It is Bigger Than Microaggressions

Originally published at Model View Culture

I am new to tech.

I’ve spent the majority of my adult career as an independent artist writing, directing and filming my way into avenues of visibility while moonlighting as a public scholar. In both artistic and academic spaces, I’ve centered my material reality as a black trans* person with the primary intention of expressing my humanity.

This past year my career took a turn in a new direction as I took the leap of blending my love of creativity with my passion for gender justice, resulting in the birth of Trans*H4CK — a tech initiative that celebrates the work and contributions of trans* and gender non-conforming people within the industry.

As Trans*H4CK has grown, I’ve found myself occupying a unique position in being able to move through a number of different tech spaces: from rooms filled with the verve of tech entrepreneurs of color to being the singular black (trans) male voice in extremely passionate queer feminist spaces.

What I’ve discovered is that even though there is a growing trend to expand the concept of diversity, overall the tech industry doesn’t yet allow for a critical and nuanced approach to trans* identities, especially when it comes to individuals who occupy the margins of race to which many seek to be inclusive of. Because of this, gender-based marginalization in the form of microaggressions — unconscious verbal comments or physical gestures that communicate shameful, demeaning and sometimes violent messages — from well-meaning colleagues, bosses or business partners occur daily.

The nature of gender-based microaggressions can make them hard to identify. Veiled compliments about the youthful appearance of colleagues that are women (e.g. you look too young to have this position!), or unsolicited advice, such as mansplaining for example, are but a couple of ways in which dominant perceptions of gen

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der are used to subordinate. Within the culture of tech, there are multiple ways in which microaggressions affect a broad spectrum of identities, but as Shanley Kane points out they “are disproportionately and sometimes exclusively used against employees who are not white, male, straight and masculine.”

Stereotyping Anger
In industries dominated by white leadership, the notion of black success is wrought with respectability politics that convey a sense of passivity. For black queer people in particular, career advancement can sometimes mean eschewing radical politics that challenge race, gender and sexual identity hierarchies in order to avoid being marked as “angry.” Tech is no different.

There have been many instances in my journey where comments or suggestions from white counterparts have alluded to or explicitly labeled me as hostile for refusing to comply with discriminatory practices masquerading as diversity initiatives. To give an example, I once worked with an all-white and predominantly cisgender tech-based organization that wanted to broaden its reach into the LGBT community. When I respectfully expressed to the organizers that their curriculum, location and financial costs to attend made it unappealing to participants of color, I was told not to “focus on race so much” since it wasn’t a “central issue.” When I pushed back against the subtle racism of the statement, I was labeled as being divisive to the overall goal of the project and simply just angry.

Similarly, during a party for a tech company launch, I fell into a deep conversation about gentrification with a group of queer white people. One person gushed over how he feels safe in his historically gay San Francisco neighborhood in spite of his trans* identity. I shared that I never feel safe where he lives because of the feeling of being under constant surveillance as a black man. Afterwards on the BART ride home, I received a public tweet where the person expressed their gratitude in me “calling them out” — a term rife with confrontational undertones — to assess their privilege.

False accusations of anger as a default response to black queer critiques of marginalization invalidate the realities of racial discrimination that exist in tech by positioning black people as domineering race police and whites as unsuspecting victims. This hinders coalition-building across underrepresented groups as the threat of black anger incites fear amongst non-black colleagues. This is unfortunate especially when we consider the overlap with regard to how feminists of all races in tech are categorized as aggressive and reactionary when challenging misogyny.

Misgendering and Outing
I try to make my gender identity known as often as I can to prohibit any moments in which someone is misinformed about who I am. This doesn’t always work and I’ve been on the receiving end of both public and private instances of misgendering from colleagues who are either unaware of trans* people or are simply not interested. As a sometimes optimist, I tend to hope for the former.

A few weeks ago, I attended a non-LGBT meetup for black tech entrepreneurs. I was excited to attend as I had planned on meeting a longtime Twitter pal whose work I’ve followed across the years as they had reciprocated the favor. Upon spotting one another across the room and rushing to make introductions, my Twitter pal reached out and remarked that I “looked more like a real man in person than in my avi.” She then followed her “compliment” by introducing me to her friends using the incorrect gender pronoun while gloating about my work, at which the friends seemed visibly confused.

In another situation, a colleague new to trans* issues, took it upon themselves to share with their entire office about my gender. I shared with them how uncomfortable it made me feel to be outed in situations not related to my work without my approval. Their response was that they assumed it to be okay and that I should be happy to be seen as an “example of a successful black transgender person to a group of straight people.”

