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Non-Binary in Tech

A necessary conference – but do we want to mainstream queer identities?

We identify as queer, have an analysis of gender and sexuality as power and are positive about women and gender non-conformists in tech” - this is what we say on our page about our ethos and ethics. I myself define as genderqueer, a non-binary identity, and have had some experience with queer or transphobia in tech (see the comments on this feature request for ISPConfig for example). So when I heard about Non-Binary in Tech, I thought “this is the conference for me”.

Having missed NBiT 2017, I didn’t have much of an idea what to expect. And the theme – magic – made me wonder even more what this would be about. So when I got to the conference venue on 28 July, I was still quite curious even though by this time the programme had been published.

In terms of age range, I clearly was one of the older participants. I’d guess the majority were in their 20s and 30s – at the end of their studies or in the early stages of their professional careers. But it was a good queer crowd.

I liked the mix of talks – some more based on experience and coping with discrimination at work or in your career, others more techie, without being too technical - so that a non-expert in the respective field would still be able to follow. By the way - “tech” here stood pretty much for anything IT.

Franzi’s talk on “Being a magical unicorn in tech - adventurous rides, cozy stables and fruitful meadows” was pretty much the opening talk and had some interesting reflections on dealing with discrimination generally – ie not limited to gender identity. They highlighted the need for supportive communities, both, outside and within tech, and helped found Queer Code London (other groups exist at the moment in Berlin and Yorkshire).

Chiin have a critical talk about AI, at the same time encouraging more non-conformists (as in, not white cis men) to get into AI to shape it and prevent the worst. While I’m not sure I agree, I enjoyed her talk and her permament sideswipes against cis white men ;-).

Jess’s talk on Debugging your emotions – what to do when code makes you cry was one of the highlights of the conference. They talked based on their own experience, but with useful tips on to get down to debugging and stop panic and a downward emotional spiral in difficult moments. I certainly am taking some ideas or coping mechanism back home with me.

Lunch was – to my surprise – free, and I enjoyed it in the sun on the green (or more yellow, given London’s “heatwave”) grass outside the conference venue.

The afternoon began with a presentation by Jo on “Interface incantations”, an interesting – and magically presented – primer on interface design. After a break came the closing panel on Empowerment, responding to questions from the audience. To me, this was certainly the lowest point of the conference, but maybe because it didn’t really speak to my needs. To some degree this turned into career advice in mainstream IT (or other) companies.

Following the conference there was an after-party, and I enjoyed talking and discussing with a range of non-binary people.

So, a big thank you to all the organisers and to everyone attending NBiT 2018.


Nevertheless, I left the conference with some questions and concerns.

First, while I do understand the need for sponsors (especially if you don’t want to charge for attending a conference), I felt uncomfortable with some of the sponsors. GitHub, even though now part of Microsoft, is probably the least problematic of the lot But Bloomberg Engineering? At Netuxo, we would not need to think twice to refuse a job for Bloomberg. Samsung? Another company involved in corruption (and probably not only in South Korea) and in the nuclear and military industries.

To paraphrase Austrian feminist Ingrid Strobl, “just being non-binary is not a programme”, and this gets to the core of my questions and concerns. What do we want? Do we want to mainstream our queer identities, and get accepted in the capitalist market of stratified targetable identities? In a way, the use of the term “non-binary” instead of queer or genderqueer can be interpreted as a step in that direction. It is “clean”, “aseptic”, free from any connotations linking it to its queer roots and any queer theories of power, marginalisation and exclusion. To me, genderqueer means more: a questioning not just of binary gender, but also of patriarchy, of capitalism and exploitation, of hierarchical forms of working (with their power relationships) and of private ownership of the means of production.

It doesn’t satisfy me to see more non-binary people working in technologies that are used to destroy our planet, exploit and control people (of whatever identity or gender) – to be part of the system that destroys us.

So, rather than making careers in mainstream tech, could we instead build alternatives? Queer and non-binary tech coops working for a better world? I feel lucky being part of such a coop.