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Amita Kuttner on Being a Green, Non-Binary, and Pansexual Astrophysicist and Politician

The North Burnaby-Seymour candidate on the impact of gender and sexuality on science and politics.

By Katie Hyslop 26 Aug 2019 | TheTyee.ca

Katie Hyslop is a reporter for The Tyee. Reach her here.

When Amita Kuttner was declared Green party candidate for the Burnaby North-Seymour federal riding last September, they didn’t think their gender and sexual orientation needed to be public knowledge.

Despite identifying as both non-binary and pansexual, meaning they don’t feel like a man or a woman and are attracted to all genders, Kuttner let it slide when people referred to them as a woman or used she/her pronouns.

Even Green party leader Elizabeth May referred to Kuttner as a “young woman scientist” when announcing her candidacy last fall.

But 11 months later, Kuttner decided to go public with their gender and sexual orientation in a post on the campaign blog and a YouTube video, just in time for Pride festivities in the Lower Mainland. Not because Kuttner’s gender and sexuality is a big deal, they said, but because it gives voters a greater sense of who Kuttner is and how they view the world.

“It wasn’t a decision I made quickly,” they said. “I haven’t been hiding my identity. But I also haven’t really been public about it.”

Born and raised in the North Vancouver section of the riding, Kuttner recently completed a PhD in astronomy and astrophysics at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Kuttner faces an uphill battle, running against Liberal incumbent Terry Beech, NDP candidate Svend Robinson, and Conservative candidate Heather Leung, whose past political stances — Leung previously served as the spokesperson for Burnaby Parents’ Voice, a group formed to oppose gay- and transgender-positive policy in schools — Kuttner called “scary to me.” The Greens finished a distant fourth in the riding in 2015, with five per cent of the vote.

Kuttner’s platform reflects a science and social justice background. It calls for prioritizing evidence-based and gender-inclusive policy, climate action, electoral reform, and protecting workers’ rights amid job automation and artificial intelligence.

But when Kuttner sat down with The Tyee to discuss how gender and sexual orientation play a role in politics and science, they said it didn’t seem right to stay silent about this aspect of themselves.

“I realized a lot of the value I carry as an individual has to do with my identity,” they said. “It’s not particularly that I am those things, but through lived experiences with my identities I have gained perspectives on different issues that informs the way I look at policy.”

The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

The Tyee: What inspired you to talk publicly about your gender and sexuality?

Amita Kuttner: I found everyone just assuming that I was a straight, cis woman. I felt I wasn’t entirely being honest to just not address it. Everyone has the right to know who I am, and what lived experiences that comes with, and what lenses I therefore look at policy through.

But it isn’t really a big deal. Every once in a while, I’ll have some strong gender or non-gender experience. But for the most part, I don’t think about it. I did notice people were like, ‘What’s it like to be a woman?’ So to truly be myself, which is an excellent piece of advice I got about running, I felt like I had to put it out there.

Who gave you that advice?

I was asking BC Green party MLA Sonia Furstenau about what I should wear, if I should wear makeup, because I never thought about that. She said, ‘Just be yourself.’ I took that to mean in every way. If I’m doing anything at all, I try to consider: Am I putting anything on? Am I trying to be something I’m not? And try to let it all go and just present myself as me.

What are your preferred pronouns?

They/them. But when I write my pronouns, I sometimes write all of them: they/them, she/her, he/him, because I don’t care. There will be days where I’m not always even aware of what my gender is, and I will notice it based on how someone addresses me and whether I respond.

I was in choir for many years, and they’d say, ‘women sing now,’ ‘men sing now.’ And I would find myself starting with one or the other group, even though I was obviously supposed to sing soprano. I’d be like, ‘Oh, I guess I’m feeling that today.’

In what other ways have your identities played a role in your campaign?

I was hoping — perfectly naively — I could not think about identity at all. I don’t like when politics is focused on identity, because I don’t believe anyone should vote or not vote for somebody based on their identity, rather whether they’re going to be a good representative. But I found I was stuck carrying my identities. Looking at policy, interacting with people, I would notice everything was geared towards a very heteronormative, cis world.

Also, I’m mixed race and young — there’s just a whole host of identities I could list out. I have PTSD; I’ve suffered many years of mental health challenges through trauma. I’m a scientist. You can keep going, right? Everyone carries a whole list of identities with them, and they intersect.

I have a very different lens looking at policy. It relates to the climate crisis. Some people will address immigration, refugees and other things as issues to do with climate, and other people will just be like, ‘We need to lower emissions.’ That doesn’t take into account how impoverished communities and gender minorities will be likely to experience harder effects of climate chaos. That actually applies to pretty much everything.

Could you talk a bit about gender-inclusive policy?

I don’t want this to be the whole campaign. It’s not the only thing I care about. But it is also important that every piece of legislation has different lenses put on it at the same time.

I went to the youth and gender equality talk at the Women Deliver conference, and they were stressing the need to get past the gender binary. Within my own party, that was already a conversation that was happening.

Something we’re getting trained on that they were talking about is how to develop proper language, be inclusive, look at policy that way, as well as create policy for inclusion. It’s not to say that women don’t exist, they absolutely exist. But when we talk about reproductive health for women, we need to recognize trans men and some non-binary people have the ability to have children. Imposing gender on some policies is just exclusionary by definition.

