This page contains the key information and findings from the project and refers to the quotations on the rest of the website. If you have the time, then I recommend reading other pages too, so you get an impression of these ideas in the words of the participants.
Queer people influence the world of computing and the world of computing influences what it is to be Queer. Queer people have used and continue to use computers in all aspects of their lives. This project focuses on professional and personal lives, and, within each, explores what Queer people give to computing and what they take from it. The content draws on interviews I conducted with Queer people who work in computing in the UK, alongside previous academic and popular writing. I conclude that the reciprocal relationships between Queer people and computing are mutually beneficial in most cases.
Methodology and Literature Review
There were six interviews, all of which were conducted in May 2015. The participants were found through an advert put out on social media. Everyone interviewed was living and working in the UK. They were chosen because they worked in computing; however, they all also used computers frequently in their personal lives. The participants are all transgender and are split between men, women, genderqueer and agender people. I did not set out to specifically interview trans people; however, the participants who responded to my social media advertising were almost all trans. Everyone who expressed interest in the project was not heterosexual and they all lived in urban areas. The questions which were asked were open ended and the resulting discussion went in different directions with different participants. The data from the interviews was then analysed alongside the existing literature.
At the time of this project, and to my best knowledge, there has been only one other academic study which covers this topic. This is an ongoing project by Dr Jacob Gaboury (Gaboury, 2015). Whereas I chose to interview Queer people currently working in computing, he chooses to focus on five Queer people who are already recognised as influential in the history of computing but whose work is rarely analysed in terms of Queer theory or sexuality. Gaboury also chooses five figures who are all cisgender (not trans) men, whereas my participants are all transgender and split between men, women, genderqueer and agender people. This means that his work is unlikely to represent all Queer people in computing. There has also been some attention given to specific areas of computing in which LGBT people face discrimination, such as in universities (Mullins et al., 2010) or in video games (Shaw, 2009).
Defining Queer and Computing
By ‘Queer people’ we mean people who self-identify with the label ‘Queer’. There are multiple ways to define exactly what Queer means; however, both the subjects of the academic discipline of Queer Studies and the non-academic Queer community typically consist of people who do not fit with the gender and sexuality norms of society.
The term Queer is used in preference to an acronym such as LGBT for a number of reasons. Firstly, acronyms are lists of discrete identities, such that some people who fit into the term queer are necessarily excluded (Jakobsen 1998). For example, those identifying as ‘intersex’, ‘asexual’ and ‘agender’ are not covered by the LGBT acronym. Secondly, the Queer community has strong ties to political goals beyond traditional gender and sexuality issues. Many major groups organising under the word Queer in the UK come together to fight government spending cuts and to push for wider political and social change (Queer Resistance 2015; Queers Against the Cuts 2015; Queer Mutiny Brighton 2015).
In the academic world, Queer is often defined as resistance to norms and normativity (Jakobsen, 1998). It can be a verb, (although it is certainly also used as a noun), therefore it is active, it is about making the world ‘queerer’ (Berlant and Warner, 1995, p. 347). Queer people, therefore, do not fit with society’s view of what is ‘normal’ and through their actions they resist this normal and make their environment queerer.
We will use the word ‘computing’ to mean any activity that people take part in through using computers. This specifically includes people using computers for leisure as well as for work. Computing occupations are diverse and cannot be considered as a single profession (Haigh, 2010, p. 67). I have tried to reflect this by choosing to interview people from a range of different computing professions, including application design, game design and cryptography.
Several participants expressed that being Queer made it difficult to appear ‘professional’. For Sarah and for Lisa, being trans means they have been unable to consistently make it to work on time. Lisa has to spend extra time on her appearance before she is able to go to work. This is unpredictable and often makes her late. She has lost a couple of jobs due to this issue. Sarah has had mental health problems which ‘could have been related to gender dysphoria’. This meant she did not achieve as highly as she had hoped at university and that ‘it would have been almost impossible to keep a nine to five job’. Henry does manage to hold down a nine to five job but he is unable to wear the clothes he feels best in to the office because ‘professional’ standards mean he can’t wear anything that would mark him out as Queer.
We can conclude that standards of ‘professionalism’ are hetronormative and cisnormative. That is to say that they discriminate against those who are not straight and cis. Henry’s use of air quotes around the word ‘professional’ shows that he knows that this standard is unfair and that he disagrees with it. This opinion has historical context. According to a study by Bartlett (1994), standards of appearance in the workplace are perpetually discriminatory to women and trans people. Sarah and Lisa both solved these problems by starting their own companies and working from home. Henry has worked from home in the past and felt more able to dress comfortably then.