Despite the different context, both scenarios are examples of how gender-based microaggressions reinforce sexist thinking against trans* people. Though my Twitter friend followed my work, her comments implied that my expression of masculinity was not up to par — a slight that refuses to acknowledge me as real and instead as a gender imposter. On the other hand, using my public work and race as an excuse to disclose my gender, strips me of the agency of self-definition and reinforces the harmful idea that one singular person can represent the entire black community.

Class Matters
Working in tech for many of us also means networking alongside a lot of well-paid people. It is often during meetups, brunches, or beer outings, in which I am asked about my income on such invasive terms such as “how do I pay my rent?” rather than what is my occupation. If I’m not being questioned about my paycheck, I regularly sit through stories of financial excess under the guise of economic transparency (e.g. I once had a white male colleague boast that since he was “rich and white” he felt it important to share his wealth to contribute to the trans* experience).

While there is a current push from many to be more open with sharing salary information to address economic disparity in tech, for people of color whose work is unapologetically informed by a social justice lens, there are hidden implications behind on-the-spot demands of our financial credentials. For one, it reflects a particular type of (white) privilege that believes that people of color are expected to respond to interrogation no matter the subject matter. It also minimizes the importance of socially urgent work by commodifying its reach and assumes that our labor is literally worth(less). Beyond that, comments that praise one’s contributions to a marginalized community in order to relate to them, are self-aggrandizing at best.

It is Bigger than Microaggressions
There are many people working in tech who identify as anti-racist, gender inclusive, or socially conscious, however the microaggressions aimed at black queer people are largely overlooked and ignored. These assumedly insignificant acts normalize our mistreatment, making a strong impact on our physical and emotional health and overall productivity. In order to change this, we all have to be vigilant in allowing marginalized individuals in tech more spaces in which to speak truthfully and without judgment –our lived experiences are key factors in fully understanding how microaggressions operate. At the same time, energy must be directed towards incorporating race and gender educational frameworks alongside “learn to code” initiatives as the cultural costs of microaggressions that devalue queer people of color, greatly outweighs the financial cost of investing in work that challenges racist, sexist and transphobic thinking.

The Peculiarity of Black Trans Male Privilege

In May, I journeyed to Dallas to spend a weekend of community building and love sharing with a group of black trans men, many of whom I call my chosen brothers, at the third annual Black Trans Advocacy Conference. As it is one of the few opportunities for black transgender people to collectively gather, each one of us traveled from different parts of the country with our significant others, with friends, or by ourselves to the annual gathering with the hopes of finding family.

Outside of panels that covered topics such as self-awareness and relationship building, our chats turned into late-night discussions in each other’s hotel rooms. We openly shared our fears and insecurities around the expectations of black masculinity, the ways in which we are learning to accept our bodies, our successes and failures at dating while trans, and other intimate issues related to transition. Through all of our talks, however, we kept returning to the topic of navigating our newfound privilege as men who carry with us the emotional, mental, and physical memory of being perceived as women—a peculiar type of privilege that is both liberating and restrictive.

Read entire article at The Advocate

The Problem With the Zuckerberg Analogy for Youth of Color

Originally posted on Model View Culture

The next Mark Zuckerberg. Where is he?

Many in Silicon Valley are looking for him at coding bootcamps, Hackathons, and similar STEM programs aimed at young people, hoping to discover the wunderkind of color that will follow Zuckerberg’s path of tech royalty and represent the racial progress of an industry dominated by young white men.

As someone who believes in the possibilities of technology in uplifting our most marginalized populations, I too want to see the industry grow in ways that celebrate the brilliance of underrepresented youth. But there is something deeply pernicious about the Zuckerberg analogy that hurts more than helps when encouraging youth of color to be their greatest selves – and its not just its sexist undertones that minimize the contributions of women and girls to the coding landscape. The real problem involved in “looking” for the next Zuckerberg is the underlying assumption that once we find him, all will be right in the “diversity in tech” world… ultimately placing a large burden on youth of color to be exceptional in the face of adversity as proof of racial progress.

Promoting exceptionalism to encourage success is not new to people of color. We have historically struggled in a dominant culture that upholds a bootstrap narrative which says you can rise above structural inequalities, only if you work hard enough to do so. Those who do overcome to achieve some semblance of success are considered exceptional and as Imani Perry notes, become false symbols of “evidence that racial inequality doesn’t exist.”

