Like most industries, the tech industry would not be as strong as it is if it weren’t for the contributions of LGBTQ+ professionals to the field. There’s a long history of LGBTQ+ activism in the tech industry, from workers struggling for more inclusive workplaces to queer folks utilizing technology in social movements within and beyond the tech sector.
Considering the ways in which technology mediates our lives, undoubtedly there’s a history of queer identities intersecting with the development of technology, the internet, technological advances in reproductive care, and in all sorts of developments that disrupt outdated understandings of gender and sexuality. The tech industry in many ways promises the ability to re-engineer our world, something queer individuals have been struggling with for centuries.
LGBTQ+ Individuals and Technology
We hear it all the time that social media and technology, for better or for worse, has transformed the way that we socialize. That said, for many queer folks, technology has offered one of the few ways through which folks can find a community, develop their identities, and beat isolation in an otherwise heteronormative world. Technology has helped mediate queer identities and construct LGBTQ+ communities through:
Creating online queer communities that provide information and advice to LGBTQ+ folks
Serving as a tool in LGBTQ+ activist movements
Offering a space to explore and develop one’s identity
Someone who grew up in a rural area or in a context where they may not have felt safe being openly LGBTQ+ may have turned to the internet to find a community. Rachel M. Schmitz and Jennider Tabler explain in their piece, “Here and Queer in Rural American,” “Our awareness of queerness as rural-residing youth was burgeoning, but limited to depictions in popular media, such as Will and Grace.” But with the introduction to the internet, suddenly there was a “new world of easy access to knowledge and social connections previously unimagined.”
The internet offered everything from information to community to visibility for queer individuals. From threads about pronouns to anonymous chat rooms, the internet has fostered spaces where queer folks can share experiences, advice, and ask questions without the fear of potential violence. Search histories can be deleted and one can go on their way with often greater knowledge than what is offered at school or from medical professionals.
Equally, the transnational aspect of the internet cannot be underplayed. Folks who find themselves in political contexts like the United States, where the conversation around queerness is either non-existant or actively criminalized, the internet again may offer everything from community, visibility, and reassurance for queer folks who may otherwise feel isolated or endangered.
The internet and LGBTQ+ activism
The internet has been an organizing space for decades. Whether it be the terrain for campaigns like “It Gets Better,” or solely a space for hilarious pride month memes, it’s a crucial battlefield for the LGBTQ+ movement. This dates back to the 1970s and 1980s when the early bulletin board servers (BBS) “provided an anonymous place to explore sexuality, share ideas, and even organize political movements.”
Most notably, in the 1980s, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP, an international activist organization that organized to end the AIDS pandemic, utilized technology to aid their organizing work. ACT UP made use of early online bulletin boards, email lists, and other digital platforms to organize and disseminate information, coordinate actions, and communicate with their broad membership base.
In the 1990s, online bulletin board services were one of the main ways the international AIDS community remained informed and organized. As explained in Stephen E. Stratton and Sarah Barbara Watstein’s “The Encyclopedia of HIV And AIDS,” these bulletin boards “constituted and fostered the emergence of a new kind of activism.” They became a platform for specialists to share information among clinicians, patients, and individuals who were knowledgeable about AIDS and its research.
At that time, a lot of independent research was conducted because many LGBTQ+ folks were “dissatisfied with the lack of progress in AIDS research, [thus they took] it upon themselves to learn the basic science and engage credibly in the ongoing dialogue on AIDS therapies.” These online platforms played a significant role in pressuring politicians to take action, and in shaping the agenda for the development of AIDS treatments.
Today, the internet remains a crucial resource for queer folks from promoting visibility, to building online communities, to research and political organizing, it’s a tool whose importance to LGBTQ+ activism cannot be underplayed.
Technology and exploring one’s identity
Technology has offered a landscape by which individuals can escape the bounds of the gender binary and heteronormative expectations and develop their identities through the digital sphere. Video games and music production softwares are two areas that have proven useful to queer folks and gender performance.
For many, video games offer an escape from our daily routine and into fantasy worlds unmediated by the contemporary bounds of modern life. However, in many ways that “escape” may actually be an opportunity to connect to something different. The digital avatar becomes an alternative way to express oneself.
According to a recent survey conducted by Nielsen Games, “LGBTQ+ gamers are 29% more likely to play role-playing games and 54% more likely to play simulation games than the general population.” This is undoubtedly because of the space granted to players to perform alternative parts of themselves, explore their identity, and be something possibly outside the limitations of heteronormative life. Nielsen explains that, “For LGBTQ+ gamers, gaming isn’t just about winning and losing, it’s about being all that you can be.”
