The Intersection of Queer Representation in High Tech

Navigating Workplace Challenges and Opportunities in a Constantly Changing Landscape

The worlds of Queer representation and the technology industry may not seem to intersect, but the two have an interesting relationship.

The worlds of Queer representation and the technology industry may not seem to intersect, but the two have an interesting relationship: as rights wane for LGBTQ* individuals in the United States, the technology industry is also seeing a downturn in jobs available. When considering the fact that the 2023 pride month ended with a Supreme Court ruling that sided with a homophobic plaintiff, and the way in which the tech industry is seeing unprecedented layoffs due to an economy that’s seeing a potential (honestly, likely) recession, the modern day feels more and more like it’s backsliding directly into the past.

Though the tech industry has been considered inclusive in the past, with 4 of CNBC’s 2022 Top 10 Highest-Rated Companies for LGBTQ* Workers being within the tech industry (Google, Microsoft, IBM, and Apple all made the list), the workplace overall is still finicky in how queer members of the global community feel treated. In a Glassdoor poll from the same year, which questioned over 200,000 individuals, LGBTQ* employees overall rated their workplaces a 3.62 out of 5 stars on average, with transgender employees feeling lower levels of workplace acceptance and satisfaction at 3.43 out of 5. For comparison, cishet employees rated their workplaces, on average, at 3.85 out of 5. The poll also found that queer employees were more than 100% (128%) more likely than their cishet counterparts to discuss discrimination in their workplace reviews. They also had a 51% higher chance of discussing burnout.

To get a handle on how members of the LGBTQ* community that study and work within tech are experiencing real time changes in how their work and personal identities are perceived and received, we interviewed 6 individuals on their experiences. Responses have been minimally edited for clarity, and interviews were conducted prior to any anti-trans or anti-LGBTQ* laws, or laws ignoring protected classes, that have passed since June 20th.

Interviewees were all relatively young, with some having recently come into the workforce and others still studying and striving towards entering it following graduation from university. Many of them were from Republican-led states, which are currently seeing massive governmental overhauls of queer protections. Those that wish to be named included Jack (a pansexual full-time software developer in San Antonio), Lily (a queer, gender-nonconforming audio engineering/production student in Nashville), and Avery (a bisexual and genderqueer computer science student and Support Services intern from Atlanta). The three other interviewees elected to be anonymous, with A1 (a non-binary pansexual individual working in installation and on hardware/software integration in San Jose), A2 (a bisexual trans woman who just completed their study in statistics and machine learning in Pittsburgh), and, with an international perspective, A3 (a gay London-based computer science student currently in his placement year at a large tech company).

On Choosing How to Identify on Applications for Tech Opportunities

When asked if they choose to be open about their identities on job and internship applications, the overwhelming consensus seemed to be that the situation called for extra nuance, with most individuals taking care to contemplate the ways in which they would feel protected while still accurately answering application questions. A few noted that employers don’t always ask about sexual orientation or gender identity – Lily stated that “It is almost never asked how I identify. I choose to be open based on how safe I feel in each situation. I am deliberate because I know it may affect my career.” Avery noted that “I have not yet encountered an application that asks for my sexual or gender identity, though I am in some ways visibly queer, so at the interview stage, I imagine employers are able to tell.” A2 made the point that “it's just not in their interest to reject qualified applicants for some arbitrary, irrelevant reason like gender identity.”

Others, like A1, did state a reasonable unwillingness to divulge such personal information unless absolutely necessary. The San Jose resident made sure to emphasize the conceptions surrounding tech being a very welcoming industry, before making some personal observations: “While I understand that many don't care I feel like there is still a stigma within the workplace especially in tech. It also doesn't help that a lot of the people working in tech with me have more conservative mindsets so being authentic with my coworkers is a little more difficult.”

On Fairness in Evaluation

Interviewees were questioned about if they feel that they tend to be evaluated fairly when afforded opportunities within workplaces and/or classrooms. Jack noted that with “things that end during the application stage it is almost impossible for me to tell the specific reason, so I cannot make a statement on if they were fair or not but I would like to assume my identity didn't lead to any issue with my application.” Lily believed that she was “absolutely not” properly judged in settings she had been in, and spoke to the universal female experience when it comes to engineering: “Most of the reason has to do with being a woman, and less with being queer. There have been many moments where the professors and other male students have forgotten that there is a female in the room and have made offensive jokes or implications. I am treated as a woman first and an engineer second. It is assumed that I do not know as much, and when in a disagreement with a classmate, it’s assumed I’m in the wrong.”