While “exceptional” individuals enjoy unprecedented levels of access and privilege, their visibility does little to dismantle systemic barriers that prohibit other people of color from achieving the same. Furthermore, their presence as one of few reduces the reality of discrimination to the fault of its victims and not the result of actual racial disparities that limit the socioeconomic mobility of African Americans and Latinos. In other words, a brown Mark Zuckerberg is not going to change the fact that kids of color continue to be underrepresented in STEM — not because they aren’t brilliant enough, but because they have not been given the same amount of opportunity, access, wealth and individual room to fail, unlike the privileged Facebook founder they are told to aspire towards. Without an honest conversation of how privilege and power function in regards to race, the image of a singular white male as emblematic of tech success can foster a competitive environment amongst youth of color who already have to compete for basic educational resources that remain unequally distributed.

Essentially, it is the absence of a critique of white privilege embedded in the Zuckerberg analogy that reveals its contentious relationship with meritocracy — a concept that a tech culture concerned with rewards and perks for those that are considered more deserving than others, is no stranger to.

In writing about meritocracy in tech, Ashe Dryden argues that the consequence of an industry based on “merit” is the reproduction of oppressive hierarchies where “some of those at the top or striving to at least be above other people have been guilty of using their power for bullying, harassment, and sexist/racist/*ist language that they use against others directly and indirectly.” In such situations where power results in abuse, women of all races are the most vulnerable and can endure career threatening “punishment” when addressed, thus maintaining a heterosexist social order that benefits white masculinity and subordinates other identities.

Considering then how “meritocratic” spaces can marginalize individuals at risk, its reinforcement has multiple implications for youth of color, primarily in relation to gender and sexuality. Take for example the population of LGBT youth who make up a significant portion of the ”next Zuckerberg cohort” but whose presence in tech comes along with the fact of cyberbullying – affecting the community at almost twice the rate of their peers. Since these students already deal with the external discourses of meritocracy that dismisses their harassment as a queer rite of passage because, supposedly, “it gets better,” the celebration of white masculinity can further justify feelings of inferiority and perceptions of abnormality from their peers… unwittingly creating a new barrier of adversity that implicates all youth of color to transcend a set of social prejudices that they might not be equipped to.

Beyond promoting the idea of exceptionalism based on merit, the widely used Zuckerberg analogy marginalizes the contributions of young people of color that have already made history in STEM but receive little recognition for their efforts. For instance, Luis Roberto Ramirez is an 11 year old who studies quantum physics at Harvard; Anala Beevers was invited to join MENSA at just four years old; and Jaylen Bledsoe, who in his early teens, runs his own multimillion dollar global IT company, Bledsoe Technologies. These children are not exceptions, rather they are perfect examples of the abundance of brilliance that thrives in communities of color in spite of existing systems that attempt to destroy it or claim that it doesn’t exist. What would the tech industry look like if these types of stories were championed over that of young white men?

Even if unintended, the Zuckerberg analogy avoids the looming issue of systemic discrimination and limits paradigm-shifting conversations that can change how we discuss race and access in tech. If we continue to use it in the context of educating youth of color, we must do so in a way that also helps them to develop a critical lens with which to view social disparity. The industry needs it and the youth deserve it.

Four ways trans people are changing the gender/tech debate

Originally posted on Venture Beat

In most conversations of tech diversity, many point out the lack of women in the industry as a major problem — and rightfully so, considering that women continue to be outnumbered by their male counterparts in many sectors, especially women of color.
Unfortunately, these conversations favor cisgender women as the critical component of true gender diversity, leaving trans and gender-nonconforming people completely out of the equation.

Whether you know it or not, trans people are very present in tech and utilize the medium to insert themselves into larger discussions of gender and diversity. From making videos to making video games, here are four ways transgender people are expanding the concept of diversity in technology:

Empowering videos and hashtags
YouTube is filled with trans people of all ages, backgrounds, and geographical locations, sharing their stories of transition and have been since the birth of the site in 2005. With the advent of Twitter, trans people have a new way of connecting and thanks to author and award-winning activist Janet Mock, can do so using the Twitter hashtag #girlslikeus. Mock states that she created the hashtag for trans women that were “looking for role models, becoming role models, wanting to be heard and hoping to make a difference.”
Since it’s first use by Mock, the hashtag has been adopted by numbers of trans women across the globe as an empowering source of community building. Other hashtag creators have followed suit and have created terms such as #tgirlsrock and the controversial but nonetheless unifying, #fuckcispeople.

