Queer Here — LGBTQ Acceptance in Tech

I attended a panel discussion on being LGBTQ in the workplace. The focus was on people working in Tech. Good news! The panelists had not had any issues with being queer and working tech! In fact, they felt very supported in their current environments. Tech companies are doing it right.

I have to say I was surprised. I have certainly seen improvement in acceptance of queer people in the San Francisco Bay Area and Silicon Valley. I have also seen incredible intolerance and a veneer of acceptance hiding what are still major problems. Yet our speakers felt they never had a problem.

The speakers worked in tech companies in Silicon Valley or San Francisco. They included an attorney, a data specialist and a vendor manager.

Fully recognizing my bias, I tried to parse some of their statements a little more. One woman did speak to the fact that she has not been in the workforce very long. Working at Google, she feels the company provides a supportive environment for LGBTQ people. She is comfortably, casually out. That is, she can casually mention her wife without fear of backlash. There are the occasional moments when someone will react for a moment but it is more taking in that they heard a different pronoun or noun than they expected — wife, girlfriend, she. She has hit issues for being female, especially when working with male engineers who assume she has little to no knowledge of their field, and she has worked carefully to establish herself as a knowledgeable and conscientious colleague.

The gay man on the panel stated that as his current company he is very well accepted as an out, gay man. Given that his company was hosting the event, it certainly seemed like this was the case. I can say that after attending this event, I will be checking their open job postings for myself.

When he spoke of his past experiences, things became a little murkier. When he spoke about his past working in government positions, he noted that promotions were typically earned by passing a test for a job. So there was no opportunity for him to be discriminated against.

There were two very uncomfortable stories he shared. In the first he worked for someone he referred to as an “a-hole” and a “prick” to the laughter of the audience. The person did make his work life very difficult, holding him back from better opportunities, making disparaging comments, and making his work environment increasingly difficult. (He was working in Southern California at the time). The speaker chose to see this as a growth opportunity for himself. Rather than addressing the terrible treatment he received, his focus was on learning to accept that the universe sometimes hands you bad situations to help you grow. Leaving aside the idea of a knowing universe that plans each individual’s destiny, his acceptance of this ill treatment and belief that was up to him to learn to tolerate it rather than up to the other person to correct their behavior sent a terrible message to the attendees. As LGBTQ people have seen again and again, tolerance of ill treatment only allows the other person to feel empowered in their actions. So now the next queer person can suffer these attacks too.

The second story he shared was one in which his boss was very queer friendly. In fact, he was given preferential treatment as a gay man. This engendered anger and resentment among his coworkers. He was given the best assignments, routinely praised and promoted. Rumors spread that he was sleeping with the boss. Per the speaker, he “knew what it was like to have T&A.”

So here we have the other extreme. It was disappointing that the speaker saw this all as a cause for humor rather than another serious issue. Had he stayed at this prior employer, would being thought of as someone sleeping with the boss have helped him in the long run? How did this relationship affect his coworkers? Had this been a male boss and a female employee, would it be so funny?

As with all experiences, our attitudes toward them shape our perception. In hearing his story, I thought back to a time when I worked for a gay man who had serious issues with boundaries. We worked in a Human Resources department at a utility company. I spoke on the diversity panel as an out lesbian and was a member of the then newly founded Gay and Lesbian Employees organization.

In the course of my time working for David, he said such wonderful things as, “I bet your girlfriend is a really good lay.” He routinely commented on my body, focusing on my weight, need to do some sit ups and how I needed to keep jackets on to hide my breasts. He told me in detail about the first time he and his boyfriend had sex. He would speculate on my sex life and then would suggest I consider “a year of contemplative celibacy.” When I would complain, he would say we were friends so we could talk this way. I would point out that I wasn’t talking this way and I don’t have these conversations with my friends. I documented his statements. I told him to stop. I did everything we are told to do. He was a horrible person who should have been fired for his actions. Of course, this was in the early 90s. In speaking with colleagues in HR, I was told the company would never take action against him. It was “he said, she said” and I was lower on the ladder.

