LGBTQ+ – one of the most important acronyms in tech

Eloisa Tovee 22nd June 2021

The technology industry is full of acronyms.

IoT.

AI.

DSL.

SaaS.

HTTPs.

And the list goes on, and on, and on.

One acronym that gets less coverage in the tech space is LGBTQ+.

Whilst there have been frequent (and often public) displays of affiliation and support for the LGBTQ+ community, diversity reports suggest real progress within the tech industry is slow.

Slow it may be, but diversity waits for no-one.

As the tech industry continues to deliberate ‘what to do’ with all these fabulously brilliant individuals, the LGBTQ+ community has taken matters into their own hands. And we’re all better off because of it.

 

Leading from the front

For all those who enjoy their daily scroll on Facebook, are hooked on Apple products or beeline straight to Google with a question, you have engaged with the work of some technically talented LGBTQ+ technologists.

In fact, if it wasn’t for Alan Turing OBE FRS decoding the encryption of German Enigma machines during the second world war, there’d be a lot less afternoon teas taking place across the United Kingdom.

Not only did Turing save the lives of millions by adapting mathematical models he designed, he did so whilst being publicly shamed for his sexuality. It wasn’t until 2013 – 61 years after he was given the choice of jail or hormonal treatment for having a relationship with a man – that Turing was posthumously pardoned for his conviction and recognised as the national hero he was.

Turing’s designs inspired the modern computers and algorithms we all use today. His actions also inspired those who came after him, including Jon “maddog” Hall, chairman of Linux Professional Institute, who came out as gay in 2012 in honour of Turing’s 100th birthday.

What’s most interesting is whilst the gift from these innovators is a highly useful piece of software that has continued to change the behaviours of society at large, a common feature of their work is the legacy they leave behind. Whether that’s Solve For X and Women Techmakers initiatives (Megan Smith during her time at Google), diverse and inclusivity programs at Facebook (Sara Sperling), building the largest LGBTQ community of technologists in the world (Leanne Pittsford) or overseeing the human-centric and ethical design of products for Microsoft (Ana Arriola).

Not only have they taken great strides individually, leaders from the tech industry have formed alliances when a louder voice is needed to stamp out the hate. One notable example was when an unprecedented group of tech industry CEOs spoke out in resounding opposition to the controversial anti-LGBT religious freedom bill in 2015, Indiana. This opposition was hot on the heels of Apple CEO Tim Cook’s passionate and powerful story in the Washington Post speaking out against the bill.

These pioneers have taken a stance against hate in a bid to continually give the tech industry heart.

 

Connecting and conquering with the help of technology

When there is a will, there is a way.

It wasn’t so long ago that the secret language of Polari was used as a sort of cloak, protecting the identities of those within the LGBT community by concealing the meaning of conversations to outsiders. This coded language enabled queer people to work out if they were in safe company and was used all the way up until the 1960s.

Then there were violets. These beautiful flowers were exchanged between lesbians to mask identity in public while signifying romance. The use of flowers was inspired by Eduoard Bourdet’s ‘The Captive’ play in 1927 and became an unspoken language first popularised in New York.

Whilst these coded languages worked in principle, the LGBTQ+ community deserved better. They deserved to live out of the shadows. Away from coded languages. They deserved allies. Safe spaces. A way to spread their message without fear of brutality.

When social media, smartphone technology and tech-enabled content creation grew in accessibility, a lifeline was given to minority groups around the globe.

Yes, conglomerates continue to hold the keys to the control room, but that hasn’t stopped the underrepresented using available platforms to break down geographic boundaries and drive greater visibility of issues that have needlessly punished individuals for their sexuality and gender orientation.

As noted by TechNation in 2019, online platforms have done a tremendous job at unapologetically surfacing societal injustices that have too long been kept out of the public eye:

“From the battle to introduce same-sex marriage in Taiwan, to the legalisation of homosexuality in India, to the issue of workplace discrimination in the U.S. and Latin America: all have had an online element that has catapulted the topic onto the world stage.”

 Throughout history, the LGBTQ+ community were forced to hide in basement clubs and symbolic closets. This treatment created a sense of segregation from the rest of society, leading people to believe they were fighting these battles on their own.

Digital platforms have changed that.

They enable people to build their own support networks and online communities; to form alliances with others going through similar experiences.

They create safe spaces for like-minded people to share ideas, make friends, start conversations and provoke change on a global scale.

They give individuals a way to hold brands and celebrities accountable, causing a complete shift in how the media represents LGBTQ+ and changing the demand for greater diversity in the content we digest.

They give individuals the opportunity to turn hate speech into a celebration of the gay community.

They open up a stage for stories to be shared, protests organised and pride parades publicised. Talking about Pride, did you know that São Paulo Gay Pride Parade in Brazil is listed by Guinness World Records as the world’s largest Pride parade starting in 2006 with 2.5 million people?