Personalized gaming
Not just consumers of tech, trans people are visible creators who are producing projects that showcase tech savvy and a deep-seated interest in gender justice. Indie game developer and critic Mattie Brice, for example, created Mainichi, an RPG game based on her experiences of being a trans woman. When playing Mainichi, you are offered a glimpse into the life of a trans woman as you play as Mattie, and have to address questions such as, “Is she a boy or a girl?” from strangers on the street. Brice’s work is part of a bigger community of queer gamers who present a different voice in the gender diversity debate. Many who can be heard at the upcoming Queerness and Games Conference, where Brice is one of the organizers.

Voices like Brice’s are needed in the gaming industry where trans women are subjected to harassment and discrimination just as non trans women are. The recent public misgendering of Laura Kate Dale at Eurogamer illuminates this point as she received death and rape threats after taking to Twitter to share her story — an unfortunate experience other women in tech have undergone for simply standing up.

Collective hacking
Transgender developers are also producing projects meant for real-life usability, such as TransResource.us, a web and mobile app that searches for transgender services according to zip code, and Dottify.me, a social media application for trans and gender-variant people that visually maps the community while protecting privacy. Both game changing projects were recently created at last month’s inaugural Trans*H4CK, a hackathon for transgender empowerment.

The success of Trans*H4CK demonstrated an urgency of tech based initiatives designed to better the trans community as well as exposed a previously overlooked market of trans consumers who want accessible products that speak to their lives. Trans*H4CK plans to tour nationally in 2014 starting with a stop in New York City.

Business ownership
Although many in the tech industry argue that entrepreneurship is one way to encourage economic mobility, myself included, there aren’t yet many trans-led tech based businesses or startups; but the ones that do exist are making important waves in the tech industry. Take PalominoDB for example, a database architect firm founded by trans entrepreneur Laine Campbell. Under Campbell’s leadership, PalominoDB has successfully managed the databases of a number of prestigious clients and was most recently in charge of running the front-end databases of President Obama’s reelection campaign. Campbell was also recognized as a Female Founder to Watch by Forbes Magazine.

Transgender people are making incredible waves in tech because of their presence and work that disrupts gender binaries. Bottom line: If tech diversity enthusiasts want to continue to expand the gender divide, then we have to begin to look towards the trans community as necessary investments in the broadest sense of the term. This will provide a new set of tools, skill sets, and perspectives on gender that both the tech industry and the world needs.

Trans March 2013 Keynote Speech by DRKRZ

If we look at where we were ten years ago to where we are now, we have a lot to celebrate. In this past decade, we’ve taken on visible roles across the world showing the brilliance, complexity and humanity that is the trans community. We’ve written ourselves into books. Shot ourselves into films. And spoken ourselves into a global conversation of trans resistance and justice.
And we have done so without shame.

In these past ten years, our tenacity for equality has transformed policies that discriminate into policies that empower. Leaving us the gift of cliche, as we’ve proven that history is indeed written by the victors.

In this past decade, we’ve built a community of allies through the simple and genuine act of being our authentic selves. We have transformed their hate into love, their misunderstanding into compassion and have shown them that the ability to express gender, in all of its fullness, messiness and beauty, is the ultimate revolution.

But the most powerful representation of our progress within this time–a mere ten years–is that we’ve begun to understand the urgency of advocating for trans equality across racial lines. In true subversive form, we’ve seen trans people of color take on leadership roles locally and across the country. A gesture of equipoise to other movements that have so fiercely denied us this right. My presence on this stage, as a visible and unforgivingly black trans man, speaks volumes to this work.

But we still have far to go.
In this space of honor and tolerance of all identities that is Trans March, we take to the streets to acknowledge the battles we continue to fight and we do so with undaunted dignity.

We march to honor trans women who have the audacity to stand up against hate only to pay for it with their freedom and sometimes their lives.
We march to pay homage to our trans brothers and sisters that cannot find jobs or lost one because of who they are and not how they performed.
We march for the little girls, the little boys and the children who don’t feel like either, whose courage to live openly about who they are, have revealed the immaturity of adults, who, at their age should know better.
We march for members of our community who live without the privilege of a home. Who live without the privilege of being able to eat. Who live without the privilege of being healthy. But have the privilege of hope that our love generates for them.
We march for our lovers, friends and family members who might not understand who we are completely but have never stopped loving us fully.
We march for our transcestors who did not live to become our trans elders but whose spirit and energy serve as the fuel to keep ourselves alive during moments when it can seem the most difficult to do so.

