For young people coming up through the range of FIRST programs, there are stereotypes about the kinds of people who participate in robotics, including assumptions about everything from race and gender to body type and intellect. It’s visible in how team members interact with each other, in the ways that mentors treat their students, and even in how students are treated by non-participants.
In the same way that blatant acts of homophobia can make LGBTQ+ students feel unwelcome, reinforcing stereotypes about skill and talent has the effect of making STEM feel inaccessible for certain demographics.
This organization was created by a group of students who felt that their needs weren’t being met within the FIRST community. In those first days, many of us rallied around the fact that we felt we were being pushed into certain roles specifically because we were LGBTQ+. We were taken less seriously than our straight/cis counterparts because of misconceptions our fellow students and mentors had about us. We were passed over for opportunities or treated differently by those around us.
These issues were specifically relevant for LGBTQ+ men and trans individuals. It’s important to note that these experiences are similar to the experiences of women in STEM, regardless of sexual orientation. It boils down to the perception of the role masculinity plays in the STEM community. Despite continuing efforts to make STEM more accessible, it is still a predominantly male field. Many stereotypes about LGBTQ+ men and trans individuals target their failure to achieve society’s expectations of masculinity. This failure is translated into internalized biases about their skills and talents.
In action, it’s the assumption that an LGBTQ+ person can’t perform certain tasks as well as a straight/cisgender person, so they should be delegated to different things. Often, they’re moved away from things like mechanical and fabrication, the traditionally “masculine” roles on a team, because of the belief that they won’t be interested or won’t do as well.
Limitations are placed on what students can accomplish by assuming what they’ll be interested in or skilled at based on sexuality or gender identity. By categorizing or treating students differently based on these factors, access to opportunities is cut off.
When I joined a FIRST team, I was almost immediately funneled into the business aspects of the team. My desire to learn how to design and fabricate was slowly stifled, because I was assigned busy work while my straight male teammates learned important skills. Alternatively, I was given every opportunity to take initiative within awards and documentation, a section of the team my mentors thought I’d do better in. Eventually, I gave up trying to be actively involved in the mechanical elements, because I felt like I was ramming my head against a wall. Instead, I poured my time and energy into the things that my teammates and mentors let me do without any opposition.
This type of environment deters LGBTQ+ students from being involved in FIRST and pursuing careers in STEM. When spaces feel constrictive or discriminatory, people don’t want to stay. When these students are treated differently or pushed into certain aspects of their teams, the message sent is that they don’t belong.
By reinforcing stereotypes, spaces become increasingly homogenized, stifling diversity and making those who are different feel unwelcome. Students who would have excelled are driven away, because those around them are saying it’s just not for them. In the process, this removes opportunities for great innovation, weakening teams, FIRST programs, and the future of the STEM industry as a whole.
As mentors, teachers, and coaches, the worst thing you can do is assume the strengths of your students based on arbitrary factors. When dealing with a lot of students, it can be difficult to get to know everyone individually and help them discover their strengths and talents, and this type of categorizing may even be completely unintentional. However, activities that gauge interest and allow students to try different things give opportunities for growth and development of new skills. Instead of thinking you know what’s best for them based on stereotypes about LGBTQ+ people, consider the internalized biases that influence those misconceptions and challenge them. This creates a better team environment and sets your students up for success.
Coming out for anyone is hard. Whether you’re coming out about being Gay, Bi, Trans, or anything else on the spectrum of queerness, there is always a little bit of nervousness that you feel. The thought of “Will they accept me?” or “Do I really need to tell them this?” or something else might pass through your head. And people get different results. Some people are accepted with open arms, and the feeling of relief washes over them as the friend/family member or whoever they came out to accepts them for who they are. However, a lot of people experience something that isn’t quite approval but isn’t quite rejection either, and others aren’t so lucky, where they experience rejection, being shunned, and are even sometimes kicked out for being who they are. And there are those that because they are fearful of being shunned, rejected, or kicked out must stay hidden, or they choose to not come out because they already know what will happen if they do.
I had an eye-opening experience my Junior year when I went to Worlds. It was my first year as a Representative for LGBTQ+ of FIRST, and I was excited for many reasons, one of the reasons being that I got to hand out the pride pins and ribbons and hopefully meet new people. I remember walking with one of my friends when there was a person who stopped me and asked where I got the pin and the ribbon I was wearing. I explained to them that I was a Representative of LGBTQ+ of FIRST, that I was handing them out, and that they could have one if they wanted it. They told me that while they did want one, they would have to decline my offer, because their team would make fun of them, that they weren’t out to their team, and it wouldn’t be a good idea for them to have that. But I still gave them a pride pin and a “They/Them” ribbon, saying that they could have it in secret and that their team didn’t have to know about it.