We’ve come a long way. From chalk writings on the wall in New York City, 1969 to #LoveisLove trending on Twitter in 2021, technology has done a huge amount to change perceptions and give a voice to those who have too long been silenced – and long may it continue.

 

Safety in tech

Whilst there has been a lot of good to come from technological advances, it would be wrong to ignore some of the failings. From restrictions of LGBT hashtags on TikTok to hate crime and trolling on social media, to the potentially harmful implications of research into an AI-driven “gaydar”, the tech industry hasn’t always got it right. Whilst some actions are deliberately excluding, others have fallen trap to confirmation bias.

The problem with confirmation bias is you never look beyond your own nose. This means that what you find safe, others might find harmful. What you believe will never impact you, might too easily become a weaponised tool to incriminate or marginalise underrepresented communities.

Looking only for evidence that supports your current beliefs and values is a dangerous path to tread. Not only will research be skewed, the results and any corresponding actions can be dangerous to those you may have never intended to hurt.

For instance, whilst you may innocently add the words ‘lesbian’ and ‘bisexual’ to a block list in the hope of keeping pornsites at arms length from your adverts, you have inadvertently caused nearly two thirds of all nonpornographic and nonexplicit LGBTQ news content to be banned also.

Another example is censorship of LGBTQ+ content in public spaces. By eradicating the world of literature that serves to educate and represent society, all you are doing is forcing those looking for answers into darker corners of the internet.

Fortunately, whilst some libraries and social media sites fight for censorship, the amplification of LGBTQ+ voices and issues online has led to greater awareness and acceptance for LGBTQ+ people, queer culture and history, and their rights.

This has enabled conversations to start between those within the LGBTQ+ community, those still unsure what their gender identity and/or sexuality orientation is and those not within the community but who wish to be allies. Each conversation provides greater clarity, assurance and answers to questions some may feel too ashamed to ask.

As well as online platforms, there are a number of organisations who have dedicated their efforts to bringing equality into the tech industry. These communities offer safe spaces for underrepresented LGBTQ+ and gender nonconforming IT workers to learn and receive support without fear of judgement or violence.

These organisations are also championing positive visual representation for those in the LGBTQ+ community. Not only are they providing encouragement for individuals thinking about moving into tech today, by investing in diversity, they are helping to shape the future of the industry altogether.

Sarah K. White has done a great job consolidating a list of some of these brilliant organisations in this article here.

 

Closing thoughts

Much like International Women’s Day or Black History Month, squeezing pride into the 30 days of June doesn’t quite seem long enough to have the conversations we need to have about underrepresented issues.

Whilst it’s genuinely refreshing to have a month of rainbows and #loveislove trending, what the research has taught us above all is that there’s an amazing community of people who are working tirelessly in the background to make sure each and every day the LGBTQ+ community are represented, protected and given the opportunities they deserve.

And when the LGBTQ+ community benefits, we all do.

Businesses too.

 

*****

 

Notable LGBTQ+ people in tech

Alan Turing, Mathematician & Logician

Tim Cook, CEO of Apple

Claudia Brind-Woody, VP at IBM

Joel Simkhai, Founder of Grindr

James Felton Keith, Engineer, Entrepreneur, Data Scientist, & Economist

Ana Arriola, Partner and Product Designer at Microsoft

Chris Hughes, co-Founder of Facebook

Megan Smith, Former CTO of the United States

Sara Sperling, Former Head of Diversity and Inclusion at Facebook

Juergen Maier, Former CEO of Siemens UK

Jon “maddog” Hall, Chairman of Linux Professional Institute

Arlan Hamilton, co-Founder and CEO of Backstage Capital

Joe DiPasquale, Lorenzo Thione, Bryan Janeczko, and Darren Spedale – Founders of StartOut

Leanne Pittsford, Founder and CEO of Lesbians Who Tech

Lynn Conway, Pioneering Chip Designer at IBM

Hayley Sudbury, Founder and CEO of WERKIN

Keith Rabois, Partner at Khosla Ventures

Angelica Ross, Founder and CEO of TransTech Social Enterprises

Martine Rothblatt, Founder of Sirius XM and United Therapeutics

Ann Mei Chang, Former Chief Innovation Officer at USAID

Peter Arvai, co-Founder and CEO of Prezi

David Bohnett, Founder of GeoCities

Tim Gill, Founder of Quark

Vivienne Ming, co-Founder of Socos

Dr. Kortney Ziegler, Founder of Trans*H4CK

Mark McBride-Wright, Chair and co-Founder of InterEngineering

And so many more.

 

*****

 

More about the author:

Eloisa Tovee is the Content and Marketing Manager at ECS, overseeing content strategy, GTM campaigns and the promotion of thought leadership at ECS. When Eloisa is not sketching scamps or scribbling new content ideas, you can find her on LinkedIn here.

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