Finally, we march for us.
For all of us in this crowd who dare to be different and do so with verve and humility.
For all of us in this crowd who fuck with ideas of masculinity, femininity, maleness, femaleness, boy, girl, man, woman, sir, madam, Mr., Mrs., and Ms.–and look incredibly sexy while doing it.
We march for all of us who wake up everyday, staring the threat of being misgendered, of being racially profiled, of being sexually harassed, of being kicked out, fired, clocked, beat, bullied, and badgered, until there is nothing left to do but march.

I’d like to end with a quote from trans pioneer Sylvia Rivera, who in an essay before her passing wrote, “Before I die, I will see our community given the respect we deserve. I’ll be damned if I’m going to my grave without having this respect [and] I want to go wherever I go with that in my soul and peacefully say I’ve finally overcome.”

As we step our anxious feet into these historical streets of San Francisco with our minds, bodies and hearts on display, let us do so knowing that although we’re not always respected by the world, we must continue to hold one another in the highest regard because it is the benevolence of our love for one another, and only love, is what will allow us all to overcome.

Thank You

On Being a Good Black Man

Last night I attended a networking event hosted by a major tech company based in San Francisco. The mixer was held at a popular downtown Oakland coffeehouse, which has become a symbol of the city’s gentrifying landscape complete with high priced items and well dressed hip patrons who willingly pay for them.

I arrived at the crowded cafe with my business partner and an employee from the host tech company who had personally reserved our tickets making sure that we would attend. While waiting to sign my name tag, I scanned the room and noticed that it was no different than most small business events that focus on technology that I’ve attended–the large cafe was filled with young, primarily white men, of a similar age and class demographic, who excitedly exchanged business cards of the newly founded startups they proudly worked for.

Caught up in sizing up the crowd, I realized that I was blocking the doorway and stepped aside to let a group of people standing behind me check in. As I moved, I felt a strong yank on my arm that turned me around to meet the face of a young Asian woman who sternly yelled, “This is a private event!” The loudness of her voice stopped the conversations around us and the room of white faces stood by–with locally sourced beer in hand–to watch a perhaps foreign to them moment of racism between two “people of color” unfold.

With the young woman still gripping my arm, I pulled my ticket out of my pocket and angrily tossed it on the registration table and walked out the door. Feeling completely embarrassed, my initial reaction was to step away from the situation but my wounded ego pushed me to prove to the woman that she was wrong about me. Before I could speak, she blamed the misrecognition of me on the “stress” associated with organizing the event. She said that she was “tired and overwhelmed” and that the daily activities of checking name badges and packaging gift-bags were the reasons why she made such a “big mistake.” I said there was no excuse for her racism. I told her that she stopped me because I was not like the young white men in the room that wore flannel shirts, had scruffy beards and donned dark rimmed glasses. I said that she was wrong to treat me as if I was going to rob the place and that she humiliated me in front of my colleagues. She tried to intervene but I wouldn’t let her speak. All that I could say was: “I am a Dr. I am a business owner. I am not like the other black men you see around here. I belong here. You are wrong. I belong here.”

Three years ago I was invited to present my work to a community of scholars in San Antonio, TX. I had just begun to physically pass as male and had a brand new license with my correct gender marker on hand to prove it to airport security. Before boarding the plane I showed my anxiety of traveling to a “red state” with a sarcastic tweet that mentioned Texas better not mess with me–an arguably witty retort to the popular “Don’t Mess With Texas” slogan. I planned to stay at the loft of a colleague of mine who would arrive to the same space later on that night. We communicated through text about how to take a taxi from the airport to the loft and where to find the key that she had left for me under a rock.

That night I set out to explore the historic city of San Antonio and after having dinner with a friend, I returned to the loft to prepare for my presentation that was early the next morning. While I was unpacking and chatting on the phone, the downstairs neighbor, a young Latina woman, walked upstairs to the loft, took one look at me and said, “You’re not supposed to be here!” She ran back downstairs and I ran after her saying yelling, “this is my friends house. Please, don’t run away. I’m supposed to be here.”

Within minutes of returning back to the loft, I was surrounded by police officers with guns drawn yelling at me to “get the fuck down.” In complete shock, I managed to kneel as one officer pushed me down and nestled his gun in the back on my head. Another shoved his knees into my spine while shouting at me to reveal who “the fuck” I was and why was I there. Like the moment in the coffeeshop that would happen years later, all that I could say was that, “I’m a Ph.D! I’m a filmmaker! I’m a scholar! People know who I am. I’m supposed to be here. I’m supposed to be here.”

