National Coming Out Day: LGBTQ geeks

In the US and many other countries, today is National Coming Out Day. I thought this might be a good chance to talk about the experiences of LGBTQ geeks and how they intersect with the experiences of female geeks.

  • LGBTQ geeks, like women, are a minority in geek communities. AdamW mentioned it the other week in this post:

    My personal experience is as an even more unusual minority in F/OSS than being a woman — I’m gay. (I’ve mentioned this before but I don’t really make a point of it, so some people probably don’t know). I can’t even recall anyone _else_ openly gay in the F/OSS community at all — I’m sure there are a few, but it’s a very very small number.

    I’m not sure whether or not gay men are less common than women in F/OSS — it seems unlikely to me — but they are certainly a less visible minority, since guessing based on physical appearance or name will get you approximately nowhere. And gay men (as well as lesbians and other non-straight folks) are subject to homophobia in geek culture: insults like “faggot” are common in gaming, on IRC, etc. In that much, there is a similarity between the two groups, both of which are marginalised and excluded to some extent.

  • I guess it should go without saying that the set of female geeks and the set of non-straight geeks overlap, but sometimes people seem to forget or ignore that. We see this when people suggest that adding beefcake to porny presentations would make women happy, or that women should be pleased when men comment on their appearance or sexual desirability. Being asked if you’re at an event with your boyfriend gains a whole new level of wrongness. And efforts to appeal to women in technology, gaming, etc, often assume heterosexuality and gender-normativity, featuring boys, dating, weddings (opposite sex only), and traditional families. Queer women, in these situations, can feel even more uncomfortable than straight women do.
  • And then there are times when female geekdom interacts with queer geekdom and weirdness ensues. I had an experience at a convention, where a man was getting in my personal space, touching me, and so on — nothing terrible, just putting his hand on my shoulder and being over-friendly. When I asked him not to, he said, “Oh, it’s OK — I’m gay!” When people have (or lack) different kinds of privilege, the negotiation around it can get incredibly complicated. Does being gay exempt this guy from facing his male privilege?
  • I’m not highly qualified to speak for transgendered/genderqueer/intersex geeks, but there are another set of issues that come along with that. Rachel guest-posted yesterday about one aspect her her experience as a trans geek, and I hope we’ll be able to have more discussion on related topics going forward.

Like many other feminists, intersectionality is something I’m just starting to come to grips with. How about you? Do you have stories of being an LGBTQ geek, or of how LGBTQ issues intersect with feminism in geek communities?

20 thoughts on “National Coming Out Day: LGBTQ geeks

  1. Danni

    So I think gay men do need to check their privilege. I don’t see how “I don’t want to sex you” is an excuse for being permitted to make someone uncomfortable.

    As a trans-woman, I still feel a little bit uncomfortable entering female-only spaces without permission. I don’t want anyone to feel uncomfortable, I’m also not sure how many privileged behaviours I still have that I’ve not recognised yet. I do check out other women from time to time, mostly because I want their clothes, or I wish I looked like them (I think this is reasonably normal for cis women too), but being mostly-lesbian identified, I worry that somehow they’ll know this and take it the wrong way.

    It’s gotten easier; before I was ‘out’ I was often too scared to enter female spaces ever; for instance being invited to a hen’s night, but being feeling too uncomfortable to go (even though I really wanted to, much more than going to the concurrent buck’s night — I ended up going to neither).

    1. Skud Post author

      If it’s any help/reassurance, in my experience many/most cis women totally check each other out re: clothes/appearance. And as a queer-identified woman, I also cruise/check women out wrt sexual attractiveness, but I’m usually fairly careful to be discreet though (eg. glancing rather than staring), and if I get body language indicating that she’s uninterested or uncomfortable, I don’t engage any further. OTOH, if she seems interested I’ll totally turn it up a notch — and living in San Francisco, that’s not uncommon. If I’m honestly just admiring someone’s dress sense, I’ll usually tell her. Saw a woman on the street today wearing a cute top and told her so, and we got to chatting about where she’d bought it. No drama. But then, as I said, I live in SF so even if my interest in someone’s hat is misconstrued, it’s unlikely to get me beaten up.

      1. Danni

        Yeah, glances rather than stares. I don’t know why anything thinks staring is appropriate. I know that being stared at makes me begin to feel very, very uncomfortable — my first through is usually “oh fuck, am I looking really blokey right now?”, which starts making me feel very self concious — this happened the other day, I got a whole bunch of looks and I began to freak out.

