Pride at Work

Queer Tech: Our Stories, Heroes, & History

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of this post, you should know it comes with its own soundtrack. Tune in and turn it up – way up.

How’s that sound? Shoulders starting to shimmy? Good. Now, let’s get down to business.

Do you agree that, for the most part, technology used to be something we only really thought about accessing at school or work? While it certainly continues to take center stage at work (especially in our line of work), today we don’t just find tech at our desks. It’s on our screens, in our hands, on our wrists. Nearly everyone has a relationship with tech in some form or another: social media, streaming services, Zoom – most of us can’t even hitch a ride without asking our tech to hail it for us. Tech is everywhere, and as a society, our digital existence is thriving.

So, who do we have to thank for keeping us connected to our loved ones, delivering munchies to our doors, and expediting our news and entertainment? Queer people, of course!

In honor of Pride, Automox would like to thank the queer contributors, innovators, activists, and technology trailblazers who influenced the technology we use today. Here to chat about queer tech heroes and how they discovered their own place in the tech industry are Tré Clay, Lex Chrisbacher, and Jon Levenson.

Tré Clay, When he’s not navigating the world of social media, you can find Tré in a sushi restaurant gabbing about pop music and The Real Housewives.

Lex Chrisbacher, On most days, you can find Lex grabbing virtual coffee with folks across the company, sending way too many Slack messages, and playing roller derby.

Jon Levenson, Jon's addicted to discovery, thrives on collaboration, and has a passion for sharing great stories.

What’s your backstory? How did you get interested in tech/end up at Automox?

Tré: After college, I started in the agency world and quickly got burnt out. Shuffling between 11 brand voices in a single day, never really being “off work,” and relentless micromanaging weren’t for me. By the end of my two short years in the agency world, I was having almost daily panic attacks and was ready to give up on my career as a social media manager entirely. As the vaccines rolled out last spring and things began to open back up, I decided to bartend until I found a job to check all of my boxes. About three months into this journey, I saw a TikTok about the benefits of working in the tech industry. The next day, I was browsing the jobs section of LinkedIn and came across Automox’s posting for a Social Media Manager. I didn’t have much confidence that I would be qualified but lo and behold – here I am.

Lex: Similar to Tré, I joined Automox after spending years in a work environment that clashed with my well-being. After dreading work day after day for way too long, I knew it was time to find a role at a company that embraced my strengths and empowered me to thrive. That was Automox.

What a lot of people might not know is that my partner is on our Talent Acquisition team. While I was searching for my next opportunity, I watched her learn and grow at a company she loves. I knew it was exactly what I was looking for, so the second the opening came I jumped right in! We actually got married in early April. I don’t know if we were the first Automox wedding but I think it’s safe to assume we were the company’s first April Fools’ Day wedding.

Photo credit: @waybackwedding on Instagram

Jon: Aw, I love that, Lex. You know, sometimes I still don’t think I’m actually supposed to be here. It’s like I was admitted to a club I never knew I needed to join. I was an actor for nearly two decades in Chicago, New York, and LA. About ten years ago, my family went through a sort of “all-hands-on-deck” moment and I didn’t have the bandwidth to work the way I had been, so I turned to writing as a way to stay creative. I discovered I loved writing more than acting – mostly because I didn’t need anyone else’s permission to do it. I applied to work at Automox because I loved the professed culture and core values. Discovering that those values aren’t just lip service has been a delightful surprise. And as an openly gay member of the team, I felt immediately accepted (that hasn’t always been the case).

How has tech influenced your ability to connect with queer communities or outlets?

Tré: In the broader sense, technology has given all of us the ability to find community in ways that weren’t possible before. I came out at a really interesting time. Public opinion was beginning to shift in favor of gay rights more than ever and social media was in our hands 24/7 for the first time. Almost everything I learned about being gay throughout my coming out, I learned from LGBTQIA+ blogs on Tumblr. Ten years on, it’s hard to imagine that process without the presence of technology. And Lady Gaga.

