Trans Challenges to the Tech World

By placing improvements for trans tech workers within a systems perspective, transgender rights advocates can make tech more accessible to the most marginalized parts of the trans community.

by Erika Lynn Abigail on September 8th, 2014

More than most industries, it seems the tech industry as a whole takes steps to be inclusive of LGBT and queer workers. Many large companies have well-known LGBT or gay groups– think the Gayglers — and have been vocal supporters of LGBT advancements — by marching in SF Pride, or advocating for gay marriage. Just a few months ago, The New York Times published a piece about the wide base of support the LGBT community has in the Silicon Valley, noting how SF Pride could have easily been mistaken for a tech convention.

People in Google shirts holding a banner that says 'Google' with rainbow detailing.

CC-BY Tim Pierce, filtered.

Despite these visible steps towards acceptance and celebration, the tech industry’s relationship to the LGBT community is not monolithically laudable or improving. This was illustrated in the Times’ conversation with Vivienne L’Ecuyer Ming, a transwoman on the board of StartOut:

“Ms. Ming says she is optimistic about the advances being made in her industry and the culture at large, but she takes a more nuanced view than many of the young, barely-out-of-college engineers and entrepreneurs flooding into this drunk-on-technology town. ‘Being here in the Bay Area, people tend to be very accepting — sometimes even celebratory,’ she said. ‘But there’s a difference between being openly embraced and taken seriously.’”

This week, I had the opportunity to chat with a variety of folks who work in the tech industry and identify as transgender or gender non-conforming. All requested anonymity, so any name used is not their own. Likewise, they all requested that their company’s names not be attached to their name. However, collectively, they have worked at Microsoft, Amazon, Apple, and a variety of San Francisco and South Bay start-ups that, if named, would be identifying. They have worked in a variety of roles from retail to design to engineering, freelancing, part-time, and full-time.

Nearly all of them echoed what Ms. Ming had said. According to Margaret, “While I think at the giant tech companies there is general support [for LGBT right and folks], on the personal level it’s not always, for lack of better word, straightforward.” A transwoman, Margaret has noted how she has faced scrutiny by some for going to women focused or exclusive tech events.

Similarly, Kenji, who identifies as gender non-conforming and sometimes male-passing, said that they felt that women focused or exclusive tech events are more accepting of them, despite them not identifying as a woman, than tech events as a whole are of transwoman. “I would say the transmisogyny was just an undercurrent of how people would understand people’s genders/bodies.”

Many big tech companies administratively lack the types of biases these events tend to have, but on a social and cultural level, they tend to be present, though rarely in intentional ways. Keyshia, a transwoman, noted how the management at her large tech company is supportive of her and her needs. When she was harassed by a customer who realized that she was transgender, her supervisor spent time with her to let her calm down, and offered to give her the rest of the day off.

But, when interacting with her coworkers, Keyshia experienced a decent amount of pronoun mix-ups. “It doesn’t come off as malicious,” she said, “but I always feel awkward correcting.”

Annika, a transwoman, found that many of her coworkers at her large tech company were very respectful of her during and after her transition; but when she began to live as a woman, they began to treat her as a woman.

“I found I was not taken as seriously on technical issues. People would feel free to talk over me. I would be judged more harshly for the same work, held to a higher standard, or it would be assumed people around me deserved credit for things I did… I could be taken seriously as an unassuming, non-macho guy, as long as I turned in consistently stellar work. As a woman, doing good work was not enough.”

Startups and Bias

The rainbow flag.

CC-BY Quinn Dombrowski, filtered.

At startups, most noted, the treatment of trans and gender non-conforming folks is worse than it is at larger companies, in particular administratively.

“I think smaller startups vary a lot more,” Margaret said, “[as] bigger companies simply can’t afford to discriminate. [A] small startup can just say no and refuse to take any more steps [with regards to education and inclusion]. Interviewing for startups…this summer… I do think that prejudice and discrimination is a factor.”

Annika echoed this same experience. “[The large company at which I began my transition] was extremely easy.” She felt much less accepted, though, at the variety of start-ups across the Bay Area at which she has worked.

“At the startups,” she said, “as a closeted transvestite/nonbinary person [before I transitioned to living as a woman], I think the main challenge I faced was the people around me made me feel very, very afraid to express anything about myself.‏” She noted an experience with a manager at a startup in which he expressed very derogatory and condescending opinions about a gender non-conforming former employee that in particular made her feel like she wasn’t safe in her workplace.

When asked about their thoughts as to the cause of the discrepancy in workplace environment, both Margaret and Annika had a few ideas as to why startups can present less than desirable work environments for transfolks.