        In generally nowadays it’s less of an issue. Although telling someone I don’t know that I like their outfit is still not something I could probably do. This is just introversion, I think.

        What I was trying to get at before (but I bungled it), which you’ve sort of touched on since is the idea of respectful checking out, even when things are not as they seem. Before I transitioned, I’d sometimes glance a few times at a girl on the train, especially if she was my “type” (by which I mean the sort of girl I wish I looked like), and sometimes I’d get caught and scowled at or something. I’d kind of give a weak smile and not look in that direction for the rest of the trip, but so often I’d want to say something like “it’s not what you think… I wish I could look like you”. Yet unsurprisingly, I never did.

    2. Mackenzie

      Yes, ciswomen DO look at each other and go “omigod, I *wish* I had her [hair|boobs|legs].” At least, I don’t think I’m the only one.

  2. Chrissie

    I must admit my experiences as a transwoman in the Linux community have been very positive. Even debian-devel was free of any problems when announced my change of name … though they wouldn’t let me change my login ID.

    And at a gathering of (otherwise all male) geeks at a ‘summit’ I was well received and treated nicely. Even though, at that early stage in my transition, I probably didn’t look very feminine.

    I appreciate that others have had troubles and some very bad experiences, but I just thought I’d point out that it isn’t always like that :-)

    1. Danni

      I’ve so far had very little trouble within the FOSS community (I did get a few hateful messages when I wrote my announcement, but overwhelmingly everyone was very supportive). I was told that I could change my user name for GNOME, but it means I’d now have to comply with the new account names policy, which I’m not a fan of (that’s so stupid of me).

  3. Dorothea Salo

    One guy who helped drive me out of a particular geek community posted something very anti-queer on his blog after I’d gone. Since his blog was part of a Planetplanet I watch, I didn’t manage to avoid it.

    I did, however, organize a small number of people behind the scenes to go comment (as politely as possible under the circs) on the unacceptability of his blog post, which he subsequently took down. So, victory? Or something. I doubt his mind was changed.

  4. Azz

    I identify as bisexual, and have the mixed privilege of passing as straight in most circumstances unless I declare otherwise, given that I’m fairly femme (long hair, skirts, occasional lipstick) and my OTP* of the moment is a man. (Since I am not comfortable with being dismissed as straight in general life, I have distinctly un-subtle rainbow and bi pride colors bumperstickers on my car.)

    At one particular workplace, I felt something I’d never experienced before: pressure to come out of the closet lest I risk a hostile workplace environment.

    I generally do not advertise my orientation in the workplace if it does not come up in conversation; unless the workplace is markedly hostile I can and will make reference to both ex-girlfriends and ex-boyfriends when appropriate, rather than the neutral and evasive “ex” that is carefully absent other clues.

    I had a lovely team who respected me and my contributions, and I knew that they would never dream of doing anything to make me uncomfortable. There was an out gay man on the team, and while the rest of the team did make jokes about his sexuality, they were of the same flavor and intensity as the razzing other team members got on different subjects, and the tone of the comments about him was always friendly. (I had some unfriendly commentary to compare, with a team member who was not popular. The tone was different, and he was never teased to his face.)

    In the absence of Mr. Out, the commentary about gay people in general took a different note. If you’ve been in the presence of closet homophobes, or closet bigots of a different nature, you’ve probably heard it — the small comments that can be brushed off as a joke if the hearer doesn’t respond in kind or agree, but that lead to the sort of class-based trash-talking that no Human Resources department in its right mind would ignore. Any safety-minded LGBTQ person with a certain kind of experience** has their ears tuned for just such comments to identify the people not to come out to, or the ones likely to cause problems.

    When I caught those little comments, I was uncomfortable. I had a couple options, not all of which were viable.

    I could ignore the comments, hoping they would not escalate, but knowing they would; once they escalated, I would have to either confront them myself, or take it to the supervisor. Confronting them myself would be the sort of scene that I was hoping to avoid. Involving the supervisor would be a betrayal of the unspoken team contract that in-team issues get worked out on the team first, and don’t require supervisor intervention, and the teammates in question might actually get in serious trouble for a situation I could have prevented. (This, by the way, is a red flag for a possibly unhealthy team situation.)

    I could confront them directly when they next made a snide comment, letting them know that I was not comfortable. This could result in loss of face for them, and loss of team status for me, because the comments in question were subtle enough that only those sensitized would notice something wrong, and I would be seen as oversensitive and not to be trusted.