Lex: As a queer person from an Arizona suburb, I’ve had to figure a lot of things out on my own. It wasn’t until I moved out of my home state that I really connected with a queer community, so in the interim, I had Tumblr and other weird corners of the internet.

My story isn’t unique. In a country where so many schools are without inclusive sex education, pop culture lacks authentic and intersectional LGBTQIA+ stories, and mainstream fashion is still largely entrenched in the binary — the internet is often the only place where you can discover what it means to be you.

Jon: Agreed. If it weren’t for tech, I don’t know if I’d ever have met my husband. I was so over dating in LA. In fact, I had a one-way ticket back to New York. But this super-smartypants, handsome lawyer from Long Beach was DMing me on OkCupid. We chatted for weeks before we went for a drink. By the time we met, I knew I was going to meet a person of substance. I don’t think I would have felt half as comfortable walking up to the table where he sat had I not already gotten to know him, even just a little bit.

What has been one of your greatest challenges as a queer person in the workforce? And/or one of your greatest successes?

Tré: There’s always that initial fear in wondering what kind of people you’re going to be working with and how they feel about LGBTQIA+ people. Learning that I have the right to be comfortable and safe in any workplace, just as much as any other person, has definitely been the greatest challenge. No one is provoking anyone simply by existing as a queer person. My greatest success would be the confidence that comes from learning that.

Lex: My whole adult life, beginning in college, I’ve been told which aesthetics are professional and which aren’t. It turns out there are rules about every inch of our bodies from hair to heels, for lack of a better alliteration. Not to spoil the ending, but professional dress etiquette often reinforces cishet cultural hegemony and conceals anyone outside of the status quo.

It has taken years for me to understand what being “visibly queer” at work means and actively choosing that version of me. While I still catch myself straightening up in certain environments, I’m getting more comfortable embracing my queerness in the professional world.

Jon: I’m inspired by your responses to this question, Tré and Lex. At times, I still feel like I’m keeping aspects of my personality locked up – not that that’s at all how I want to present myself at work. But I guess I don’t want to come off as “too much” for people, you know? Back in the day, queer people lost their jobs if anyone found out about their identities. Though that’s no longer the case, sometimes I feel like there will be some hidden consequence of being myself at work. So, when I share bits of my queerness with coworkers, it’s a much-considered decision. The reaction from coworkers here is almost always the same, though: utter acceptance. My hope is I’ll feel that acceptance so often that letting go of the conscious effort to monitor my queerness will become even more of a casual reflex, second nature.

What queer tech hero from history do you wish you could meet? What would you ask them?

Tré: I would like to meet Joel Simkhai, Dario Fazlic, and Scott Lewallen, the founders of Grindr. I would simply ask them, “Why?”

Lex: There are so many, but Sally Ride is very high on my list. Ride is an astronaut and physicist best known as the first American woman in space and the youngest American astronaut to travel to space. As if breaking ground for women in STEM wasn’t enough, she is also the first openly acknowledged gay astronaut.

Ride continued to pave the way for girls in STEM after her retirement from NASA. She and her partner Tam O'Shaughnessy founded Sally Ride Science, an organization focused on STEM education for elementary and middle school students with a specific focus on girls. She and O'Shaughnessy also wrote six children’s books on space travel. Oh yeah, and she was mentioned in Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” – tell me that’s not incredibly cool.

Jon: In my previous life as an actor I was a part of the Broadway and touring casts of the play The Normal Heart. I encourage everyone, LGBTQIA+ or not, to read it. We owe a great deal to the author and activist Larry Kramer.

