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Michelle Stevens
Michelle Stevens

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Transgender & Tech

I have always known my entire life that there has been an inherent disconnect between my physical attributes and what my brain says should be there. Not unlike the experience that people have when they lose a limb. Their brains tell them that the limb is still there and it isn't.

I remember so vividly the first time that I actually discovered technology. In April 1981 the space shuttle Columbia made its maiden voyage. I was at Kennedy Space Center for the launch. I remember the tour of the visitors center and being so aw-struck at the machines which helped make that happen. I didn't care about the men walking on the moon, it was the tech that helped them get there that was so profound to me.

The first weekend back from the launch I spent an afternoon at the library reading everything I could about computers and tech. I'd found a book on the Basic language that I really loved. I decided to take all the savings I had at the time, about 9 dollars, wrote a letter to the publisher and asked them if I could buy a copy. I was 11 at the time. They were so impressed that they sent me my money back and a copy of the book for free and wished my luck on my journey.

Six months later I convinced my adoptive father to get me a TRS-80 Coco computer. OMG!! I actually owned a computer! I could actually build things with code! This was the most incredible thing in my life that I'd ever experienced. I never felt like I connected with people. In large part because I never liked my body and how uncomfortable it made me feel. No amount of therapy can change that, it's literally how my brain is wired during fetal development. A computer didn't care what I looked like or the sound of my voice. It just cared about the code that I wrote.

My TRS-80 was a 16k machine, with a tape-drive, and cables to connect to the TV. The first application that I wrote was a small version of Pac-Man. I still remember Basic to this day.

My luck got even better. My family knew some of the team that worked on the original IBM-PC down in Boca Raton. We were able to get our hands on an early model. OMG!! This was like winning the lottery for me. An 8088 - 4.7MHz CPU?!? Holy processor Batman!! 64k of memory? The things that I could do - Basic and now Pascal? The future was so bright.

In my junior year of high school the school introduced an AP Pascal class. I'd already been using the language for more than 2 years. I knew more than the teach and most of the other kids in the class. Except for this one kid who was just one of those typical assholes who IS smarter than everyone else in the room and he knows it, he also likes putting others down too. I had a very serious issue at home and spent the summer living with my aunt and uncle. Long story short, I spent that summer living as my authentic self. A few kids found out, this asshole in my Pascal class found out. He used my love and my joy, a computer, as a means to humiliate me in front of the class - a message flashing around the screen of ALL the computers in our schools computer lab of 25 machines, letting everyone who sat at one know that I wanted to be a girl.

I quit using computers until I went to college several years later. I left home under extreme distress. I put myself through school with ZERO family help. I got scholarships and loans and worked my ass off. The only time I ever touched a computer was to play MUDs or write papers for class. I hated computers. I also decided to live my authentic self in college too. Sadly another tragic event would happen and I stopped living as authentic self.

A few years out of school I would become good friends with a guy who quit his cushy Sr. Director position at HP, building printer drivers, to start an ISP. I started doing some side work with him, he taught me a freaking TON of stuff about Unix/Linux and networking. I devoured everything I could learn about tech. I lived in Portland, OR at the time and I think for awhile people thought I actually lived at Powell's Technical Book Store. I started building a great career in tech.

Buuuut...

There's this little thing going on in my brain. I was living as someone that I am not. It was mentally taxing. I always had this 'secret' about who I was. I was always terrified that someone would find out and think I was a total freak show. The amount of energy it took to hide this aspect of my life led to many bouts of depression. It led to 3 suicide attempts, two of which were nearly fatal. As I grew older the periods of depression started lasting much longer. They had very real impacts on my ability to work.

In my late 30s and into my early 40s I had finally reached a point where I wanted to take the risk and roll the dice to build a software company with a guy I was friends with. It was a failure but I learned a lot. However, going into 2012 / 2013 I had a major depressive crash that caused a 6 month hospitalization. I no longer believed in myself. I hated who I was. I thought everything that I learned to that point was totally worthless. I didn't think anyone would ever hire someone like me. I really thought my days in tech were over.

Until very recently that still rang true, that no matter how hard I worked I wouldn't ever get a seat at the table and help build things.

In 2014 I decided that I would not spend any more of my life begin wasted hating myself for how I was born. I decided that I would live my authentic self and try and pursue my passion for tech or at the very least say I tried.

When you're transgender and you start your journey later in life it's hard. Man is it freaking hard. Hormones can impact some 300+ systems in your body. Isn't that amazing? But to reverse those impacts takes a long time and costs a lot of money. However, before you can start the process you have to live as your authentic self. Which means that you're likely going to look like or feel like a drag queen. It sucks. It's hard. It's embarrassing and you tell yourself that the end-game is what matters.