    I could confront them indirectly when they next made a snide comment, letting them know that I was not straight, trusting them to make the connection between their homophobic feeling-out remarks, and my declaration, that really they should stop that. They would be likely to internally lose face, and likely resent me for it.

    I could non-confrontationally tell them to chill. However, they might not make the link that it was a homophobic comment triggering my request to chill, and I could get a reputation as a goody-goody, and lose status as a result, although to a far lesser degree than a confrontation.

    I could come out of the closet at a conversationally appropriate time, and trust their regard of me would be sufficient that they would extend me the same courtesy as they did Mr. Out, and not make actually homophobic comments in my presence.

    That last seemed like the only viable option to me. So I did.

    Bisexuals have their own set of entertaining stereotypes and common questions to field, and I was just not up to dealing with quizzing about which I really preferred, men or women, nor the “So you’re really straight” that comes with anything more than a 50% preference for men. I chose to come out of the closet at work by declaring myself “only 20-30% dyke”, on the grounds that this would answer all of the usual questions, set the tone at a point that they would probably be uncomfortable to dive below, and would let me proceed with my workday with as few distracting questions as possible.

    As predicted, that cleared up the little problem.

    *One True Pairing: a fannish term. Just about everyone who sees us together thinks we are together, and generally wants to set us up together when they learn that we’re not. I ‘ship us; he doesn’t. And so it goes.

    **I noticed but dismissed these warning signs from a fellow who was later dubbed “AK-47 Guy”; upon receiving a friendly hug from a gay man while both parties were drunk, a hug that AK-47 Guy later classified as a “yay you are my new friend oh boy!!” sort of hug, AK-47 Guy slithered out of the hug, leaped into his closet (“For a better angle of fire”, as he declared later on his LJ) and ordered all of his guests out of his home at gunpoint. I no longer fuck around with these warning signals, as I have no desire to stare down the barrel of an AK-47 ever again. I also think he had no business storing an AK-47 outside of a gun cabinet.

  5. JakiChan

    Firstly, as an aside, I find the usage of LGBTQ vs GLBTQ to be fascinating in the sense of who uses which one. Are there rules? I can’t find any. I bet studying that would be interesting.

    But anyway, I’m a gay man that (I’m told by some) appears straight. (As in, when I come out to someone I’ve know for a while, the response is “Really?” Yes, really. We come in all shapes and sizes.) In some ways that has it’s advantages. I usually avoid having any intentional homophobia thrown at me. If I’m tired of being a warrior for equality I can just STFU and folks will assume I’m straight. This is an option that female geeks don’t have. But it also means that I get exposed to a lot of latent homophobia that people express because they don’t think any LGBTQ folk are going to hear it. Fortunately this sort of thing happens extremely rarely where I live and work (at one point my team was 3/5ths LGBTQ). Currently, working in downtown SF, it’s a non-issue. Although there was one workplace I worked that was ‘phobic enough that I felt uncomfortable.

    Then there’s gaming. I’m mostly an FPS gamer and when playing online it seems gaybashing is the insult of choice. Yeah, that gets old. To the point where I block the chat audio from most games (like Halo 3) because I don’t really want to bother with it anymore. I don’t go there to fight for my rights, I just go there to blow stuff up.

    I have a lot of sympathy for queer female geeks. I mean it’s one thing to have to deal with all of the male bias running around but then to have all these guys assuming you’re straight on top of it? I can’t imagine what that’s like. You get to deal with the hetero-normative crap *and* sexism. Lucky you!

    No, being gay does not exempt you from male privilege. No, it doesn’t mean you get to be touchy-feely with women. (Of course straight women please do not assume that because I am gay I want to discuss fashion, your hair, your boyfriends, my boyfriends, the kind of men I like, the sexual acts I prefer, or any of those other cliches. Please see for reference.) And while we both face struggles we have to understand they’re different struggles and what is true for one group may not be true for the other.

    To be honest I’m probably more “aware” and made more uncomfortable by sizeist bigotry than homophobia. When someone makes a gay joke in my presence I don’t feel nearly as awkward as when someone makes a fat joke. Dunno what that means, though. And at least in the geek world (outside of SF it would seem) there are usually enough fat geeks to make it less awkward. But locally it’s a challenge at times. (A co-worker once blogged that if he was as fat as I am he would kill himself. He didn’t think any of us knew where his blog was. That was probably one of the more painful experiences I can remember.) It often feels like SF/Silicon Valley has a lot more gays than fat people.