That experience changed me, because although I knew some of the hardships that LGBTQ+ people went through, all the hatred and stereotyping and other awful things they had to either endure or be afraid of, I was lucky enough to live in a community where I didn’t experience a lot of those things. And while I and a lot of others were lucky, there are others, like that person I met, who don’t have the luxury of being able to be open about who they are. There are people who live in communities that aren’t as open-minded, and they have to deal with things that people in more open-minded communities don’t have to deal with. And to everyone who has to deal with that, who has to stay in the closet or deal with rude, stereotyping, or even hateful comments, there will always be someone out there who likes you and accepts you for who you are. In some cases those people might be a friend or a family member, but in other cases they might be someone who lives far away from you or someone that you haven’t met yet. However dire your situation might seem, however small you may feel, and however many people don’t accept your queer identity, there will always be people out there that will welcome you for who you are and will love you because of that queer identity. So for anyone who has to deal with the stereotyping and the hateful comments, just remember, that for the number of people that dislike you, there are the same if not more people out there that will like you, despite or even because of your queerness.
I have always been different; I just didn’t know why until about two years ago. I started to discover myself through robotics and the friends I had at the time. Once I found out that I was a lesbian, I felt a sense of clarity. With this clarity, however, came the question that comes to every person who is LGBTQ+: “Should I come out?” This question comes with a lot of sub-questions. “Who all should I come out to?” “When should I come out?” “How should I come out?” There are an infinite number of answers to these questions, but your answers will have an impact on yourself and the people around you.
The first people I came out to were some of my closest friends. They had already come out themselves, so I knew that they would be accepting. Their positive reaction gave me the confidence to continue coming out to those closest to me. I even found that some of my friends already suspected that I was gay.
By this point, I had gained the confidence to come out to the most important people in my life: my parents. The overall positive reactions I had gotten from people thus far had helped me to gain courage in order to make this huge jump. Since my friends had already suspected I was a lesbian, I had just assumed my parents suspected it too. I came out to my mom after a robotics meeting. Looking back, it probably wasn’t the best time to do so, because she was already in bed and super tired. Long story short, she was very confused. Judging by her reaction, she had no idea whatsoever, and I had caught her completely off guard. Other than this, however, nothing negative had really come out of the situation, so I counted it as a success.
I had plans to come out to my dad the next day. He had been working late the day I came out to my mom, so I figured I’d tell him after school. When I got home, my mother immediately pulled me aside to talk about my sexuality, which is understandable. After only a few minutes, I realized that she had told my dad without my permission. While it wasn’t really a big deal in my situation, this action could have dire consequences for other people. I quickly realized that my mom didn’t know that she wasn’t supposed to tell anyone. I told her this, but it didn’t seem to stick with her because she continued to out me to people, some of which were not accepting at all.
The important takeaway from this situation is to make sure that you clarify to people you come out to that they shouldn’t out you to other people. Unless you give them explicit permission, no one should out you. If you find that someone has been outing you, make sure that they understand why what they’re doing is wrong. Explain to them that coming out to someone can be such a fragile process. It is a very personal journey, and if they truly want to accept you then they should respect that fact. Luckily, my mom stopped outing me to people after I explained this to her in more depth.
When coming out to people, it is important to explain everything, even if you think it is basic knowledge. Taking your time to fully explain things can help to prevent situations like mine. Even if you do this, however, not everyone will be accepting. The important thing is to remember this, and be prepared for it. Personally, there have been people in my life who were not accepting, and I’ve had to drift apart from them. Even though this made me sad, I am overall better off. Surrounding yourself with negative people can lower your self confidence and make you feel bad for being who you are. If you surround yourself with accepting people though, you will have a more positive mindset and healthier relationships that will lead you to accepting yourself.
Today we would like to invite our friends at the Rainbow STEM Alliance for a guest blog post!
