In science, all facts, no matter how trivial, enjoy democratic equality.
– Mary McCarthy
The above quote clarifies Sayantan Datta’s fascination and association with science. A queer-trans science journalist, Sayantan, is not someone who merely admires this discipline but is also critical of its deployment for questionable ends. While they believe in its potential to generate positive change, as a non-binary queer person they realized, early on, that just as science can be used to challenge and reform the status quo, it can also promote the prejudices of the societal fabric of which it is a part.
Gifted with the ability to blend science and critique in writing, Sayantan has always had a thorough grasp of the written word. Even during their childhood, writing was a passion, and they pursued it by contributing to small-time publications.
It was in high school that they began to realize their queerness. However, it was only in college that they would begin academically pursuing the intersections of science, gender, health, sexuality, and caste. Sayantan tells us how their earliest thoughts about queerness and sexuality took shape in college thanks to the diverse personalities they came across.
Sayantan identifies as non-binary and tells us that the label could change in the future. Sayantan recalls college life when many of the terms that were being used and discussed did not make sense to them. Around the time they completed their undergraduate course, they began to question their gender.
During the first year of their master’s degree, Sayantan spent a lot of time at a Hijra commune. Sayantan reveals that this experience showed them a very different reality of being queer and trans and allowed them to probe into questions about gender and sexuality.
Sayantan's questions about gender are woven into those directed at society at large. As a student of science, they studied genetics and neuroscience, which both have a problematic history. Sayantan illustrates this with the example of a fruit fly. They tell us how when homosexual behavior was first observed in fruit flies, it gave birth to a slander that came to be used against the queer community, which wedded scientific discovery with prejudice: fruity.
I really hope that I’m making science more accountable. I’m asking questions that science should be asking itself.
Sayantan helped us understand how scientific discoveries can be co-opted and weaponized to harm, label, and dehumanize a vulnerable community. Our science journalist tells us that neuroscience has played a role in perpetuating intolerance. For instance, efforts to discover the cognitive and biological seat of sexuality, and scientific interventions to mitigate unconventional sexualities through conversion therapy, have been used to promote pseudo-scientific untruths and met out violence against sexual minorities.
Such a radical approach to science has allowed Sayantan to focus on areas that have hitherto been largely ignored, particularly its societal ramifications.
You’re queer; you already feel like you’re on the border. So you’re not exactly outside society but you’re also not in the mainstream.
When Sayantan began their PhD., they had already built a portfolio as a science writer and had begun questioning the status of gender non-conforming and non-binary persons in the Indian science ecosystem. Clarifying how they place themselves in relation to the science intelligentsia, Sayantan says that it's similar to their queer identity, one that exists on the margins. Though they are a product of the life sciences, by virtue of their identity and the cis-heteronormative ideologies that form the foundations of science, Sayantan finds themself, at once, within and outside the scientific world.
Their professional existence at the boundary between science and non-science, they add, is very queer.
Through their writings and activism, Sayantan wants to raise questions and perspectives that they believe science has evaded for a long time. For their discourse, they advocate a combination of theory derived from intellectual reasoning and practical application based on life experience.
Sayantan explains this interlinkage through their life experiences. They had learned of gender performativity in college but it was people on the ground, grassroots activists, and queer and trans people, who were performing gender. Sayantan believes that we must walk the crosswalk between theory and practice; theory must be inspired by and influence practice.
In this regard, they speak of Grace Banu, a transwoman activist, and advocate for trans rights. Sayantan cites some of Grace’s work and life experiences which have helped them apply theory to everyday life.
The power of solidarity is in breaking the silence.
Sayantan finishes with the idea of collective solidarity. The urgency of such solidarity foresees and forestalls violence. Even for persons with relative privilege, a marginal identity translates to marginal protection. Hence the potential for violence cannot be eliminated. Pointing out that violence affects society as a whole, they say that it can percolate into any space to inflict harm. That is why, according to Sayantan, allyship cannot be passive. As an ally, one should actively place oneself in precarity.