Four of the participants had worked from home at some point in their careers, and two of these were doing so currently. Sarah and Lisa both deal with problems related to dysphoria and mental health by running their own businesses from home. Both of them feel like computing is very well suited to home working, and that this allows them to have a more accessible work environment. Henry also felt that working from home was beneficial for his mental health, because it permitted him to live closer to a supportive queer community.
There are also some disadvantages to home working. Sarah expressed that it was sometimes difficult for hir to impose structure and keep work separate from leisure time. Henry was working with a remote desktop, which did not always work properly, and he often missed important information that was written on whiteboards by non-remote workers. More seriously, Robyn’s period of working from home coincided with them living with an abusive partner. This made working from home a very negative experience, as they had to work in an abusive and frightening space.
Working from home can be a very positive experience for queer people and can be a life-line for those with severe dysphoria or mental health problems. However this only works if the home environment is pleasant and free from abuse. This is a concern for Queer people especially, a study by Broken Rainbow (2009) found that almost a third of LGBT respondents in the UK had experienced domestic abuse. Other disadvantages of working from home may include lack of structure and poorly orchestrated remote working technologies.
Everyone I interviewed thought that being Queer affected the technologies that they made, either directly or indirectly. Lisa expressed this especially strongly; for Lisa, being Queer means having strong empathy, built from the community solidarity needed to survive oppression. This specifically Queer empathy leads to being more able to design user-centred software. For Sarah, hir binary breaking understanding of gender is part of a wider philosophical rejection of binary categories, which ze enacts through the technologies ze designs. Both Lisa and Sarah see their Queerness as meaning that they produce better technologies.
All the participants also linked their Queerness into a wider political understanding. This wider political understanding was typically far-left and intersectional. These wider political ideologies were typically also enacted through technologies. This manifested in multiple ways, including; dismantling hierarchies, being accessible to people with disabilities and those who speak different languages, and by allowing diversity in design.
We can conclude that there are Queer technologies, in so far as technologies designed by Queer people may be substantially different to those designed by non-Queer people. Queer technologies may be more user-focused and contain fewer binary categories. They may also reject hierarchical authority, be more accessible and allow for more diversity. The idea that technologies themselves may be queer is backed up by Gaboury (2013), who ‘hopes to suggest that queerness itself is inherent within computational logic’.
Three of the participants I interviewed expressed that Human Resources (HR) departments could make a big positive impact on Queer people in the workplace. They all expressed that they felt safer in avoiding workplace discrimination when there was an HR department that had their back. Robyn had made a complaint about homophobia to their HR department, who quickly resolved the matter. Tyler never needed to make a complaint but felt safer knowing that it was an option. Henry’s current workplace does not have a HR department and he feels that his currently transphobic office would be better if there was one. Two of the remaining participants had never worked at a company large enough to have an HR department and the one remaining participant mentioned her HR department in a neutral light.
We can conclude that for our participants, working at companies which were large enough to have HR departments is a powerful tool for fighting homophobia and transphobia. This fits with the findings of a US study by Day and Schoenrade (2000), which concludes that gay and lesbian employees are much happier when anti-discrimination policies (enacted through HR) were in place.
Some participants gave very positive accounts of being out in the workplace, Gemma had such an uplifting experience of coming out at work that she feels it was a major formative experience in her life. Sarah, Tyler and Gemma all felt that being able to be out at work made them feel more comfortable and able to be themselves. Day and Schoenrade (2000) tell us this is also the case for LGBT people in other lines of work.
Not all the participants, however, wanted to be out at work. Lisa had a negative experience of being pressured to come out by her boss, when she did not want to. Most participants had both positive and negative experiences. Robyn explained how difficult it is to weigh up the benefits and risks involved. Queer people have to conduct this complex risk/benefit analysis in each new job they have and the penalties for getting this wrong can be serious. Workplaces can support Queer people by making sure there is support if they do decide to come out but no pressure to come out if they decide not to.
Five of the six participants used the internet as teenagers. For all five, getting online changed their lives in a huge and positive way. Communicating online was a powerful means of social connection, no matter what the topic of discussion was, but for Lisa imparticular, being able to talk specifically about being Queer was very important. For Gemma and Henry, the internet helped them explore their own gender identities. Sarah also experienced the massive uplifting experience of getting online, but not until ze got to university. There is a sense in which both Sarah and Robyn, the oldest participants, feel that they missed out by not being able to access as teenagers the same online content that today’s teens can. Robyn expressed this strongly, despite their exposure to ‘talkers’ in the early 1990s.