Because my career has been train wrecked, I've given up trying to learn/retain skills for years at a time, I've bounced around in job types just trying to get back into the game. I remember interviewing for a Project Mgr job and the guy saying to me, 'if you were normal, I'd hire you' or another dude, 'is this a joke?' or people just not even bothering to call you back. You gotta work, so you keep going down the ladder until you find someone who'll hire you knowing that you're grossly over-qualified but you have to feed yourself. Which does more damage to your career and your self esteem.

In 2015 I was hired by a start-up, a few months after I got hired I told them that I was transgender and wanted to transition. I figured they were going to fire me on the stop, it'd happened twice within the last 18 months. Nope, they said great how can we support you. AWESOME! This is what I'd been hoping for. This was what I needed to be able to get back into my groove. What they didn't tell me was - there wasn't a chance they'd let me move out of the role I was hired for. When I pushed to move into a QA position, which I was qualified for, for 6 months I got told so much bullshit as to why they couldn't allow me to even start training my eyes started turning brown. In a company with 130 employees the VP of Tech had said that he couldn't allow me to start training with the QA team until he got permission from the CEO. Yeah, OK, whatever.

I finally quit after 2 years with them. I could see the writing on the wall. I moved to California. I regret how I moved here. I don't recommend coming to California without a job already in place. It is HARD being here. I got a job with a startup in Santa Monica. I've worked for a few bad companies but I've never worked in a more toxic place in my life. I also again experienced the bias that men have with transgender people. I took a lessor role in order to get into the door. I pushed hard to get myself onto the engineering team. They had space on the team and I had the skills necessary, at least at the junior / mid-level to jump in and contribute.

In fact, I helped formulate questions for the SRE interviews the CTO conducted. I sat in on the interviews and gave feedback in the hiring process. I was not officially on the engineering team. At one point I had submitted some Ruby code to show some of the progress I'd made in learning the language.

The problem was - find the square root of a give number without using any math libraries or external libraries to solve for the given number, and round two places. My solution was to use a binary search:

def sqrt(number, precision)

return 0 if number == 0
startv = number.to_f
endv = number 

loop do
  middlev=(startv + endv / startv)/2
  return startv.round(precision) if startv <= middlev
  startv = middlev
end

end

puts sqrt(8, 2) # => 2.82

I was so freaking proud of myself for finding this solution. I will admit that it took me about 4hrs to figure out how to solve this. But they'd had supposed 'software engineers' who couldn't solve this. Yet, no chance at moving to the engineering team.

The day that I got fired was one of the best days I've had in years. It led me to where I am now. But even though I love the company I work for now, even though there are lots of LGBT people working there, as far as I know I'm the only transgender woman that's open about who they are.

A few things that I want to share to guys and gals in tech about transgender people:

1) My being friendly doesn't mean that I am going to hit on you. I'm just trying to be friendly. It's OK if you find me ugly, distasteful, not someone with whom you want to be friends but PLEASE try and refrain from the looks you give off. Those little looks you give of, 'ugh this is gross' they wear on people. Life's hard man, try and not make it harder for people.

2) My boobs may be fake, my voice may be a little deeper than a 'cis' girl, but that doesn't mean that I'm dumb. Just because I don't have the title of engineer doesn't mean that I don't know anything about tech or can't easily understand if you take 5 extra mins to explain the thing.

3) I am scared to be in the room with you. Yeah, I really am scared. I'm trying to fit in socially and professionally. I'm trying not to screw anything up. If I make a mistake don't act as if it's the end of the world.

4) My wanting to be on the team doesn't make the team less by my presence. I'm bringing my talent, my passion, my ideas seen through a lens that's unique, and that's going to give you better ideas.

5) I am NOT going to fucking stalk you in the bathroom. EVER. I don't give a damn what you've heard on Fox news. I'm going into the bathroom, entering into a stall, doing my business, leaving the stall, washing my hands, and then GTFO. Being transgender doesn't make me a fucking sexual predator. Seriously, stop equating the two things.

6) I want to learn. If you don't want to help people learn, or you are anti-LGBT (transgender), that's perfectly OK. Please don't just ignore me. Just say something nice like - I really just don't have the time or energy to support anyone in that capacity. Dude, it's no shakes after that.

Being transgender in the workplace is hard. Being transgender in tech is even harder. Being transgender in tech when you have Impostor Syndrome, every single day I have to fight the urge to just give up and go do something else.

All I can ask is that you try and let your bias go towards transgender people. You may find a new friend and discover that we're normal people just living our lives and trying to do cool stuff, just like you.

Note: This was a single and un-edited write. I apologize if there are grammar or spelling mistakes. I just wanted to get my thoughts out without over analyzing them.

Discussion (1)

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akmadsen profile image
Alex

Thank you for this. It means the world