UBC Gears and Queers seeks to make the engineering community more accepting

Cropping up on Facebook after reading week in March and maintaining a rather understated presence since then, UBC Gears and Queers has emerged as an exciting new social club with great potential to affect change on-campus and the engineering faculty. On their Facebook page they state their goals to be “to beneficially impact the broader engineering community and create a more accepting environment for all people, regardless of romantic and/or sexual orientation or gender identity, through thoughtful diversity programming, advocacy, and social opportunities.”

We sat down with the founder and leader of the club, Jessica Hohner, to ask her a few questions.

UBC Gears and Queers is relatively new club on campus. How was it started?

The founding story is not as interesting as it sounds. I went to a conference on diversity in engineering [in Waterloo], which used to be the National Conference on Women in Engineering but they just expanded the scope this year, and met somebody from [McMaster University] who had started Enginqueers there and a couple of schools in Ontario who had clubs like this and it just seemed like a really cool idea. It seemed like something that people here would be interested in. So I put out a survey to see if there was interest and there really was, so we started the club!

What’s the organization about? What do you guys do?

At the moment, the interest seems to be in just having a social and support group for queer students in engineering because [it] isn’t a particularly minority-heavy subject to begin with. We’re not really an advocacy club — [UBC] Pride has that covered.  When we initially talked about it, a lot of people were just interested in meeting other people and they kind of felt like advocacy was something that should just be left to [UBC] Pride.

With another organization like UBC Pride, what deficit do you think UBC Gears and Queers solves?

Well, we're not the only club like this on-campus. They have OutLaws [the club] for the law department.  Engineering is really like a ‘boys club’ kind of faculty and it’s getting better, but there are still a lot of remnants like drinking culture, which is fairly prominent even though we’re trying to move away from that.  

Do you feel like there is any unaddressed homophobia in the faculty or industry that you’re trying to mitigate through your club? Do you think a queer engineering student, as you transition into a professional role, would feel more inclined to stay in the closet?

It's funny you should say that. One of the first criticisms I heard was from a student with a conservative background and a Muslim country who said he didn’t like the idea of us having a club like this because it might make conservative employers less likely to come and recruit at UBC. I thought was a bit of a silly criticism and kind of the point [of the club]. We want employers to come and see that there are queer students and it’s cool. There was a study on queer people in STEM industries and the rate of being out is much higher in softer fields [while] engineering had the lowest rate of all.

Was it just that one individual? What has the general response been?

The response has been fairly positive from the engineering students I have talked to. When we put out the survey, there were only three people who said they didn’t want this club to exist but only one of them gave a reason, and the person who said that was a gay man. It wasn’t such a huge part of their identity [and they felt] that they didn’t need a club like this and I thought there are a lot of people who would disagree. Besides that, I haven’t really heard much in the way of hatred or anything like that. It’s been pretty positive.

Are you considering any partnerships with queer engineer professional groups if they do exist?

We are planning a professional development event on the theme of [inclusiveness] and diversity in the workplace, and bring in some queer graduates — who we have ties to — as speakers.

What is your vision for this club over the next school year?

I guess I want us to have a presence in campus life and be like, "Oh yeah, the queer kids! They’re having a party this weekend. Let’s go chill with them." Or we’re having a hike and people who aren’t even queer will be like, "Yeah, those guys look fun. Let’s go hang out with them."  Just to build a community where one doesn’t exist right now and bring some visibility to the queer students of UBC engineering.

What challenges do you see your club facing in this upcoming year?

Trying to find our feet and figure out what our vision is will probably be one of our biggest challenges because we do have a lot of people who are interested, not necessarily in queer advocacy, but mental health advocacy.  Trying to positively contribute and figure out where our focus should be.  And I guess trying to get the word out and make sure that people find us!

Do you have anything else you’d like me to know about the club or you’d like to say?

It’s totally open to people who are not queer engineers— it’s open to everyone.  Anyone can join.  Everyone on the planning team is really keen to get going on this and we’re really excited to see everyone at Imagine Day

Check out the club's Facebook page for more information and their social events. They will also have a booth at Imagine Day and representation during the Engineering frosh.