In my last post, I began to tell the story of this new journey I've embarked upon, navigating my career anew as a transgender woman in the tech industry. Today I begin the next chapter of that story, an ongoing series I've dubbed "Queer New World." To say that the past five months have been transformative would be an exercise in understatement. I've learned (and come to understand) many things I never expected, and though there are certainly growing pains, the experience has thus far been one I wouldn’t change for anything.
Case in point: this past weekend, I had the opportunity to attend the 2nd annual Lesbians Who Tech Summit in San Francisco.
In the past few years, I've made quite a few dear friends on the Internet (hello, friends!), and I'm grateful for each and every one of them. But due to my work and family schedules, it's a challenge to get out into the local tech community and meet people face to face. So even though I work with a fantastic team and love coming to work every day, Heighten is still a relatively small startup, and there's only one other LGBT person in the office (that I know of, anyway). She's a good friend and was a tremendous help and support in my early stages of transition and coming out (a story I plan to tell here at some point), but beyond the two of us and my friends online, I didn't know any other LGBT people in my industry.
You start to feel a little like the last unicorn in the world when you don't ever see anyone else like you. So Thursday night, sitting in the historic Castro Theater with 1500 other queer women and allies, my world suddenly got
a whole. lot. bigger.
Where to Begin?
I had a lot of amazing experiences as part of this conference, but I want to focus on three in particular, which I think are emblematic of the experience as a whole.
Learning Lost History
I'm a software engineer. I've been working professionally for 17 years, and thought I knew a lot about the history of my industry. But until Friday morning, I didn't know who Edie Windsor was, or why she was important. Chalk part of that up to my ignorance about a lot of LGBT history (hey, I'm still learning). I didn't know she was among the first senior systems programmers at IBM in the 60s. I didn't know her team was working on IBM's operating systems before the company "gave it all to Gates" (her words, not mine). And I didn't know she was a lesbian, that she & her wife were a cornerstone of New York City's LGBT community, or that she was the principal plaintiff in the lawsuit that overturned the Defense of Marriage Act.
What a privilege to be in that room with her, and to hear her tell her story! In our modern era, when software development is so often seen as a career for straight white men, we forget that it didn't start out that way. The real history is much more diverse, much more compelling, and even after two college degrees and scores of CS classes, I didn't know any of it!
We can do better.
So like I said ealier, I've made quite a few trans friends online, and several of them are in tech. But meeting some of those friends in the physical world for the first time was somehow a completely different experience. There's something very... I don't know... tangible? About meeting face to face. Electronic friendships are great, and can be deep and meaningful, but somehow, meeting those same people offline, every time it happens, somehow deepens my emotional connection to them.
Several years ago, when I was first coming to terms with the fact that my being trans wasn't something that I could wish or pray away (God knows I tried), I had just this sort of experience. I was in Utah for a conference (UtahJS; long-time readers may recall that I got to speak on game design), and while I was there, I got the chance to meet a fellow trans woman that I'd gotten to know pretty well online (we followed and commented on one another's blogs). She met me in the food court at the Provo Town Center mall, we played chess, talked about life, and she looked me in the eyes and assured me that everything was going to be all right. That I was going to be all right. That being transgender didn't make me a monster, or a sinner, or unlovable, and that it was absolutely possible for me to embrace my truth, and thrive. We've since fallen out of touch (she's gone stealth, and I don't ever see her online anymore), and I don't think I ever got to tell her just how much that hour meant to me (even though she absolutely destroyed me at chess).
Anyway, back to last week. I was able to meet up with a couple of trans friends from a Slack server I frequent for LGBT people in tech, and we grabbed lunch together and talked. Compared notes a bit, got to know each other a bit. Nothing as profound as that chess game happened, but I do feel a more personal connection to those two now when I see them online. They're somehow a little more real to me than they were before.
And they made me feel like a part of a community.
Hearing People's Stories
There were so many meaningful moments I could touch on, from the stories told from the various venue stages:
- Keynotes from amazing women at Apple, Pierson Labs, and Genentech talking about their efforts to build a better world through communication, education, and medical innovation
- February Keeney's talk on how her transition from male to female has proven to be an "A/B test in gender", and how she's working with Github to change the industry
- The Trans Tech meetup with CEO Angelica Ross, who showed a clip of the (really lovely) show Her Story (in which she co-starred), and discussed the questions it raises about the sometimes-thorny intersection between the transgender and lesbian communities
- The high-energy delivery of Tania Katan, telling the extremely entertaining story of how she came up with the "it was never a dress" campaign
... to all the stories, large and small, told by every single person I met. Because ultimately, whatever else we may be, we human beings are storytellers. And all of these stories we tell create the world in which we live.
I'm so privileged to be a part of such a singular community. I'm glad to play some small part in the brighter future to come.
And I can't wait to see what's next.