Lesbian Spaces, The Final Frontier: A Report On The Lesbians Who Tech NYC Summit

Attendees outside the NYC Summit
Attendees outside the NYC Summit

Naming her organization “Lesbians Who Tech” was perhaps the boldest thing Leanne Pittsford did when she founded the group at the end of 2012. She didn’t hide the word within the label LGBTQ. She didn’t bury it behind the more acceptable term “women.” Instead, she and her team built a global organization using a word—lesbian—that is front and center in only a handful of other groups. And they did this while ensuring that the organization was highly inclusive of all women who identify as queer, including those who are transgender and gender non-conforming. They even welcomed male allies, dubbing them “Lez Bros” with their own t-shirt and everything!

This year’s NYC Lesbians Who Tech Summit, the second on the east coast, and the seventh overall, took place in the wake of news that shook the LGBT media world with the announcement that the fourteen-year-old site, After Ellen, would be effectively disassembled to become a shadow of its former self, with no staff and just occasional new content. Many of us wondered if the steady drip of the shrinking space for lesbians and queer women would ever cease.

And yet, here was Lesbians Who Tech, with 20,000 members in three years and summits that draw hundreds, not just in the US, but in Germany, Mexico, Paris and even one planned for Asia. The summits are organized similar to TED Conferences, with a series of ten-minute presentations by queer women in tech on a wide variety of subjects that include machine learning, electronic medical records, career issues, and digital campaigning and protest. Major tech and finance companies staff tables in a large room, giving out free swag and taking down information from job seekers. The whole idea of the Summit, of course, is networking for career opportunities. Get more lesbians and queer women in tech by doing everything possible!

On the Summit’s first afternoon, a group of forty mostly young queer women, all wearing identical t-shirts, took the stage to celebrate their success as recipients of the Edie Windsor Coding Scholarship. Seldom do we get to see a more racially diverse group. But this is the status quo for Lesbians Who Tech, where Pittsford ensures meaningful racial diversity by holding herself and her team to the goal of ensuring that fifty percent of the Summit’s speakers are women of color. Dismissing critics who distain “quotas,” Pittsford counters, “when I stop being intentional about this, I lose sight of my goal.” You want to see intersectionality in practice? Go to a Lesbians Who Tech Summit.

In spite of these incredible accomplishments, the paradox of lesbian space persists. On September 18, just days before the After Ellen announcement, three openly queer women—Kate McKinnon, Sarah Paulson, and Jill Soloway—won Emmy Awards for their work in television. In her much-quoted Tumblr blog post, former After Ellen editor, Trish Bendix, noted this victory in the face of her site’s own defeat and declared “somewhere there’s a disconnect.”

Similarly, we witnessed this at Lesbians Who Tech, when Megan Smith, the country’s Chief Technology Officer, and an open lesbian, talked about traveling back to the monochromic, cisgender male Silicon Valley after working in Washington with a diverse team and wondered, “Where is everyone?”

Inclusion at the top and in pop culture doesn’t seem to be flowing downstream. In fact, sometimes, as in the case of After Ellen and many other former lesbian spaces, it signals a kind of stifling assimilation. So instead of a feminist bookstore with a very large section of lesbian fiction and non-fiction and space for author readings and other events, you get a couple of shelves at Barnes and Noble or the mammoth selection at Amazon.com without the community access that we used to have at places like New Words in Cambridge, Mass.

What Lesbians Who Tech has accomplished in this environment is no small feat. While the organization has preserved the essence of the old 1970s model of what we then referred to as the lesbian feminist “women’s community,” it has done so without adopting the oppressive politics of the past that excluded and attacked trans women and did not sufficiently validate the full lived experience of lesbians of color as both lesbians and people of color.

When I raised the topic of lesbian space with a movement leader, she cautioned that it is a slippery issue and worried that my writing about it would bring out the TERFs (Trans Exclusive Radical Feminists) who define that space in the narrowest terms. But what we’re seeing instead with Lesbians Who Tech, with After Ellen and the with the still active site, Autostraddle.com, are lesbian spaces with open queer boundaries—vast improvements on the more restrictive real estate I grew up with as a young lesbian decades ago.

Leanne Pittsford urged those of us who attended LWT to “step up” and support our lesbian community institutions. She also stated that it was imperative that the tech industry--led largely by white, cisgender men--get more involved in LWT if it was really serious about diversity. But once again, we have to ask, if groups like Lesbians Who Tech become increasingly connected to those at the top of the industry, will that change the industry or will that change Lesbians Who Tech? What this three-year old organization is showing us is that, if these connections are managed well, assimilation is not a foregone conclusion.

Edie Windsor with her Coding Scholars
Edie Windsor with her Coding Scholars