Here’s what RSA has to say:
Thank you to the LGBTQ+ of FIRST student group for allowing us to have a guest blog post this week! First off, a bit about The Rainbow STEM Alliance. The mission of The Rainbow STEM Alliance, Inc. shall be to promote acceptance and inclusion of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning, etc. youth within the Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics educational fields. The Rainbow STEM Alliance (RSA) was founded by Jon Kentfield, Brian Boehler and Tom Wexler. These three individuals are alumni and volunteers of FIRST , an organization that plans and hosts robotics competitions for young people. They saw through the students involved that there is a need to help and support LGBTQ+ youth competing on teams. RSA’s initial focus will be to support LGBTQ+ youth in the FIRST Progression of Programs, with goals to expand to other STEM Education programs in the near future. The RSA is running a Go Fund Me as a means to get funding for LGBTQ+ of FIRST lapel pins (something co-founder Jon Kentfield has previously done in the past), as well as pronoun ribbons, etc. We look to have funding complete by January 5th, 2019.
If you would like to support this project, please visit our Go Fund Me at:
We are also set up on AmazonSmile! You can donate to us just by buying things on Amazon, but starting at the smile.amazon.com address! To sign up, go to smile.amazon.com and choose The Rainbow Stem Alliance Inc. as your favorite charity. The best part is, you can start an order in your amazon app, and finish it on smile.amazon.com
A bit more about the founders:
Jon Kentfield, President of The Rainbow STEM Alliance, has been a participant in FIRST since 2000 as a student on a FIRST LEGO League team, and went on to be a part of FIRST Robotics Competition Team 173, as well as mentor their FIRST initiatives through, at the time, the FIRST Vex Challenge, and FIRST LEGO League. He has gone on to volunteer for the different FIRST programs in some capacity since 2003, and currently works for a Crown Supplier to the FIRST Robotics Competition. He has seen first hand what it means to students to have this resource, and continues to promote LGBTQ+ of FIRST at every event possible, usually by wearing a lapel pin, and attending the LGBTQ+ of FIRST meet ups whenever possible.
Tom Wexler serves as the Treasurer of RSA. He started as a student in 2000 on a FIRST Robotics Competition team, and began volunteering in 2003. As a volunteer, Tom has served as a former Senior Volunteer Coordinator for FIRST Mid-Atlantic and a current MC in FIRST Robotics Competition and FIRST Tech Challenge. He has also mentored FIRST Tech Challenge and FIRST Robotics Competition Teams in the greater Philadelphia area. Tom currently works in the Technology Department for a suburban K-12 public school district. He sees how important representation and equity are for LGBTQ+ students within STEM competitions, and hopes that this new organization can have a meaningful impact on students across the globe.
Brian Boehler is the Secretary of The Rainbow STEM Alliance. He has been a part of FIRST since 1999 when he joined a FIRST LEGO League team. Since then, he has helped to mentor and coach various teams. In 2007, he began judging and volunteering at events and in 2011, became the Robotics Director for an education-based non-profit. Now, he runs events for all 4 levels of FIRST Programs within the Northern Indiana area.
For more information about The Rainbow STEM Alliance, please visit our website and social media:
Competition season for FIRST® LEGO® League and FIRST® Tech Challenge is starting to move into full swing, and with competitions come volunteers. The volunteer process is pretty straightforward for many of us, and there are lots of resources about how to sign up on firstinspires.org. However, trans and nonbinary folks can find themselves questioning how to fill out forms that ask for name and gender.
I contacted FIRST® staff to ask about how the system worked in regards to name and gender and how to fill things out to ensure that background checks go through and volunteers are as a comfortable as possible. Be aware that some things may change and that this is primarily applicable to volunteers over 18. If you are still a minor, Youth Protection Program screenings will be unnecessary and you should be able to register using any name you want- just make sure your background check runs through accurately if you volunteer after turning 18. If you’re over 18, you’ll need to follow the guidelines below.
When you initially go to register for an account, you will need to fill out your correct date of birth and your legal first and last name. This information is used for background screening, so it’s important that it matches legal documents.
However, once you have your account set up and are able to log in, you will see an option to edit your information on your dashboard. Here you can put in your actual name, or a nickname. This field should be the name which is printed on name badges and used in correspondence- FIRST® staff and volunteer coordinators should be the only ones who view the legal name, and they should be respectful of using your preferred name.
Further down on the information page, you should also see a ‘demographic’ information field, with a field for gender. Fill this out however you’d like (there’s a non binary option), or leave it as ‘not specified.’ This information is not used in background checks, just to inform FIRST about the demographics of their volunteers and participants.
