Why Toronto Needs an LGBTQ+ Tech Conference Right Now 🤖🌈

Let me tell you what Venture Out feels like to me.

Glad Day Bookshop, Church and Wellesley, Toronto, midnight. We’re 50 queers screaming the lyrics to “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” in unison, knowing we won’t have voices tomorrow.

It’s similar to how I experience Pride: spending time with chosen family, sharing a connection with strangers, a lump trapped in my throat because I’m experiencing a rare moment of feeling whole.

A couple weeks ago, we were feeding off the collective high of either having hosted or attended Venture Out, an LGBTQ+ tech conference built with the bare hands of our own community — queer folks who are planting our feet and demanding a spot on the bullet train that is Toronto’s tech growth in 2019.

Queer folks taking up space at MaRS. Photo credit: Bluetrail Creative.

We all feel it: Toronto’s growth. What was once the low hum of reserved optimism — and skepticism — about the city’s future is now a cacophonous orchestra vacillating between zealotry and panic.

Because Toronto is being divided in two: between people who will be able to afford to live here and people who will be forced to leave. Silicon Valley of the North, we may be, but that story is gaining some sharper edges as it unfolds. The average cost of a one bedroom apartment in Toronto is $2,260 as of now, March 2019. Rents could increase by as much as 11% in 2019.

Toronto is a pressure cooker, and queer people stand at several intersections of this narrative.

Toronto’s Growth Will Shake Out Queer Winners and Losers

On the one hand, queer and trans people of colour continue to experience violence in disproportionate numbers. The police still ignore crimes committed against the LGBTQ+ community because of, let’s face it, a long history of transphobia, racism, and homophobia within the police force.

On the other hand, some queer people like me (white, cisgender, female-identifying) are reaping the benefits of a civil rights movement we haven’t even witnessed first hand. Last month I wrote about how it’s become “cool” to hire for diversity, and I’m seeing with my own (privileged) eyes the creation of more space in tech for the LGBTQ+ community.

Some aspects of these advancements are great — and others are fracturing a community that still experiences systemic oppression.

Venture Out: What We Did and What We Still Need To Do

So I’ll be blunt: what we didn’t want to create with Venture Out was yet another space for white gay men.

Like we still love you, please come, but please also accept that we are much more focused on creating a safer space for queer women, BIPOC, trans, and non-binary folks to network, learn, and hopefully land some jobs at companies that let them just be who they are.

I don’t think we were perfect at achieving this goal, but we’re always trying to answer some pretty crucial questions:

  • How can we hold our sponsors accountable for how they actually treat their LGBTQ+ staff?
  • How can we include BIPOC and trans people so that we’re attracting more of this demographic to the conference?
  • How can we make sure the conference is financially accessible for BIPOC and trans folks who may have lower incomes than their white, cis counterparts?

I think we have some “pretty good” answers to these questions.

We make hard calls and cut sponsors who aren’t treating queer people all that great in practice, even though their official D&I strategies look good on paper.

We live BIPOC and trans inclusion on our own committee, so that we’re actually representing the people we want to affect the most.

We offer a PWYC/free option for people who can’t afford to attend, and we were able to extend 34 free tickets to people who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to come.

But then there’s the stuff we could have done better on.

We can always, always do better on BIPOC and trans inclusion on our roster of speakers (and it’s not that hard, it just requires thought and community involvement).

And it would always be great to see more LGBTQ+/BIPOC representation from participating career fair companies, since probably half the reason people are attending Venture Out is to land jobs in inclusive spaces.

But I still think we’re on to something. Venture Out serves a pretty important role in making sure Toronto doesn’t go the way of Silicon Valley tech: white, male, straight, cis.

Keeping Toronto Tech in Check

One of my favourite speakers at Venture Out was Saadia Muzaffar, founder of TechGirls Canada.

Saadia Muzaffar. Photo credit: Bluetrail Creative.

You may remember her from the Sidewalk Labs advisory committee, most notably her public resignation from that committee. Muzaffar was pretty appalled at the lack of transparency and community consultation between Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs, an Alphabet-owned company creating data-fuelled urban spaces with … questionable surveillance practices.

I admit, I was kind of excited when the project was first announced. Media covering the initiative touted affordable housing and environmental sustainability.

What Muzaffar uncovered, however, was a move toward creating a “monopoly-led, surveillance-based” space, stating in her letter, “Sidewalk Labs is asking potential local consultants to hand over any intellectual property that is developed to the Alphabet-owned company — and in cases where that’s not possible, to give Sidewalk Labs exclusive, royalty-free, worldwide license to use it.”

You can agree with her, you can not agree with her. But what’s more interesting is that she tore down a tech-utopian veil that was quickly growing roots, and instead forced us all to think about what we were really buying into.

My real point is this: queer people are an important part of keeping Toronto tech accountable to marginalized communities. We’ll force your product managers and developers to think outside the binary. We’ll demand awareness of unconscious bias. We’ll speak up when we see “hustle” happen at the expense of human decency.

We’ll make us all better.