What feedback have you received from the residents of your riding?

So far, it is positive. I went to the Burnaby Pride celebration, and some people came up and said they were excited and happy. There’s been a couple of non-riding people on Twitter saying, ‘Oh, you’re distracting from the important things, this isn’t relevant.’ And I get mad, because it’s all relevant. You can’t solve global crises and ignore people. Certain communities experience the effects of overwhelming change differently.

There have been a couple of weird, supportive comments. My favourite was somebody who came up and said, ‘Oh, I suspected that you were. And now you’re out, so we all know, and that’s great.’ Suspected that I was what? Weird? Different? What word do you mean here?

My biggest frustration is the otherizing that happens. I actually pushed back against identifying for a long time because I didn’t want to pick an identity, to pick a box. I just wanted to be me, a person. That’s not the world we’re in yet. I’m glad some people feel comfortable to exist there already. But it has a lot to do with people who are marginalized and underserved. I’m extremely privileged as well, because I don’t have an ‘unusual identity’ and can be seen as ‘normal.’ By which I mean, a cis straight woman.

How do gender identity and race play a role in science?

It’s huge, because historically the sciences have been extremely non-diverse. It has affected the way science is done, but it mostly affects how welcoming the academy is, in that it’s not. And the systems themselves are set up in such a way that people don’t fully understand how non-inclusive they are.

We exist in colonial structures that are hierarchical, structured around some sort of merit-based system that doesn’t reflect the opportunity for growth. Especially in physics, it was very much, ‘You’re a genius or you’re not. We’re going to judge you on your abilities, regardless of your background.’ The judgments would depend on people’s school access, and how well prepared they came into first year of university. It says nothing about their work ethic, ability to learn, grow, and become incredible scientists. It’s about making sure the access is equal for everyone.

The problem is breaking down the implicit bias that people have, and then providing opportunities. Then you’d meet people that held racist and sexist views: ‘There’s not so many women here, because they clearly aren’t naturally good at science or math.’ People assume Hispanic students are stupid, and also assume Asian students are naturally good at math. Neither of those are beneficial.

In government, it’s similar. The entire way that we’ve set up our country is colonial and hierarchical, non-inclusive, and favours a certain set of people who are privileged in a whole host of ways. I would never say all this set of people has it easier or hard, because it’s a complex set of identities.

How do you think coming forward with your identities might impact votes from socially conservative voters?

Certain versions of social conservatism absolutely aren’t inclusive. But having certain ideas that might be considered conservative doesn’t mean that you don’t think someone else would be allowed to have their own identity.

Gender is a very personal thing. It’s between me and me. And I believe everyone should be able to be themselves. I have no desire to change anyone. You can use whatever pronouns for yourself you want. I’m just trying to make the world more inclusive for people who do want those things.

You talk in your platform about evidence-based policy. What does that mean to you as a scientist?

First and foremost, it means I don’t know the answers to everything, nor should I. Government decisions should be based on facts, and facts are not things that have opinions. Facts and data do, though, require interpretation. And you do need to declare your intention: What is it that you’re trying to achieve through your policy? Then use data to inform how you make it.

A lot of politicking, politics and policy is not based on evidence. People just say, ‘I want this, so I’m going to do this.’ And there’s no evidence to show they will achieve their goals. Especially right now, with climate, the science is extremely clear on the actions we need to take. And so, basing a policy on evidence would be following that scientific consensus.

Your platform talks about electoral reform: How do you feel about lowering the voting age in Canada?

I think it’s a good idea, mostly because of representation and access. There needs to be discussion of how far to lower the voting age, but most of the suggestions I see are to 16. That’s exactly when people are learning about government. And encouraging civic engagement is something that has to happen early. I need to be evidence-based here, so this is something I would have to look up.

It’s also about what people have at stake in voting. Governments tend to make decisions on a four-year timescale, which is pretty absurd because we need legislation that lasts a lot longer than that. What young people have at stake is their entire lives ahead of them. If they’re just turning 16 in time for an election, the next time they’re going to be voting is when they’re 20. And by that time, they will have become an adult basically into a world that they have had no control over creating.

If the four-year timeline is absurd, what should it be?

We do need policy for short timescales as well. But we need long-term planning, to actually talk about generations, to know we are actually forming policy that allows for a world that will still exist in generations from now.

What about for policies you wouldn’t like? Like guaranteed government subsidies for the oil sands for 20 years?

It still applies. It’s about planning for a long term, even if you don’t legislate for long term. This frustrates me with LNG (liquefied natural gas) in B.C.: do you really know there’s going to be a market for LNG in nine years? Do we really know if anyone’s going to want tar sands production in 20 years? No.

The other thing that will happen is they’ll put stuff off. Like, ‘We’ll do it in six years,’ and it requires them to still be in government in six years, rather than doing something now. And there needs to be some things in place that are long-term. If you have a support system for people, it’s extremely dangerous to make that something that can be ripped away by the next government.

The Tyee’s federal election coverage is made possible by readers who pitched in to our election reporting fund. Read more about how The Tyee developed our reader-powered election reporting plan and see all of our stories here.  [Tyee]

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