now have to speak out in similar ways as my communities did for me. I seek to amplify the voices of people that do not share my privilege.

While we need to talk about why we don’t have more Black women in STEM <period>, the progressive strides that we have made for diversity in and outside STEM have not been felt by the Black transgender community.

In fact, the Human Rights campaign reports that in 2020 alone, at least 44 transgender or gender non-conforming people were murdered violently, the majority of which were Black and Latinx transgender women. The routine murder and disposal of this very small and marginalized community of Black transwomen is the next epidemic that I implore all the problem solvers of our community tackle.

We are all worthy of love. This Pride in STEM Day, I’m asking us all to consider the impact of our voices on the lives of others, as well as the impact of your silence on the loss of lives of those without a voice. Once I realized that instead of feeling trapped by my identities, that I get to belong to all of these communities, I began to bring my whole self to STEM and found the power of community. I encourage each of you reading this to live loud and boldly because in the words of my favourite poet, Onika Tanya Maraj, who wrote, “When you go hard, your nays become yays.”

About the Author

Tamuka Chidyausiku, PhD (pronounced Chi-gee-ya-oo-cee-coo) was born and raised in Gweru, Zimbabwe, and moved to the United States for his undergraduate degree. He graduated Cum Laude from Claflin University with a Bachelors of Science in Biology. After graduating, Tamuka set his sights on applications of Protein Biochemistry in a pharmaceutical setting. After completing a post-Baccalaureate certification, Tamuka completed a Masters & Ph.D in Biochemistry from the University of Washington in Seattle, Washington. His post-doctoral training as a scientific researcher was completed at the Institute for Protein Design, where his work on computational biology and protein design was published in many high impact journals. In his spare time Dr. Chidyausiku volunteers his efforts to promote scholarship across the STEM + Arts space. “Dr. Muk”, as he is affectionately called by his online audience, believes that representation matters and that education is the key to STEAMulating the future generation of diverse problem solvers, so he volunteers his time as a STEAM educator on his YouTube channel @steamulater.

Follow @STEAMulater on TikTok, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Youtube

Watch Dr. Chidyausiku’s LGBTQ+ graduation Keynote: https://youtu.be/aXTI93ObwUU



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Dedicated to advancing Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in science. Science, culture, and community in the movement for true diversity in STEM.