I was searched, handcuffed and placed in the backseat of the police car where I cried like I had never heard myself cry before. With every whimper, cough, and sniffle, my body shifted and forced the handcuffs to dig deeper into my wrists and provided an excuse for the officers to threaten me with imprisonment. “Shut the fuck up!” the white officer said. “Or I’ll take you downtown and book you. Is that what the fuck you want? Haven’t you been arrested before? Don’t you know you have to shut the fuck up?”
I held my breath to stop crying and said nothing.

Eventually, contact was made with the family of my colleague who explained my presence. I was released form the handcuffs and told to “stay out of trouble” by the same white cop who had threatened to jail me for crying. As a masculine symbol of apology, he patted me on my chest that carried fresh surgical wounds, smiled and told me that I could legally return to the loft. As I made my way back, the young woman called the police softly grabbed my arm, looked directly into my eyes and said, “I’m sorry. I just wanted to protect us. I didn’t know.”

I withheld the rage I felt welling deep inside my gut that could only muster out a “fuck you.” I swallowed the humiliation that exuded from the judgmental eyes of neighbors who emerged from their homes to to watch the police catch the black criminal in their nice neighborhood. I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs that they were wrong–How could they not see that I am not like those other black men. How could they not see that I belonged there? I pulled my arm away and silently walked back upstairs to the loft.

We live in a world that assumes the worst of young black masculinity to the point in which it causes concerned citizens–even those of color–to act as race vigilantes who enforce preventative measures with the hopes of keeping black men from acting out our criminal nature. The absurdity of the policing of black male violence by “good racists” lies in the reality that violence itself is used and celebrated as the preferred tactic of approach. Ultimately relaying a message that black men and boys are fair game for public scrutiny–even to the extent of annihilation. The murder of Trayvon Martin and the subsequent violent posturing of his life as an acceptable defense for his death is a perfect example.

Last night while laying in bed, I reflected on how these experiences have shaped my own performance of “good racism.” In both situations, I felt that my only defense was to demoralize the behavior of my “bad” brothers by showing that I was an exception to their brutality. I wanted to prove that unlike them, I have integrity, goals, and aspirations to be good–I am good.

I’ve been a black man for less than five years and can only imagine what its like for men my age who have lived their whole lives as victims of peer led policing. I wonder if any of them have successfully found a way to prove their “goodness” without defaulting to language that reinforces the idea that some of us are worthy of the surveillance we experience.

As I dozed off and my brain began to slip into a sleep far away from the harshness of this unkind world, I thought about my chosen path of black masculinity and wondered will it forever prohibit people from acknowledging the kindness of my spirit, the generosity of my heart, my humanity and my desire to show love in all of its manifestations. I asked aloud as if the whole population of black men could hear me from my bed: will people ever see us as good?

Not wanting to deal with the reality of the answer to this question, I simply hugged my body tight and whispered softly, “I belong here. We all belong here. And we are all good.”

Why LGBT Organizations Need to Embrace Hackathons

Hackathons are all the rage.

From birthing some of the most well known startups to utilizing government data to encourage civic engagement, these time intensive marathon sessions bring together a diverse group of people (tech advantaged or not) who are interested in harnessing the power of technology to offer creative solutions to real world problems. This year alone, socially driven causes have taken the concept of the hackathon to new levels by focusing on sustainable solutions that strive to end homelessness, provide access to clean water, and offer solutions to curb domestic violence. With new social themed hackathons emerging across the world everyday, there has yet to be a cause that has shown itself to be “unhackable.”

Despite this rapidly growing use of hackathons to solve social problems, the LGBT movement hasn’t taken serious advantage of its benefits, leaving a rich source of unlimited possibility for social change untapped. With the need to advent new technologies that prioritize the queer community, it is important for LGBT advocacy organizations to stake a claim in this growing culture and embrace hackathons for several reasons:

Strengthens Tech Infrastructure
Without a doubt, LGBT advocacy organizations need the support of technology to advance their mission and extend the impact of their work. However, many lack the capacity-financially and physically-to seek out or take advantage of new technologies that can better engage constituents or streamline programmatic work.

