Being Trans in the Tech Industry

binary-code-2-1159614-mThe Toast’s archive of trans* related stories can be found here.

When I began to work in the tech industry 11 years ago, it was a lucky break. I got a chance to fix laptops at the University where I studied, and that continued into a career in IT, testing, and analytics that pays my bills today. When I began work, though I have always been a woman, I was presenting as a man. This made working in the tech industry unquestionably easier. Because of my closeted trans status, I didn’t deal with personally directed misogyny. And as an 18-year-old, I was just happy to have the money.

My discomfort with the treatment of women and the incessant sexism and misogyny I heard from the lips of my coworkers was similar to what I’d grown up with hearing from friends and classmates. I felt like a spy. Being a trans woman, being assigned male at birth, gave me a particular lens to see what was happening. Because no one around me recognized me as other than male, I got to hear what the boys say when they think it’s safe to let their hair down. It’s sometimes vile.

And, I was complicit. I took full advantage of the system of oppressions that led my job to be offered to me, and not someone else. And though I still benefit from this early compliance, as I am no longer presenting as a guy, it feels very different. Now, I see things from the perspective of a person seen as a woman. I get the edited version, but I can hear the subtext, and I know the looks.

I transitioned after my last job.

I had the savings to take 2 months off to both cook a whole lot (I love cooking to a really ludicrous degree) and socially finish transitioning. At the time my body was a ways off from “passing,” which is the way in which trans people receive conditional cis-privilege by meeting and matching the expectations put on women’s bodies by society. I look back at photos from that time, and think “wow, she was brave,” but really, I didn’t have a choice. I’d reached a breaking point, which may be familiar to other trans women. I had to move forward or I was going to be stuck forever. So, with a great degree of trepidation, I came out to the handful of folks I hadn’t, and began applying to jobs as a woman.

The first thing I began to realize, was that my name “Brook,” already meant I was passed over by many companies who were prejudiced against hiring women. This had likely been the case before, but I only noticed it now that I couldn’t easily say “oh, yeah, I’m a guy” to the recruiter or interviewer through my voice and appearance. What was once usually a quick jab at my name, was now a stab to my person. I sat in expensive chairs, being told how to do the job I spent my adulthood performing, usually when the interviewer was a man. When a woman sat across from me, I was usually praised for my experience and skill. It was jarring, especially in contrast to the treatment I received only a few years before, the last time I interviewed for jobs.

In my work, and online in the tech and startup scenes, I see unbelievable misogyny. It is real. It affects the number of women who apply for and study for STEM jobs. It privileges those of us who can stay quiet, nod our heads, and “forgive” a rude, sexist, homophobic, or transphobic comment. I make the choice, actively, whether or not to be complicit with every quiet acquiescence. My survival, my income, and my career depend, often, on keeping my head down, and pretending I don’t hear what I hear. The women I work with, and around often respond with, “you get used to it.” I don’t want to get used to it.

A typical week means grimacing through at least one comment about women being bad at such-and-such, something homophobic, or “why don’t you get your friend to inseminate you?” when I mention the difficulty queer couples face when deciding to have children.

For trans women that choose to not disclose their history to employers, coworkers, or even the world at large – which is our right – we face the struggle of speaking up that might force our hand on disclosure. If I call out or discuss something transmisogynistic, do they see me in a different light? At what point do I become safely “othered” in their mind?

Trans-exclusion in insurance is rampant. My company, like most, does not have a policy that includes the medical treatment of trans women and men. What this means is, if I’m lucky, my HRT is slightly covered. Any surgery, hair removal, therapy, or other medical care that I and others like me require is not paid for by our insurers. This means that even if we pay the premiums, and participate in the system of insurance, as is now legally mandated, some of the most important care is inaccessible to us unless we have independent wealth. Trans people are fighting for this to change, but on a personal level, for me to fight for this policy inclusion is necessarily to be out to my company. To be looked at differently. To be judged for the ways in which I don’t fit the expectations of the cis world. At a previous job, when I did out myself as trans, despite this being before transition, I was assured they would fix our insurance policy to add trans inclusive coverage. I later found out they didn’t even try. But I dealt with the consequences of being out afterwards. This was part of my reason for being stealth at my current job.

I am out as a lesbian. And where before I appeared to be a cisgender, heterosexual man, I now notice eyebrows raise when I talk about visiting my girlfriend. Coworkers are aware I speak at queer events, and I do not shy away from discussing or mentioning the topics when asked. And this too is a place where I can sense the silent “othering.” It is a conscious choice on my part to be out about my sexuality, and stealth about my trans identity, and that also reveals the place we are in with regards to prejudice. No one bats an eye that I use the women’s restroom. I don’t get yelled at or told, “you’re a lesbian — you shouldn’t be in here.” I present as femme, and I’m sure this also affects how I am perceived. If my trans identity were to be openly known, my guess is I would not be so lucky. Not knowing what others think, I am never sure if I pass well enough, or if those who share facilities with me are just accepting. But, I base my assumption on the lack of yelling, and that is heartrending.

The tech industry affords me many luxuries, but I’ve found that diversity and acceptance is not one of them. I plan to keep working in tech for now, and the tension between personal safety and societal change will continue to remind me how far we still have to go.

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