Joan Roughgarden was born on March 13, 1946 in Peterson, New Jersey. Her father worked as a missionary and construction engineer for the Episcopal Church, so she grew up in the Philippines, Indonesia, and then finished high school back in New Jersey. Joan then enrolled in University of Rochester, on the pre-med track and double majoring in biology and philosophy.
Joan’s mother wanted Joan, who was assigned male at birth, to be “my son, the doctor.” During her first year, Joan took a microbiology course with Wolf Vishniak, where she instead fell in love with critical thinking and theorizing in her scientific studies. She subsequently pursued a PhD in biology at Harvard University.
At the start of her research career, Joan gained popularity as her papers provided the mathematical basis for mainstream thoughts on ecology and evolution. Right out of her PhD, Joan then started doing field work on Anolis lizards in the Caribbean islands. She found species deviation among the lizards, and instead of overlooking these deviations like mainstream science did, she published her hypotheses on the origins of these deviations. As she began her professorship at Stanford University in 1972, she focused her field work on marine biology along California’s coast. Her lab saw that existing mainstream generalizations about interactions between mussels, barnacles, and starfish weren’t true. She published on these findings and received angry feedback as she came to realize that challenging existing hypotheses was not welcome in the scientific community.
Of course, this realization did not stop Joan. When Joan first came out as transgender and publicly transitioned, she moved to San Francisco. There, she joined a predominantly queer congregation for a support system through her coming out process. She wrote Evolution and the Christian Faith to show how Bible passages reflect contemporary evolution theory. When she walked in her first SF Pride, she was struck by the sheer number of people around her. She was inspired to research and write on the evolution, occurrence, and benefits of widespread gender and sexuality in nature in her next book, Evolution’s Rainbow. The book exposes how much same-sex sexual behavior observed in other animal species is intentionally underreported, and corrects the errors behind the mainstream argument that same-sex sexuality is an “aberration” from nature.
As a sequel, Joan penned Genial Gene, an explanatory framework to challenge Darwin’s sexual selection theory that mating takes precedence over courtship or raising offspring. The book compares statistics showing that populations engaging in same sex sexuality have similar reproductive rates to those who exclusively behave in heterosexual behavior. She also shines light on the scientific basis for trans identities in humans, pointing out that testosterone levels in the womb at early stages in pregnancy determine development of physical sexual characteristics, and then in later stages determine the sex of the brain. Further, Joan explores how, for many animal and plant species, there can be multiple genders within one sex as well as “hermaphrodites.”
Looking back on her research and career, Joan shows us that she contributed to LGBTQ+ activism by doing what she does best: scientific research. She reformed the science that has historically been used to pathologize queer identities, paving the way for scientists across gender and sexual minorities.