Story for SUPER
Picture Texas in the 80s. Tall hair, boots, and baptist churches. There I was in the middle, just your regular queer trans girl with a conservative anti-gay dad, and a love for skateboarding and punk music. I couldn’t hide who I was very well, but my family would’ve disowned me or worse had I come out. So I stayed hidden. I learned how to fade into the background in many ways. I escaped into literature, and fantasy — worlds where I didn’t have to hide. I kept presenting as a guy through college. There I was, writing, and trying to make worlds for other folks to escape to, but I’d moved out, and had no money. Luckily my hobbies turned into a career at a laptop help desk at the University of Texas — fixing macs for education students. I bounced from Harley Davidson, to Apple, to a series of startups, but the whole time I thought, “How the hell do I deal with being a woman?” There was a weight on my shoulders, like a child made of lead. At the time, I had a faux hawk, flannel, boots, and thick rimmed glasses. I looked more like a dyke then than I do now. And yet, I still didn’t come out.
I wasn’t very successful at business stuff, and though I was technically apt, I didn’t really know how to bring my whole self to the work… because I couldn’t actually BE myself. I saw men being themselves all over the place. I wasn’t very interested in emulating them, but realized that’s how they get ahead. They build camaraderie through bad jokes, golf, and what seems like an endless desire to be right. This kept on for a few years.
Finally, I took a trip to Japan I realized I’d need to deal with everything, and decided to transition. It went well, and my partner was supportive, and my company seemed cool with the whole thing.
And as I began to take hormones, and really accept “yep, I’m a woman, and this is happening,” I noticed even more garbage than I had before. Out of defense, I think I tried to ignore some of the egregious misogyny around me, but now my boss, let’s call him Steve, made disparaging comments about my femininity. He’d also tell me to help other folks at work with a “go help out the girl with the big tits,” or “check out that ass! she’s having email problems”. It was awful, but folks were afraid to report him because of his position. I left soon after. I needed a fresh start, and I saw that job getting worse, with terrible pay and hours — I’m talking 14 hour days, 7 days a week, running IT. I started to notice what I’d avoided knowing before.
My new job was another startup, but they hired me as a woman. It ruled at first. “Ah, this is what it’s like to work at a job as a person. Like 100% a person.” I was so happy. I was aware before I transitioned about how shitty things were for women in tech, but until you’ve lived it, it’s impossible to really understand. I’d see my boss, Cathy, and another woman in leadership, Liz, get talked over, shot down, and generally discouraged… every day. They were both presenting differently than I was -Cathy in a pantsuit-style Hillary power outfit, and Liz in a t-shirt and jeans that said “hey i’m one of you, i’m just one of the tech guys”. I saw men repeating their ideas back to each other, and taking credit. I saw them asked to do admin work unrelated to their job, because they were women. Then I saw them begin to adapt. They talked over the guys, they took credit for more. It seemed to work, but at what cost?
For me, I kept going into everything with the same brashness that my male colleagues took for granted, that I’d learned while interacting with tech for the previous 6 years, but now I was hitting walls left and right. My ideas weren’t being taken seriously, and even my skills in tech were questioned.
I kept showing up, and was still happy to be seen as a woman, even with the discomfort. At least there wasn’t quite the misogyny of my previous job. One day, Cathy asked me into her office, and I figured we were going to discuss the next quarter, but instead she said. “we need you to stop talking about your lifestyle.” Her words hit me hard, like falling off a cliff face first; I was in freefall, with the ground rushing up, and the wind whistling in my ears.
I went home, and didn’t know what to do. I was finally feeling this weight lifted, finally showing up to work as an actual person, and now I was being told not to? It was the worst. It’s like when you look forward to your birthday all year, because you really want a new bike, and the day comes, and a big package is given to you, and you are thrilled, but then you open it, and it’s just… spiders. That feeling. The full body revulsion. It turned out that some of the folks I thought I was befriending had complained that me talking about my wife, and being a dyke was alienating, while not seeing the obvious discrimination inherent in doing that while their partner’s visited the office, pand they hung large photos of their heterosexual world. Ugh.