“I think what it comes down to is the maturity of the people,” Annika told me, “and the extent to which [startup] culture encourages maturity…The people at the startups were all younger– although I’d expect younger people to be Better About LGBT Stuff, it didn’t really work that way…It is easy for brash teenage boy behavior to be left-over in how they act. It is easy for them to not know a lot of people ([especially] if they mostly interact with other people at the startup, which is small and ALWAYS overwhelmingly male) and therefore not know a diversity of people (which might put gay, trans, etc people in their social circle).”

Annika also noted how poorly managers and supervisors — if there are any — at startups are trained to deal with LGBT and queer issues, which can further fuel the culture of “brash teenage boy behavior.”

Margaret, on the other hand, felt that the severe lack of visible LGBT and queer Computer Science and Electrical Engineering faculty at top schools contributes to the lack of experience with diverse groups many young tech workers at startups have. “I think it’s arguable that [LGBT] people are overrepresented in tech industry, but that LGBT are underrepresented grossly in tech academe… Studies suggest that teacher diversity does matter.”

A Radical Reimagining of Tech Spaces

San Francisco buildings at sunset.

CC-BY Wonderlane, filtered.

Given that this seems to be a systemic issue, there isn’t one simple fix to encourage startups to be LGBT and queer friendly and embracing. Considering the growing amount of LGBT and queer focused tech groups, such as StartOut and Lesbians Who Tech, I feel like there is a lot of potential for positive change to the tech industry. Better self-regulation at startups, and a more diverse tech faculty could both greatly help transfolks.

But others suggested that even those changes do not look at the issues transfolk face in the tech industry as deeply and critically as they should.

“Computer making/programming is seen as divorced from social issues,” Kenji said. “Before people talk about ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ maybe we can talk about decarcerating the people you’re hoping to ‘diversify with’ and ‘include,’ in particular Black & Latina trans women, but a whole host of bodies that are seen as inherently criminal, terrorist, and otherwise ‘other.’ When people are literally dying and/or living in cages, your tech spaces’ representational diversity is really not the point.”

This touches on a concern many queer people have not only of the tech world, but of many industries, the gay non-profit industrial complex included. Far too often less-than-impactful surface issues that have a lot of financial and media return are pushed over more complex, less glamorous systematic solutions. But while this is a problem found in many areas of the economy, few sectors have as much political and financial power as the tech industry to enact change.

When asked how the tech industry could create more systemic changes, Kenji had several suggested actions. In terms of education, they pointed out that “funding & work priorities for STEM students and workers come from the Department of Defense and/or Corporations.” Ultimately, who funds programs and projects shapes not just the direction and career focus of many CS and EE majors, but also their views and biases.

They also suggested that instead of looking to change existing tech systems, we should focus instead of building new tech spaces that are grounded in more liberating and transformative principles. “[I want] a radical reimagining of tech to be gender-affirming and gender-revolutionary [that] would obviously not be rooted in creating more e-commerce….it would be about dismantling prisons, gender-based violence, [etc].”

Given the success of the organizations like the Human Rights Campaign at getting larger tech companies to become more LGBT-accepting, and organizations such as StartOut, Lesbians Who Tech, and other LGBT and queer programs that have created some specific spaces for LGBT and queer tech workers, I’m optimistic that the types of transformative spaces Kenji discusses can exist.

Towards a Systems Perspective

That doesn’t mean, however, that achieving these new spaces will be easy. The Silicon Valley is very entrenched in neoliberal and libertarian philosophy. Some of the more powerful LGBT tech executives, like Peter Thiel, are openly against the notions of diversity and multiculturalism.

The changes that we have seen happen in the tech world already concerning sexuality and gender came through not so much as a principled stand, but as a reaction to the pressure being put on larger tech companies to improve conditions for LGBT employees — as Margaret put it, they simply can’t afford not to. And now, many of these larger companies take pride in the changes that they have made, and continue to make, and make new changes that benefit LGBT employees because they see it as “the right thing to do.” This, in turn, creates good publicity for the company.

The LGBT community can be very powerful when it sets its mind to something, and can bring with it a lot of media attention and public sympathy. Yet far too often, the campaigns the LGBT community supports, like gay marriage, reinforce oppressive systems, rather than creating alternatives.

It is important that the existing systems be reformed to be more trans-inclusive. But that cannot be the end point — nor, for that matter, should it be the de facto starting point.

I would argue that all activism and critiques of the tech industry concerning trans tech workers should be solidly grounded in larger systematic critiques of transgender oppression — for example, the prison-industrial complex, and the school-to-prison pipeline. How can the tech industry’s power and resources be leveraged to allow marginalized transfolks to use tech for their advancement? How can tech education be more accessible from an earlier age to marginalized transfolks and communities?

As Kenji puts it, “We exist under capitalism. I don’t pretend we don’t. We just have to think more creatively about how to negotiate and position ourselves within its current forms.”