Hosting a hackathon can leverage the specific insights and talents of community members invested in LGBT equality by generating ideas that your organization normally wouldn’t. Think of potential participants as a temporary “think tank” comprised of dedicated volunteers of the cause. It is inevitable that the amount of passion each hacker brings to the table, will produce amazing tech based projects that can help make the lives of activists and the community that we serve a little easier. Plus, the bonus of working in a collaborative environment that values the input of each team member creates a sense of collective responsibility and comfort in which the learning of new tech skills is possible.

Creates new ways to distribute LGBT data
Like the majority of non-profits, LGBT advocacy organizations rely on the production of research reports as part of their efforts to effect policy change and solicit funding. The down side of this is that much of this data circulates only within the boundaries of fellow advocacy organizations, therefore excluding the general public from accessing such important information.

A core value of hackathon culture is about bringing awareness to the values and utility of open data. Because of this, hackathons are a perfect forum to brainstorm ideas on translating research data into engaging forms that can be understood and utilized by individuals outside of the non-profit industry. Think of the potential involved in creating transparency between institutions that do the research and the community members that fill the pages of their reports.

Hackathons are fun!
Employees of LGBT organizations deal with the stresses of serving a community that consistently deals with real life trauma. This can take a heavy toll on our health and sometimes leave us feeling overwhelmed and pessimistic about the reach and impact of our work.

Throwing a hackathon can help boost the morale of employees because it provides opportunities for creative input that privileges experimentation without the worry of failure. The added benefits of meeting new people with the intention of positive collaboration, especially within a supportive environment, restores a sense of worth in ourselves and our work that many of us tend to forget about in our daily activist practices.

In short, hackathons can do a lot for LGBT advocates by moving us to think differently about the utility of technology. They also help push us beyond our usual limits of creativity and production so that we can be the innovative leaders that our movement needs.

Happy Hacking!

Dr. Ziegler is currently organizing the first hackathon for transgender advocacy, Trans*H4CK: Hacking for Transgender Empowerment. Visit transhack.org to find out more about the event and how you can support.

Forgiving Her

Ten years ago my mother committed murder.

She was 44 years old and living in a severely underfunded halfway house for mentally ill adults. I was 22 and like the rest of my family, unaware and completely disinterested in her whereabouts. Two decades of aggressive outbursts, hallucinations, long-term psych ward stays, court dates, and endless lists of medications we couldn’t name, wearied all of us and made it that much easier to pretend that my mother didn’t exist.

She was out of sight, out of mind, out of heart.

The resentment I held towards my mother started as a young child. A diagnosed schizophrenic, I spent most of my childhood watching her talk to people I couldn’t see, or cowering in corners hiding from monsters she believed wanted her dead. When she wasn’t sick at home, she was a patient in various hospitals across southern California, which I loathed visiting her in. Seeing her surrounded by adults who needed supervision was embarrassing and instilled a fear in me that I will end up just like her. I eventually stopped visiting.

As I matured her illness worsened. Completely naive of the subpar treatments she received as a patient, my family remained hopeful of a medical miracle. We grappled to understand why she failed to get better and found any excuse to blame her for her condition. Her sporadic use of drugs and alcohol, her failed marriage, even the fact that she was exceptionally brilliant–perhaps too brilliant–symbolized to us a weakness that could be fixed if only she had cooperated. Year after year, we thought of new excuses of why she remained ill and when there were no more to be made, we simply gave up.

Let her handle her own self, we said. 

The last time I saw my mother before her arrest was on my 18th birthday. She had stopped by the house for the usual routine of bickering with my grandmother over money for cigarettes. When she caught sight of me, she seemed genuinely happy but I wasn’t happy to see her. She looked disheveled in clothes that were too big for her small body and her face looked much older than I had remembered. After I sheepishly hugged her, she pulled a wrinkled birthday card out of the plastic bag she had always carried with her. I opened the card to a looped recording of her high-pitched voice singing the chorus from Stevie Wonder’s version of Happy Birthday–the song she always sang to me on birthdays she wasn’t hospitalized. I forced myself to say thank you as she smiled adoringly at her youngest child in my first day of adulthood. Never feeling a sense of closeness to my mother, her stare always felt like that of a stranger. As her eyes scanned my face I snapped and yelled, “stop looking at me!” Later that day, I threw the card in the trash.

I felt sorry for her.
Really, I felt sorry for me.