    I once naively suggested to Skud that a way to combat these porny presentations would be to put things in them to make straight men uncomfortable, but that’s obviously a Bad Idea. (My crowd is lacking in porny presentations but then again my crowd makes no attempt to be cool and is sadly one of the lease diverse groups in all of IT.) But I think that reflects one of my techniques when confronted with homophobia – exploit it to make the person feel uncomfortable in a sort of “so how does it feel” kind of way. Not the most mature approach, I’m sure.

    1. koipond

      Hey Jaki,

      LGBTQ is considered to in keeping with feminism because it’s inverting the standard cultural supposition that you put the masculine term first.

      1. JakiChan

        Which makes me wonder about something else: homosexual females can be either “gay women” or “lesbians”. Homosexual men are just gay men. Why don’t we get a cool name? *sniff*

        1. koipond

          It’s there already. The term for men is used as a descriptor for the group where as there is a specific term so that you can understand that you’re talking about women.

  6. Cyberspice

    I’m a trans-woman. I transitioned many many years ago and basically built my career as me so unless someone ‘reads’ me or I tell them they wouldn’t know about my past. I’m active in various women’s groups both geek (such as PHP Women) and non geek. I’m also bi-sexual. I’m not ‘out’ as either but I’m not ‘in’ either. I work on if someone asks me I wont lie but I wont proffer the information. It makes for a quiet life.

    I was very recently at a conference and there was no issue with me be being trans. A couple of the women’s group there do know my past (both very close good friends) the rest do not. I’m a woman and I have just as much right to be there and part of the group. My experiences are no different from any other women geek’s experiences. I just had an interesting early part to my life. I have to admit to getting a little worse for drink which meant I got a bit ‘touchy’ and I was ‘touchy’ with some of the guys and a couple of the women but flirting is just flirting. I didn’t seem to cause an issue. I know one person did ‘read’ me but they were also trans and they weren’t sure anyway as I pass pretty well.

    But this introduces another privilege, that of passing privilege which itself is a form of misogyny. At a previous conference, a comment was made by one of the guys about another trans-woman (who was there and who unfortunately does not pass so well) and her being part of the women’s group. All the other women defended her but that’s not the point. The guy was putting his values of what he expects a woman to look like on to this person which is misogynistic. Also because I pass I don’t suffer the same issues which means I have a privilege because of that. I can ‘pretend’ I’m not trans and not every trans woman can.

  7. M

    So when is “Going Back In Day”?

    JakiChan said:

    Of course straight women please do not assume that because I am gay I want to discuss fashion, your hair, your boyfriends, my boyfriends, the kind of men I like, the sexual acts I prefer, or any of those other cliches.

    That part in bold? That is the reason I am (mostly) back in the closet, though not universally from straight women. I’ve been harassed by at least two queer men. Few people have heard of my orientation, and coming out always results in tons of awkward and invasive questions. To avoid those questions, please read the Asexuality Visibility and Eduction Network’s “Asexuality Overview.”

  8. spz

    Re gay men being even more of a minority than women, I seriously doubt that.
    I know that my favourite project has at least three times more (male) gay or bi members than women, and that’s not an exhaustive survey: Since sexual orientation does not make your code better or worse or even different, we don’t do polls about that. :)

    1. Skud Post author

      *nod* I would have guessed somewhere around the one-in-ten range, but since it’s less likely to come up or be apparent, and since we don’t ask about it (eg. in FLOSSPOLS) it’s pretty hard to tell.

  9. Bene

    Great post, I agree with a lot of it, though I had thought of it more in terms of general geekdom and less in terms of the hacker sort.

    Interestingly, a lot of the cis guys in LGBTQ at My British University are doing degrees in Comp Sci or some form of engineering, really different from my personal experiences with gay men in the US. Which is not to negate the active work of gay/bi/queer men in CS or Engineering–but either my experience is too narrow, or there’s something to be said about cultural expectations in a transatlantic sense, or possibly both.

  10. pete

    in open source, it never came up. all I do is code-related tho, so not much social interaction.. my patches don’t seem to show up in anyone’s gaydar :) my first name is also mostly female in the anglo-centric cultures, and mostly male in all the other cultures, so I’ve no idea what’s going on there.

    in general geekdom, that’s how I meet most of the people I date :) I really hate labels tho, so I tend to avoid the classic interactions regarding coming out, etc.

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