In the play, Larry wrote the following:

Turing was dubbed the father of modern-day computing. He was a cryptanalyst who invented the code-deciphering machine that helped defeat the Nazis in WWII. After the war, he continued to invent other types of AI, essentially carving out a path for modern machines. Tragically, in Turing’s day, England (like many countries at the time) instituted laws against queer people. So, even though he was a major war hero, he underwent public trial, lived under governmental surveillance, and was chemically castrated. At 41 years old, this hero took his own life. If he hadn’t, who knows what else he could’ve accomplished?

Who inspires you today?

Tré: Taylor Swift. (Watch this to find out why.)

Lex: I’m inspired by the community-builders, question-askers, and envelope-pushers in tech. Arachnologist Lauren Esposito is one of those people. Esposito is the co-founder of 500 Queer Scientists, a campaign aimed at creating visibility for LGBTQIA+ people and their allies working in STEM. She launched the movement after learning that about 40 percent of LGBTQIA+ scientists are not out in their workplaces. She is also the world's ONLY expert on scorpions. SCORPIONS!

Can you recommend opportunities or resources for queer youth or anyone interested in tech to build their skills and community?

Jon: Luckily, there are many resources for queer professionals and LGBTQIA+ youth who are interested in tech (or simply building community). One of my favorite organizations is PowerOn. The group distributes tools and technology to homeless, isolated, and disadvantaged LGBTQIA+ individuals across the country.

Here’s a list of a few more truly excellent queer resources:

Lex: One of my favorite events every June is the Lesbians Who Tech Pride Summit! There are in-person events hosted in a handful of cities but most of the keynote, breakout, and networking events are virtual (and free). It’s an amazing opportunity to connect with other LGBTQIA+ women, non-binary, trans*, and gender-nonconforming professionals in the tech world.

Tré: In a more general sense, I would say that networking with LGBTQIA+ people is important in so many ways. Many cities have organizations such as an LGBTQIA+ Chamber of Commerce that are a great place to start for more formal networking. What worked for me was just getting to know a lot of queer people of all ages, career paths, and backgrounds. I got my social media internship at the end of college because of a gay guy that I knew socially. I literally owe my entire career to the special way in which queer people look out for one another.

What would you like to say to young professionals in the queer community?

Tré: Make your own rules – if something isn’t working for you, change it. You know what you need better than anyone. Also, fake it ‘til you make it. The best way to learn and grow is by jumping in and doing the work. Lastly, be open to criticism but consider where it’s coming from before you take it to heart. You will encounter people who are difficult and want to hold you back. They will be loud and may even have power over your situation. In the grand scheme of things, that’s just some person. Ignore them, stay focused on what you want to achieve, and you’ll get there. Even if you have to re-route a couple times.

Lex: Don’t stay in a situation that hinders your growth! Find a company, team, and manager that not only tolerate, but celebrate who you are as a person and a professional. The rise of remote and hybrid work has blown the doors off of corporate norms and there are so many more options within reach than ever before. Fill your network with smart, supportive people and never, ever settle.

Jon: Yes. And do your best to cultivate the ability to listen to your gut. I think, as queer people, we’re used to hearing that something we say, do, wear, or believe is wrong. With all that noise, it’s easy to lose sight of your inner voice – that indicator of true north you hear in your heart that sets you apart. Learn to express your thoughts – even in a room of naysayers, especially in that room. That idea you’re afraid to share or that thing that someone once said was an oddity or weakness is likely the very source of your brilliance, creativity, resolve, or inventiveness. Grow that voice, share it. Invite others to challenge it. The more you do, the more likely it is you’ll believe in yourself. And when you’re armed with an earned belief in yourself, there’ll be almost no limit to what you can achieve.

Pride at work and beyond

To conclude, we want to wish every queer person and ally a happy pride month. Celebrate how far we’ve come and ready yourself to continue the good fight. As we mentioned earlier, there’s something very special about the way in which queer people look out for one another. We have to have each other’s backs. Do your queer friends and family a solid today (and every day) by thanking them for being there for you. We wouldn’t be where we are today without the LGBTQIA+ community.

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