If you have any more questions about filling out or updating your profile, or about volunteering in general, you can contact email@example.com, or reach out to your local partners and directors about events in your area. If you have questions or concerns about a specific event, don’t be hesitant to reach out the volunteer coordinator- part of their job is making sure the volunteer experience is a good one, and they should be able to help you out.
FIRST® does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, ethnicity, national origin, sex, pregnancy, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, genetic information, disability, age, religion/creed, and military/veteran status in its programs and activities. If you have inquiries about the non-discrimination policy, or concerns about how you or other participants in FIRST® programs (students or volunteers) are being treated at events, you can contact Lee Doucette (firstname.lastname@example.org) for support or assistance.
We gave a presentation at FIRST World Championships in Detroit! Thank you so much to FIRST for allowing us to do this. You can watch the presentation on the Official FIRST YouTube channel. https://youtu.be/NDnxkNMJ2X8
As we’ve all learned by being in robotics, being a part of FIRST means being a part of a greater community. Joining a team means joining a family of skilled people whom you will learn to cherish over the build and competition seasons. Going to just one competition, volunteering at just one outreach event, or mentoring just one team can introduce you to many opportunities to meet new people. However, this raises the question, how do you define your community? Are you part of a team, a region, a nation, or FIRST itself? How does your exposure to certain people affect certain things like diversity? What types of communities have the greatest, or at least the greatest potential, effect on those things, and is it for the better or the worse? These questions have many answers, but I believe one answer, however simple, may be the most interesting one: the differences between a school supported team and an independent one.
It’s not an often thought about comparison, but it is nonetheless an interesting one to think about. It would seem to be reasonable to assume that there would be differences in how you meet people: school team members are already going to school with one another and likely already know each other, whereas independent team members could be complete strangers to one another. However, it’s difficult to draw conclusions about something as broad as two massive groups of FIRST. There are plenty of other reasonable illations you could draw from the subject, like how FIRST in schools will actually bring together some students who wouldn’t have met had they not been in robotics.
This isn’t to say any side has its own advantage in diversity; in fact this is quite the contrary, but both kinds of teams are diverse in their own way. On the one hand, school FIRST teams have the opportunity to bring together students who will create bonds in the months ahead of them. This allows people to widen their exposure to people to create a diverse environment. On the other hand, independent teams comprised of different schools have the opportunity to bring people from multiple different environments together. This other way of bringing people together also allows for people from different environments to become a part of the FIRST community, so it would be wrong to disparage that by comparing the diversity efforts of different types teams.
Through writing this, I’ve had to think a lot about how different experiences in FIRST can affect its overall diversity. While I may have introduced this as a comparison, upon further reasoning, anywhere I go that is FIRST related, whether it be an offseason or regional event, a large or small team, or a school or independent team, I can safely say that FIRST has created a diverse environment for its members. There may be differences in how you create that environment, but FIRST has a history of bringing people together no matter the community. School teams and independent teams are just one comparison in how people define their FIRST community and how they each have their own methods for creating diverse environments, so I can certainly say the conversation about how teams achieve diversity is far from over. Diversity is something that has to be consistently worked towards, but from looking at how different teams achieve it, we can learn what it means to be part of the FIRST community.
It’s a serious understatement to say there’s a lot that goes into transitioning. And for every anticipated hurdle, there are unexpected challenges that come along. One such challenge is the awkwardness of associating with acquaintances when you’re mid or post-transition.
For example…friends from other robotics teams that you only see at competitions.
Imagine this: you’re at a competition, and you approach a team’s pit to say hi to friends you made the last time you competed with this team. Maybe you were on the same alliance or shared parts or just got to talking about scouting in your downtime. You hang out every time you compete together, but you don’t really talk outside of that. Since the last time you saw them, you’ve come out as trans and started transitioning. You’ve started going by a different name and pronouns and changed your appearance. You go up and say hi, and they greet you excitedly….by your dead name. This is uncomfortable, but you have the option to let it pass if your transition isn’t something you want to address. Until one of your teammates comes to get you for help with something and calls you by your preferred name. Suddenly, your friend from another team has all these questions, and you’re in a difficult position where you’re more or less forced to come out.
Being trans isn’t all that someone is, but it’s often forced to the forefront of their identity because of the conflict between who they are and who they used to be. This is especially prevalent when it comes to interactions with people who aren’t privy to all the intimate details of your day to day life.