When I told a friend about this situation she remarked, “You always seem to have problems at work.” Okay, she’d only known me while I worked at this job so “always” was a stretch. She ensured me she never had these kinds of problems. Then she proceeded to tell me all of these funny stories from her work as an attorney at a mid-sized law firm. These included an attorney who commented on a ring her girlfriend had given her that was similar to the one worn by a character in The Story of O. He asked if she was a masochist and pushed her up against an elevator wall. Also, her colleagues, after meeting her girlfriend had a long conversation speculating on how they had sex, commenting on how attractive they were and how they would like to join in. She convinced herself these experiences were all in good fun. She was lessened as a person. Her contributions were disregarded, made less important than her use as sexual fantasies for her coworkers. But to make it through, much like the gay man in the stories above, she convinced herself it was all in good fun.

And that’s where the danger lies. Convincing ourselves it is nothing makes it that much easier for these behaviors to continue. And it is also a way of protecting ourselves. Trying to say that nothing is that bad, it’s all in good fun, they don’t really mean it, etc., provides space to tell ourselves we are not hated or being abused.

Two interesting questions were posed by the moderator that seemed to cause much greater reflection. Do you change the way you act when you travel for work? And would you consider moving out of the Bay Area for a job? This is when both panelists admitted concerns. Now working for companies where they felt protected did not translate to I feel protected everywhere. They talked about letting people assume they are straight when travelling. The underpinning to this behavior is safety. The ability to pass became very important.

Similarly, the idea of moving somewhere else was weighted by the acceptance of queer people. Are the laws protective? How do people in the are generally feel about queer people? Would they be safe? If they had children, would they be accepted? This changed the idea of considering being LGBTQ in tech versus being LGBTQ in tech in Silicon Valley or San Francisco. Is tech safe or is it a geographic bubble?

I have worked in tech for 18 years. When I started at a major software company, I came out almost immediately. My local coworkers knew I am queer. We were in the geographic bubble. And then I started working on the road. The bubble disappeared. Instead of being out, the need to consider safety above all else came into play. I went to areas where it was assumed I was straight and Christian. I interacted with customers who were clearly homophobic, making “fag” jokes without questioning whether they would be accepted. We were all supposed to laugh. I recall a customer in Britain who made one such joke. He noticed that I balked and waited to speak to me after class. He explained that in Britain they were more out about gay people, having one on Big Brother that people would joke about. I was stuck in the position of explaining the issue wasn’t discomfort in acknowledging gay people (without outing myself), it was in making them the butt of a joke.

In speaking with other queer colleagues, they too changed their behaviors on the road. Husbands became spouses or wives. Wives became husbands. No photos of loved ones for screen savers. More effort was put into how we dressed, spoke and presented ourselves. Each interaction was judged — how open could you be?

Two things were based on how well we passed. One was our continued careers with the company. Customer feedback was critical to our success. Low scores or complaints meant reduced or no bonus. If there were many, you could be let go. The company was not going to analyze whether the scores were a reaction to customers perceiving you as queer. Only if an obviously homophobic comment was made would there be any reaction. Even then, it was likely you would be told to modify your behavior. Why did they know you were queer? How could you have avoided this disclosure?

The second was our personal safety. While things have improved, there are still people who find the mere existence of LGBTQ people an affront to their existence. A straight colleague was once cornered by a customer who thought he was gay. He was cornered in a parking garage. The customer told him, “You’d better butch up if you want to survive here. We don’t like faggots.” A lesbian colleague overheard several customers discussing whether she was gay and saying they needed to get her to come to church with them. Their preacher would talk about the evil of homosexuality.

In speaking with queer colleagues now, their ability to be out at work is based on the customer and the locale. When working in the SF Bay Area, out is almost always okay. When working elsewhere, they take a wait and see approach. Because some tech may be accepting of queer people, but tech is more than just local companies. We need to continue to spread these local attitudes across the country. When that happens, I will be less cynical when speakers tell me they have hit no discrimination in tech.