I knew now that not only would people hate me for being myself, but there was no winning in a power structure defined by, and ruled by men. We could try to become them, but that would destroy us, and leave the world in worse shape.
I’d begun to read a lot more feminist texts- and due to being trans, I looked for intersectional things, things written by Black women, by trans women, by queers. I learned more about my history, and more about the long struggle to find rights, and to tear down the system that constrained us, a system of abuse, and of patriarchy. I knew I had to leave the company, and thought about leaving tech, but with loads of debt, my financial reality I was desperate to stay employed. So, I took another job that moved me to Portland, and kept reading. My team was mostly women, but even with a female boss, the patriarchal power systems were still in play. We’re taught to compete, as women, for the one spot as “the smart one” or “the boss.” We threaten each other’s success, it often feels like it’s a zero-sum game.
Around this time, I began writing about my own experiences, and the things I was seeing with the rare experience of A/B testing tech as a person seen as a woman, and a man. I spoke at things, and I kept seeing women like me, like you talking about being powerful, and getting more women into tech. At first I was happy, but I began to be frustrated. Many of us seemed unaware that no matter how hard we tried, tech companies would stay rooted in the white supremacist patriarchy, and if anything, we were building a stronger pipeline into a cesspool. Leaning in only benefits the narrow set of white privileged women who can fit the ideal of the “smart woman”. We’re encouraging girls, so often, to seize patriarchal power, to become stronger than the men, but that strength is often a corruption, a rejection of feminist thought.
I was sad. I’m still sad. It’s hard to look out at you and say “join me in this industry,” except for the fact that it pays. Well. Except for the fact that many of you, like me, love technology, and coding, and building things out of magic words we type into our computer. It’s fantastic.
So what do we do? How do we change things? My thoughts on this are built on the backs and shoulders of black and latinx women. The women like bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Janet Mock, Imogen Binnie and so many more who discuss patriarchy and American imperialism. We can’t *fix* it, but we can build something else. We must destroy *power* as patriarchy defines it, and build systems of collaboration and assistance. We need to fund our own projects, and those of our friends. We need to work to end the scourge of capitalism, and help each other make a better world. We need to (as white women) get the hell out of the way when black, latinx, and PoC women are talking and learn. Cis and heterosexual women need to center and build up queer and trans women, as we make something different. Something better.
With the recent election, and daily news that frightens me, that should frighten you — with our rights as women, the rights of immigrants, PoC, queer and trans folks on the line, it’s easy to think “we just need to seize the power we lost again,” but it’s a trap. Reform is a trap. It’s always a trap. We need to destroy and remake the systems that oppress us. The patriarchy and white supremacy are inherent in the power structures that surround us. We can’t reform something that is working perfectly to uphold awful ideas, we have to destroy them.
I don’t know what it looks like, except that it looks like us working together to do more than make old white men richer. That it looks like resistance, it looks like struggle, it looks like not complying with the regime that now rules America. It means not sitting down, not staying quiet about our lifestyles, and not letting patriarchy define our behavior, our love, or our passions.
For me, it means supporting Black Lives Matter, donating to the TGI Justice Project, Social Justice Fund NW, Basic Rights Oregon, and the ACLU. It means supporting my queer friend’s fundraisers for healthcare. It means recognizing my privilege and the income disparity between me and many folks I know and enacting redistribution at home, for rent, for meals. I’m not fully there yet, but divesting myself of the idea that I’ve “earned” this money, that I deserve to make 5x what a friend of mine makes, helps me get to the goal of giving 30–50% of my income away to causes that can change the world. I’m on a board, and I volunteer. I ask that you consider doing some of the same things. Find out if your company matches donation, and hit that matching number. Look for ways you can help local communities of trans folks & queers, PoC, Muslim groups— the folks that will be hit first and hardest by this administration.
I’m still learning, and I owe everything I am to the women who came before me. I thank them, and hope that you will learn from them, and from the folks on stage here today to build new ideas and systems that I can’t imagine. I hope that I can join you, and that together we can redefine what tech looks like, ending our oppression of communities of color, of the cities around us in a pursuit of profit, or for the daft reason of disruption. We can do better. We have to do better.