I began socially transitioning in my senior year of high school, but robotics was always somewhere where I was walking on eggshells because of the climate of my team. Because of this, I wasn’t out to most of the people I associated with at FIRST events. Fast forward a year, and I’m an active alumnus of the program and still volunteer at events. Without the pressure of my team, I’m no longer in the closet and exclusively using my preferred name and pronouns. Because of this, paired with the fact that hormone replacement therapy has started to take effect, I’m finding myself having these conversations more than I ever have before. Being forced to discuss your identity under any circumstances can be awkward and uncomfortable, but it is especially so when it’s unexpected and out of your control.
After going through this same song and dance enough times, I’ve gotten it down to a science. Here are the six pieces of advice I have for maneuvering these encounters more comfortably.
Being mid-transition is awkward and uncomfortable and challenging. You have to face unwanted attention for just being yourself. But it shouldn’t limit you from doing the things you love or seeing people that matter to you. You’ll always have to be coming out to someone…just don’t let those interactions define how you live your life.
My team recently celebrated the conclusion of our fourth year in FIRST by sending off a group of eight seniors. Looking back on the original group of 17 or so students who joined as rookies, I took note of the exceptional talent of the team. The coach who started the team scoured the school for the best and the brightest students who he believed had the proper knowledge in mechanical, electrical, and software engineering. Our school, a private school with a decently difficult entry exam, is fairly competitive when it comes to engineering and mathematics departments; over the past four years, our team has acquired multiple fantastic people who do excellent work in their fields. With our alumni going into engineering fields at prestigious colleges, it would be safe to say that our robotics team values academic proficiency.
But as you’ve all heard at every competition you have been to and as you’re about to hear again, FIRST isn’t just about the robot.
With the robot as priority number one on our team, various fields such as logistics, spirit, and marketing are strictly volunteer based. Existing members of the team find time to work on these fields, but they aren’t as valued on the team as the robot is, so they are not often as proficiently done as they could be. The coach searched the school for the scholars in only specific fields, but because robotics is just seen as building a robot, the team became focused strictly on that, which brings me to my issue.
Reflecting on the original team as well as even our current team, I realized that the team isn’t exactly as diverse as it could be. Less than a quarter of the team are women, only two people (including me) are LGBTQ+, racial diversity is only barely okay, and there are no nonbinary students. In addition, there were no LGBTQ+ students on the team until I joined two years ago, so there is definitely more that could be done about diversity on our team. I didn’t really expect this because coming from a progressive and diverse school, I would expect the robotics team to have a little more diversity, but nobody seems to value it. It’s not that our team has any hatred towards anyone — in fact my team is very accepting of me and the other student — but the team’s image is not one of a diverse group of people.
When starting a rookie team, you become desperate to build a robot, which is what my coach did. Because of this, the search for students didn’t extend to the different fields it could have. FIRST isn’t just about the robot, but our original team didn’t know that. FIRST has many different opportunities that attract people from all walks of life, expanding the capability to be a diverse community, but when starting or joining a rookie team, not everyone knows about their diverse potential.
To solve this issue, I recommend improving your team’s outreach. Outreach is how our team started; the coach went around our school and found the scholars in engineering that would make good team members, but this could be improved. Improving outreach includes advocating to people that FIRST has so many other things to offer other than the robot. Try to get people interested by telling them about fields like marketing, community service, education, and many more opportunities. Advertise FIRST for what it really is: a family composed of various professions and expertises. This isn’t to disparage my team or other rookie teams that prioritize the robot, because that does open the opportunity for some talented individuals to join the team. What I’m saying is that mentality doesn’t offer as much diversity as a team could have. In short, my point is when starting or joining a rookie team, make an effort to emphasize diversity from the start. Make clear to people that FIRST isn’t just about the robot, and you’ll ultimately get more people interested in robotics. Again, I don’t want to diminish the efforts of teams like mine who prioritize the technical aspects of FIRST, but a more diverse environment will only be achieved by reaching out to more people in different professions and the rookie years of a team are often the best times to achieve this goal.
About LGBTQ+ of FIRST
LGBTQ+ of FIRST is a student run organization that advocates awareness and acceptance of LGBTQ+ students, mentors, and volunteers of FIRST Robotics. LGBTQ+ of FIRST reaches out to over 1000 members across the FIRST regions and fronts multiple outreach endeavors.