Many LGBTQ+ artists have utilized music production softwares to explore their gender through manipulating and transforming the pitch of their voices. In this sense, vocal modulation features have become a less invasive way to achieve voice feminization. Sessi Kuwabara Blanchard explains this concept so clearly, “SOPHIE’s stunning new album, OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES, amplifies this transsexual spirit of self-engineering by using sound as artistic flesh for surgical operation.”
Whether it be the internet, computer softwares, or video game avatars, technology has mediated opportunities to explore our queerness, perform non-normative identities, and disrupt the bounds of heteronormative life. And using technology for reengineering the world remains an ever expanding frontier.
The History of LGBTQ+ Inclusion into Tech Workplaces
LGBTQ+ folks have long since been on the front lines working for more inclusive workplaces in the tech industry. This timeline offers a general look into LGBTQ+ inclusion into workplaces as well as some tech specific activities that mark big tech as one of the few industries that’s been relatively LGBTQ+ inclusive throughout history.
1953: President Eisenhower signed an executive order banning LGBTQ+ individuals from serving in the federal government. The reasoning was simple: in the midst of the Cold War, the US Government needed to strengthen national security, and LGBTQ+ individuals would obviously threaten it. This widespread discrimination towards LGBTQ+ individuals in this era has become known as “The Lavender Scare,” and in many ways sets the stage for workplace discrimination that continues today.
1960s and 1970s: these years were a period of unrest in the United States, with big activist movements from the Civil Rights movement to the Black Power movement. Queer organizing was no stranger to this period of political protest, with LGBTQ+ groups organizing against discrimination by law enforcement and businesses. There were sit-ins at establishments that refused to serve queer folks and, of course, the Stonewall Riots, a series of protests led by trans women of color in New York in 1969.
1980s: marked a period of harsh discrimination towards LGBTQ+ folks as a result of the AIDS crisis that led to the death of over 100,000 individuals between the years of 1980 and 1991. Because of ignorance surrounding the transmission of AIDS, many LGBTQ+ individuals were terminated from their jobs. In the 1980s, we saw queer organizing within and beyond workplaces.
1986: Apple became one of the first major corporations to offer equal benefits to same-sex partners.
1990s: saw the growth of Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) for LGBTQ+ employees. ERGs were initially started by workers of color in the 1960s to address workplace discrimination and to increase employer focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Following their lead in the 1980s and 1990s, LGBTQ+ employers started ERGs that “expand beyond race-based groups to include groups based on gender, sexual orientation, and disability.”
2002: big tech was well represented in The Human Rights Campaign’s first “Corporate Equity Index” that examined employee benefits, workforce protection, inclusive company cultures. In 2002, Apple, Lucent, Intel, Avaya and Xerox all earned 100 percent ratings, reflecting well on the industry’s core values.
2015: tech companies from Adobe to Zynga made up 39 of the 200 companies that signed onto an amicus brief that urged the Supreme Court to invalidate Proposition 8, the California law banning Marriage Equality.
2020: the Supreme Court ruled on Bostock v. Clayton County asserting that workers cannot be terminated based on their sexual orientation.
The struggle for LGBTQ+ inclusion in tech workplaces has been one marked by years of struggle. On one hand, the tech industry in many ways has been a pioneer in supporting LGBTQ+ inclusion and gender diversity in the industry. On the other hand, there’s still immense work that the industry needs to do in order to create more inclusive workplaces for LGBTQ+ tech professionals.
LGBTQ+ Activism in the Tech Industry Today
LGBTQ+ activism in the tech sector continues with a sense of urgency and dedication to building intersectional movements that expand from the fight for inclusive workplaces to a broader struggle for social justice. In recent years, we’ve seen the establishment of LGBTQ+ inclusive non-discrimination policies, workshops on utilizing correct pronouns and inclusive language, gender neutral restrooms, and sensitivity and bias training implemented at many tech companies. Beyond that, we’ve seen efforts to secure resources to make tech education accessible to marginalized communities.
Look out for LGBTQ+ tech organizations such as Lesbians Who Tech, Trans Tech Social Enterprise, and Out in Tech which continue to grow across the country and around the world. These organizations have been established with the explicit purpose of supporting LGBTQ+ workers, creating networking opportunities, conferences, and mentorship programs that support visibility and inclusivity for LGBTQ+ tech professionals. Their work should not go unnoticed!