The gesture from the leadership at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland was simple: As of a few weeks ago, employees could add their pronouns to their official identification for meetings. On calls and chats, the information would appear alongside their names and internal ID number. The addition of a formal field for pronouns was a show of support to gender minorities and their allies.
But it didn’t last. On Monday of this week, representatives from NASA Headquarters called a meeting to abruptly end the new features in their system, which they said had been rolled out as part of a pilot program. Officials told Goddard employees who attended the meeting that they hadn’t determined if including pronouns was appropriate in a professional context and needed to consider broader impacts of displaying the pronouns, an explanation that left many feeling frustrated.
A leader of the LGBTQ+ employee resource group at Goddard who was privy to the decision-making process said in an email to other employees that NASA officials compared displaying pronouns to expressing public support for sports teams.* (I spoke with four employees at Goddard who had knowledge of the meeting or the reaction to it. They did not wish to be identified due to fears of retaliation or discomfort with making themselves the public face of protest against the agency.)
The decision to remove pronouns came to light when a post on Reddit appeared from someone identifying themselves online as a NASA employee. The post describes the meeting where NASA broke the news that they were removing the field for pronouns.
“The meeting was a surprise,” one employee told me, adding that the gender tags were both opt-in and vetted by staff to prevent misuse by trolls. They pointed out that the ability to clearly display pronouns in meetings is all the more important during the pandemic when the majority of interactions are virtual. Multiple advocates for inclusion in science took to Twitter to share the Reddit post and add arguments about why the sudden change was bad.
Following the uproar on social media, Steve Shih, NASA associate administrator for diversity and equal opportunity, released a statement reading in part: “NASA recently completed an IT project. … The learnings from this test will be used to inform the advancement of diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility.” The statement did not say why the “IT project” was ended, or what if anything will be done with the “learnings.” Goddard’s press office declined to comment further.
Everyone I spoke to expressed feelings of anger, frustration, and betrayal over the abrupt end to the pronouns feature and the lukewarm public statement from NASA. The move is out of step with where they thought NASA was headed, as NASA has made inclusion a big part of its mission over the past few decades. The agency’s Twitter biography reads: “There’s space for everybody.” Multiple project leaders and high-ranking scientists are openly queer. Current and former NASA scientists highlight how welcoming the agency has been to them.
“My first postdoctoral fellowship was at Goddard Space Flight Center,” said Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, who is now a professor at the University of New Hampshire. “It was one of the most idyllic times in my career.”
She was also one of the organizers of the American Astronomical Society’s Committee for Sexual-Orientation & Gender Minorities in Astronomy while at Goddard and made it clear that nobody at NASA objected to this. “NASA talks a lot about trying to bring the next generation into space science,” she added. Ending the pronoun pilot program “is exactly the opposite of what you do when you want the next generation to be excited about understanding space with you.”
The pronoun feature at Goddard was a very small gesture of inclusiveness during its brief existence, and to observers both in and outside of NASA, removing them without adequate explanation seems be an unforced public-relations error on the agency’s part. Multiple commenters on social media, including Prescod-Weinstein, expressed concern that this abrupt withdrawal of gender expression support came so soon after NASA director Bill Nelson dismissed calls to rename the James Webb Space Telescope after queer scientists raised concerns about the legacy of the mission’s namesake.
The choice to end the pronoun display option also comes during a time when LGBTQ people are being targeted by Florida’s “don’t say gay” legislation, and Texas’ draconian anti-trans bill, both states where NASA has large centers. For cisgender people, pronouns might not seem important. But to view this as a fringe issue not worth fighting against is a mistake. To queer people and their allies, NASA’s leadership choosing to roll back small inclusion initiatives during this vulnerable time in history doesn’t seem small: It feels like a crack in an O-ring that can lead to major disaster in the future.
Correction, March 11, 2022: This article originally mischaracterized the contents of an email sent by the leader of the LGBTQ+ employee resource group.
Update, March 10, 2022: This article has been updated since publication