The vital importance of online resources specifically for Queer teens is recognised in a paper by Cserni and Talmud (2015) who conclude that such resources can reduce the risk of depression and suicide for ‘LGBT youths’. It is also recognised in a powerfully personal article by Danah Boyd. They recognise that the internet allows Queer youth to enact identities which may be under threat or impossible in their real-world surroundings (2010, p. 2).
All the participants continue to regularly socialise on the internet as adults, and for some it can be better than ‘real-life’ interactions. Lisa actually rejects the idea of the internet as separate from ‘real-life’, and prefers the term ‘AFK’ meaning ‘away from keyboard’. Lisa and Robyn expressed that, part of the reason they like communicating online, is because it is a space where they are not connected with their physical bodies, which may not entirely match their gender identities. For Sarah, online interactions have some benefits but ze also needs ‘real-life’ friends. For five of the participants, at least some of the friends they have in ‘real-life’ were people they originally met online.
All the participants feel that communicating online is an important part of their lives and for some it can be more valuable than ‘real-life’ interactions, as they can better express themselves online. Even those who preferred to socialise in person were often meeting up with people they originally met on the internet. This complements findings by McKenna et al. (2002), whose work shows that people who can better express their ‘true selves’ online are more likely to form close online friendships and more likely to bring these friendships into the ‘real world’.
The participants all linked their Queer identities with wider left or far-left politics. Many of them thought this was at odds with the politics of the wider computing community, which was perceived as more right wing. Lisa described her image of the archetypal professional programmer, and how this clashes with Queer identities. Henry feels that being in a well-paid computing job is a threat to his Queer identity. This may explain why the participants were hesitant to describe themselves as ‘computer people’, although Robyn and Sarah did identify as hackers. Robyn saw the hacker identity as being about ‘curiosity’ and Sarah saw it as related to her identity as an anarchist. Hacking, curiosity and anarchism are perceived as meshing more easily with being Queer than right wing corporate computing cultures.
Five of the six participants discussed playing video games in their leisure time: however, they mostly resisted labelling themselves as ‘gamers’ and emphasised the causal nature of their interest in games. The only participant who identified with the label of gamer was Gemma, and she works in video game design.
All the participants who played games but did not get paid to make games felt they should qualify their interest in games by saying they did not play as often or know as much about games as ‘serious gamers’. This is despite the fact that two of them work on game design in their spare time. It is possible that we are looking at a phenomena similar to the ‘Geek Myth’ described by Margolis and Fisher (2002, pp. 65-68). Under this thesis, the ‘Gamer Myth’ would mean that the majority of people who play video games feel that they are not the ‘true gamers’ but believe they are in a minority of less-committed imposters.
There are other reasons Queer people distance themselves from gaming identities. Tyler feels that people who define as gamers are likely to lack identities which are based on shared experiences of oppression. Queer people shun the identity of ‘gamer’ because they feel their level of gaming is too casual. This may be due to the Gamer Myth. They may also choose not to identify as gamers because they feel that identities based on shared oppressions are more valuable.
Three of the participants expressed that they were more likely to want to play games which had queer themes. Gemma described ‘Gone Home’ as an example of positive Queer representation in games.Tyler described ‘Mainichi’, another positive example. Gemma and Tyler enjoy playing these games because they reflect real-life experiences and invoke a deep connection with the characters in the games. Tyler and Robyn also found ways to have meaningful Queer experiences within games that are not specifically about Queer people.
All three of the participants who were involved in game design indicated that they incorporated Queer themes into their work. Gemma spoke passionately about how she fights for positive representation of Queer and female characters in the games that her company produces. These efforts by Gemma are historically significant. Shaw (2009) describes how the games industry has a long history of censorship of Queer characters, which has only recently begun being rolled back.
The participants were more likely to choose to play games with Queer themes, and even when playing more mainstream games they found ways to have Queer experiences within them. These experiences could be meaningful and empathetic. The participants who design games try to ensure that their games contain positive Queer themes, in order to allow others to have these same experiences.
One of the most significant findings was the continuity of experience between participants of different ages, genders and professions. All the participants had shared experiences of finding themselves online and of applying their Queerness to the products they produce. They all identified with left-wing political identities and felt that this was somewhat at odds with the politics of the wider computing community.
The corporate computing world could take several steps to become more welcoming to queer people, especially by abandoning standards of ‘professionalism’ in the workplace and ensuring that anti-discrimination policies and HR professionals are widely available. Similarly, the gaming world could become more welcoming by abandoning shaming of those not deemed ‘true gamers’.
In most cases, Queer people got significant benefits from using computers, such as by access to online communities and accessible employment. Queer people also make significant contributions to the computing world, for example by developing Queered Technologies or pressing for diversity in media. Thus we can see a mutually beneficial reciprocal relationship exists between Queer people and computing.