I learned of my mother’s crime less than one month after she was arrested. A random Google search of her name during a late night study session, revealed a police report detailing how she fatally assaulted an employee. I immediately felt an overwhelming sense of guilt that I didn’t know my heart could feel and all I could do was lay on the floor and sob. I cried for her safety as a patient of a flawed healthcare system and feared for her life in the hands of doctors who believe that rehabilitation comes in the form of a pill. I cried because her mother died just a month before, robbing my grandmother of the chance to see any possibility of her youngest child being able to heal. I cried because I thought of the family of the 56 year old woman whose life she took and if she had children, I wondered how they felt about losing their mother, too. 

I cried all night for her.

My mother was found not guilty by reason of insanity and will spend the rest of her days in a psychiatric hospital. Sometimes I think that if I had gotten over my resentment and instead learned to love all of her, including the sickness, I could have saved her. But like any situation in life, we cannot change the past and can only change our present selves. Learning this in my journey as an adult has allowed me to begin to love my mother completely.

Within African American culture, there is a history of silence and shame that prohibits frank discussions of mental illness. I share my story as a challenge to this and to encourage others to share theirs. I believe that when we do, we create a new black history–one that is built on having compassion and understanding towards those of our community that struggle with the disease so that we can all begin to heal.

Ten years ago my mother committed murder. At 32 years old, I am now ready to forgive her.

Uses of Black Transmale Anger

Early on in my medical transition, I experienced an incredible spike in my level of confidence. After my first dose of testosterone, I anxiously awaited the physical changes my body would experience and as it did change, my level of self-esteem changed with it. Every new follicle of facial hair or drop in the tone of my voice, fueled my ego and reminded me of the powerful joy of living my life as I had always imagined it to be.

As the months passed by and my body further masculinized, my confidence was slowly displaced by strong feelings of anger. My sense of pride became muddied by the societal expectations of black masculinity. Specifically, the racist assumption that black men are full of rage and prone to violence. This became extremely evident in the new ways my body was policed by others. Whenever I spoke up, asserted myself, or failed to make those around me feel safe through complacency, I became the physically threatening angry black male. This realization intensified my anger but I quickly learned to contain my rage in ways that I never had to before, lest I became the dangerous stereotype in which I knew that I wasn’t.

Beyond the unexpected racist assumptions of my identity from acquaintances and strangers, my personal relationships experienced their own type of transition. I remember when a friendly debate about politics with a friend turned into a tense disagreement. As prideful intellectuals, we both vehemently defended our beliefs but our differing views quickly turned ugly as I was taken aback with my friend’s reminder “that testosterone is really making you angry.” Although I wanted to inform my friend of the fallacy of her statement, the conversation ended quickly thereafter but not before I profusely apologized and shamefully agreed that perhaps my anger was displaced and unnecessary.

While I had already learned that as a black male I had little room to express anger in fear of the potentially harmful repercussions, what became even more clear to me is that as a black transgender male, I have even less room to be angry. Simply put, because black transmen have to deal with the unfortunate disposition of carrying the racist baggage of an assumed brute masculinity and the damaging myth of aggression as a result of synthetic hormone use, our expressions of anger and frustration are sometimes interpreted by others as inauthentic. In effect, preventing potentially healthy and constructive uses of anger in our on-going process of self-fashioning.

In order for black transmen to move past the limitations of this binary, it is important for us to recognize that our anger is indeed real and is possible to manage within a society that breeds hostility towards our existence. The angry black male that we are perceived to be, should not disavow the reality that is our personhood and humanity and we must seek out healthy ways to reject this distorted image of our identity. This means being aware of our feelings of frustration, rage and resentment and understanding the situations that can provoke those emotions. In other words, use your anger to discover yourself.

I am now almost three years into my medical transition and am still learning to navigate the boundaries of my anger with the process of self discovery. I found out that with exercise, a strong focus on my writing and the use of therapy, I can manage my anger even though it is not always easy. Unfortunately, my recent inability to find solid employment has catapulted me into a depression that is fed with emotional rage, where I sometimes lash out at my loved ones or rely on self-destructive vices to provide a false sense of calm. However, I always try to remain conscious of the root of my anger. This practice helps to direct future expressions of anger appropriately and away from the most vulnerable people in my life to prevent irreparable damage.

Everyday that I am gifted life, I continue to walk the tightrope of anger management. I tiptoe between intense moments of justifiable rage that attempt to spiritually debilitate me, while at the same time offer powerful revelations of emotional strength in the face of adversity. I have come to understand that whether or not one uses hormones, for black transmen, the mismanagement of our anger can impede on what could be a positive experience of self-enlightenment. The stress of racism coupled with the stigma of transition, can either be used as reasons for self-destruction or as powerful tools of self-actualization, with the latter being our most valuable option.