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Transgender in tech: More visibility but obstacles remain


By Samara Lynn, ABC News

(NEW YORK) — Ginger Chien said she was a “techie” from a young age.

“I was given all of the opportunities typically afforded to boys,” she recalled. “I was given freedom to be loud, and to attract attention. And given all of the technology toys as well — Legos, Tinker toys, erector sets.”

Born in 1962 to Chinese immigrants, Chien’s childhood seemed typical of a future engineer. She’s been an engineer for decades, working as a device architect for AT&T for the last 25 years.

She’s also part of the transgender community working in the tech and engineering industries. Additionally, Chien is an advocate for trans rights.

Exact statistics on trans people in tech are virtually nonexistent. Trans people face concerns over their safety, security and often, their very lives, by coming out. But there is a vibrant, engaged and increasingly vocal trans community made up of engineers, software developers, user interface designers and other tech professionals.

Silicon Valley has focused on diversity and inclusion in recent years. There’s an effort to get more women, people of color and LGBTQ+ people in tech and engineering.

But as more trans people in tech come out in their workplaces, some say far more needs to be done to make them feel safe and supported at work.

‘Submarined’ living

Chien said though she knew from an early age her choice of profession would be a technical one, she had questions “very early” surrounding her identity.

“I do recall that at a very early age I was asking for toys and friends and clothes … to play with some of the girls in the neighborhood,” she said.

With those questions, came anxiety. As the only American-born son in her family, she said that in Chinese culture, “there are certain expectations of sons.”

“I did not feel safe uncovering my gender identity. In fact, in early years it didn’t even have a name. There was no way for me to even express the idea that I might want to be a girl because there were no words for it other than words that convey mental illness and illegal behavior,” she said.

That led to many years of living a “submarined” life, Chien said. She found success as an engineer, working right out of college for a defense contractor, but living an inauthentic life took a toll.

“I was afraid of losing the marriage that I had and the daughter that we had and my professional reputation once my career was established,” she said.

“There was always something to worry about,” Chien said.

She said she became “unhappy, sullen and unproductive” at work.

It took a long process of discovery and constantly weighing risks before Chien said she could embrace her identity as a woman. Also helping her, she said, was finding a new job with AT&T and discovering the company had a long-established LGBTQ employee resource group.

‘Refusing to yield their space’

In addition to the tech industry, finding accurate population totals on trans individuals overall in society is difficult.

Violence and stigma against trans people make many of them wary about coming out in public. Adding to anti-trans sentiment, state legislators have filed a record number of bills this year that would impact the rights of transgender people, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

The University of California, Los Angeles School of Law’s Williams Institute, which studies sexual orientation, gender identity law and public policy estimated in 2016 that 1.4 million adults in the U.S. identify as transgender — about 0.6% of the population.

Workplace numbers are even scarcer but some tech companies, including Facebook and Slack have publicly shared data on LGBTQ+ representation within their companies.

And when Glassdoor — an employment website — posted the 24 best companies for LGBTQ people to work for in 2020, 50% were tech companies, including Intuit, Uber, Google, IBM, Microsoft, PayPal, Accenture, HP, Salesforce, AT&T and Apple.

Some of these companies are also on other LGBTQ-friendly work lists, including the Human Rights’ Campaign 2021 Best Places to Work for LGBTQ equality.

And there are also growing numbers of organizations and online spaces for trans people in tech.

Out in Tech, TransTech and LGBTQ in Technology hold events and offer resources for trans, nonbinary and queer people in technology.

Some trans and nonbinary people are also using their tech skills to make a career out of activism.

Emma Best is a queer and nonbinary journalist, “leakivist,” publisher and sometimes analyst. As a “leakivist,” Best uses their tech prowess as a form of activism and has made leaked data accessible to media and other journalists.

Best said anonymity makes it easier for trans people and gender nonconforming individuals to “get their foot in the door” in the tech space, especially with “the prevalence of remote working.”

But, Best said, more trans, queer and nonbinary people are also more active in tech because they are being more visible and “refusing to yield their space.”

Chien also offered reasons why more trans people may be more comfortable working in technology.