Avery believed her internship employer, Cox Enterprises, did “an excellent job with diversity and inclusion,” but felt her experiences in the classroom were different. She didn’t “know if it’s that my peers are a lot younger than the majority of my coworkers, or that I go to school in Florida, but I feel myself hiding more in class.” On the other hand, A2 found that her students and coworkers alike were not typically discriminatory: “I definitely feel that grading and TA’ing have been very fair. I doubt most of the people grading my stuff or answering my questions on Piazza even knew I was Trans. I have only had one internship since transitioning, and my immediate coworkers were very kind once I came out to them.”

A3, with a slightly more international perspective, said “I think in today’s modern age things like race, religion, sexuality, etc. are becoming less important to employers and lecturers, and more about the progress I have made.”

On Recent American Anti-LGBTQ* Laws

Trans people have been the target of several heavy duty and severely antagonistic laws of late. Information on anti-LGBTQ* legislation can be found at the Human Rights Campaign, and there are multiple anti-trans legislation trackers working around the clock to provide the people with updated knowledge on protections they still have, and where they still have them. These laws, coming up in every state, threaten safe access to ID updates, athletics, public facilities, education, and healthcare, including gender-affirming — life-affirming — care.

When asked about recent legislation, specifically anti-trans legislation, and how these laws may affect protection and representation within tech, A1 stated that, while “companies tend to be inclusive, they do not shy away from hiring a large majority of conservatives,” and “if it would help them turn more of a profit, they would not shy away from siding with those laws and removing the LGBT/Trans representation in the workplace. There is very little if any representation of LGBT or trans support in my current workplace and I do not believe that they would be very protective of us if laws discriminating against us came out.”

A2 spoke frankly on how the rise in anti-trans legislation personally affected her job search, and made a poignant statement about how these laws are likely to affect companies in their own rights as well: “Anti-trans laws pretty heavily influenced my job search. I ended up taking an internship in Pittsburgh, but my first two offers were for companies located in Texas and Florida… it really sucked to have to do the safety calculus, estimating how likely a hate crime or drag ban-induced jail term would be.

I don't want to speak on behalf of others, but I would not be surprised if other trans/queer people were afraid of living in an egregiously, increasing transphobic state, too. Companies should be aware that being located in… for example, Texas, makes working there substantially less attractive for queer people and their households.”

On Feeling Protected

When asked if they generally felt that their identities are protected amongst their peers and amongst administration, the responses came up as a mixed bag. Most felt protected, or, at the very least, not discriminated against, when amongst their peers. A2 brought up feeling “generally respected” by her alma mater Carnegie Mellon University’s (CMU’s) administration, though issues have arisen at neighboring school UPitt. In March, the CMU student newspaper — The Tartan — published an article about UPitt and CMU students protesting a slate of anti-trans speakers invited by conservative student clubs and greenlit by UPitt’s administration.

Avery felt safe when working at Cox, but had more nuance in her feelings at school: “I am lucky that I go to a private college, because they can work outside of the current anti-gay laws being passed in Florida. However, I do not have the relationship with CS professors that I do with my other major, English. I feel more comfortable being out in my English classes, for both administration and peers, perhaps because there is a larger queer community within that major.” A3 felt protected, as “our generation is typically very accepting and open minded, so it’s not an issue with my peers. With administration, there are often HR policies put in place to protect minorities from any form of discrimination in big companies, so I think generally I do feel like my identity is protected.”

In the UK, queer rights and experiences are far from safe – as recently as July 2022, England’s rugby union got away with banning transgender athletes. Though trans people are protected under the Equality Act of 2010, this does not mean they are always safe. For example, the Girls’ Day School Trust document seems to be legally able to refuse to admit transgender students.

On Speaking Up Against Discrimination

The final question asked was about how safe each individual feels about speaking up against discrimination in their current situation, and every interviewee responded with a general yes. Avery brought up protests, saying that “at school, I’ve participated in a protest against the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill. The school I go to is pretty small, and the community made me feel safe to do that on school grounds.” A1 did mention feeling “a little bit safe” in doing so, but also made sure to note that the specifics of the situation matter: “I have had instances with the people in my building with anti-LGBT sentiments and have not felt safe to speak up about them, and moreso tend to excuse myself whenever these sentiments appear due to my uncomfortability.” Jack closed his interview out by imparting that “safety isn't a concern in my eyes as I wouldn't want to be somewhere that isn't safe to speak up against unfairness.”

Arundhati Ghosh (she/her) is an English major with a certificate in Creative Writing at the University of Texas at Austin, and will graduate in May 2024. She has written numerous pieces on womanhood, its variety, its perceptions, and its reception, and hopes to continue with spotlighting non-male-centric stories and experiences.