“Tech is a place where your performance is really easy to quantify,” she said. “I think it creates room for people who may be different in some way, but are also able to apply some of those arcane skills to … tech.”

“I think that people in the tech industry tend to have sometimes more eclectic backgrounds … there’s a lot of different kinds of types of people coming together,” Eli, 26, who asked that their last name be withheld for privacy reasons, told ABC News. Eli worked for several years in Apple retail.

How to create supportive tech environments for trans, nonbinary and queer employees

Despite greater visibility and more activism, everyday workplace resources for trans people are critical, said Max Masure, a trans nonbinary inclusion strategist.

Masure worked for years as a user experience designer, but now consults with companies on how to foster inclusive environments for transgender people.

“I was born as a girl, and I lived my life as a woman for 36 years. And I only came out four years ago,” Masure, who was born in France, told ABC News.

“I didn’t see any trans people around me, the only ones were in the media … mostly trans women, and they were made fun of,” Masure said.

It wasn’t until Masure came to New York to work in tech that they said they had more visibility into queer and nonbinary people and culture.

Masure became more empowered to embrace their authentic self, albeit with some consequences.

“I was working in tech at the time, and I had to advocate for myself, and I lost some clients being a freelancer,” Masure said.

That “led me to realize there was a need for the tech community to train around inclusion. … [The] usage of pronouns and putting them into our names in email signatures, on LinkedIn, is helping not only the trans community, but also everyone to be more inclusive,” said Masure.

For the last three years, Masure has switched from designing to training companies on trans and gender inclusion.

The service is much-needed as even the most well-intentioned companies can make missteps.

“I recognized that I was trans a couple years into working for Apple. And then I came out while I was there and started to medically and socially transition,” Eli said.

While Eli said they didn’t “hide anything” about their gender while working at Apple, they also said they didn’t feel the need to explicitly disclose their identity.

In fact, Eli wanted to take a more low-key approach in telling their co-workers how they identified and how they wanted to be addressed.

“I wanted to just come out through email,” Eli said.

Instead, Eli said they had to “write up something that either I could tell people face to face … individually or in a group. Or I was told the managers could do that. So it ended up being that one of the managers came out to people in small groups for me, which was not really my ideal way of doing it.”

From allies to advocates

Situations like the one Eli described underscore the need for workplaces to do more to support trans people, advocates like Chien and Masure said.

Supportive action could be as simple as asking employees to share their preferred pronouns. Eli said eventually employees started wearing nametags with their preferred pronouns at the Apple store where they worked.

Even the way businesses handle internal forms can make a difference. Chien recalled her relief when she submitted a name-change form to AT&T’s HR department. The form offered employees the option to select “personal choice” as a reason for a name change request — meaning they did not have to disclose information they may feel uncomfortable sharing. For Chien, that option on the form meant a “complete shift of agency of who has the right to decide my future and my identity.”

Health care options to support trans people are also critical ways companies can help.

“Having health insurance that covers gender-affirming procedures is just something that is so hard to find,” Eli said.

For the trans community, insurance that covers “big procedures, like bottom surgeries and top surgeries,” is needed, Eli said.

“But … there’s other procedures, like facial surgeries, that are not covered as often that are very important … in terms of safety out in public for people, especially trans feminine people and trans women,” said Eli.

For Masure, a key component for inclusion is active support from a business’ leadership.

“What I see the most is the lack of leadership involvement,” Masure said. “I see people working in companies where they are not respected … their pronouns are not respected … jokes are made during regular meetings.”

Masure said that leaders have to set examples by being examples of inclusivity.

As trans people, “we cannot only be the ones educating other people,” Masure said. “It gets exhausting.”

Trans advocates urge cisgender people to go beyond being allies and become advocates. That could mean asking a company to create gender nonspecific bathrooms or speaking up when a trans person is misgendered or harassed in any way.

“The outside world can feel like a really dangerous place, especially today with anti-trans and anti-Asian” violence and threats, Chien said, referring to the recent spate of anti-Asian crime in the U.S.

She said speaking out and advocating are important ways to create supportive workplaces for trans people.

“In the absence of language, there’s an absence of possibility,” Chien said.

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