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Cover image for Nevertheless, Fen coded and found their people.

Nevertheless, Fen coded and found their people.

sublimemarch profile image Fen Slattery ・6 min read

Hi, I'm Fen, my pronouns are they/them. I'm a nonbinary trans person, and although I'm not a woman, I'm writing this on International Women's Day about my experience in women's spaces. For most of my life, I thought I was a woman. Surprise, I'm not!

(Brief aside before we dive in: this post is not the place to learn about the basics of being transgender. If you're looking for those basics, I recommend this thread I wrote about Trans 101 or this short zine I wrote about pronouns).

When I started my career as a developer, I thought I'd feel at home in "women in tech" spaces, like meetups and conferences and women's organizations within my coding bootcamp. Participating in those spaces early in my career, though, was what finally made me confront the fact that I was trans.

Like lots of trans people, I started off by fiercely advocating for inclusion of trans people under the guise of "being an ally." Whenever conversations came up in women in tech spaces about what it means to Be a Woman, I was always the one to jump in and talk about gender. Whenever people were introducing themselves, I was always the one to encourage others to introduce themselves with pronouns, too. Whenever a new women in tech event was announced, I was always the one to politely ask if it would be a safe and welcoming place for trans women and nonbinary people.

I told myself I was doing all this to help others, but really, it was mainly to help myself. I felt not only out of place, but I felt this gnawing ache in my core telling me that something was Wrong. I didn't share the experience of taking comfort in my womanhood, and proudly being a woman against the external pressures of the patriarchy. I liked wearing jeans and hoodies, while others bemoaned not feeling comfortable wearing skirts in the workplace. I didn't want cute laptop stickers with the words "she" or "woman" or "girls" on them. I didn't want to share my experiences being treated poorly in the industry because I was a woman. I mean, sure, I was treated poorly in the way everyone else was, but something didn't feel right. I didn't like this feeling of being "one of the girls", taking refuge from the male-dominated industry. Yes, I liked the idea of feeling safe, but this didn't feel safe like I'd hoped it would.

When I first tested the waters of coming out, I didn't start by telling my wife or my friends or my family I was trans. Nope! I started by telling complete strangers at women in tech events. I introduced myself, saying I use they/them pronouns. I couldn't withstand the awful feeling anymore of being treated as "one of the girls" in those spaces, and hoped that if I started asking for different pronouns, it would stop.

Meanwhile, I kept using she/her pronouns and saying I was a woman in every other area of my life. Of course, my friends who were also in these women in tech spaces began to gently ask me if I'd like they/them pronouns in other places. I would panic and say something like "Uh, no thanks! I'm only using they/them pronouns here to remind people that non-women exist! I'd much prefer she/her everywhere else!" (All of that was a lie, sorry friends!)

Gender dysphoria is an intense state of distress as a result of the sex and gender a person is assigned at birth. Whenever I would share my experiences with being in women in tech spaces and talk about how incredibly uncomfortable and existentially Other I felt, my trans friends would gently suggest that what I was feeling was dysphoria. My response, unsurprisingly, was something like "Nuh uh! It's just that women in tech spaces suck! I'm not trans!" (Again, a lie, but I didn't realize it at the time.) My friends never pushed it, of course, but every time I'd return from a women in tech event and share how I felt, their gentle response was "That's dysphoria, friend."

As I write this, I keep returning to the feeling that I need to defend myself, that I need to cite evidence and science to prove to would-be jerks in the comments that being trans is real, being nonbinary is real, and that I'm real. And then I remember why I'm writing this. This isn't for you, cisgender folks, although I'm sure you're cool. This is for my fellow trans folks in tech, who feel alone, who feel othered and unwelcome. This is for my fellow AFAB folks who feel so damn uncomfortable in women's spaces, but have no idea why yet.

Sometimes I think it would be so much easier to just be quiet, to stop talking about being trans, to stop correcting people when they call me a woman. I'd fit in easier. I'd be treated like "one of the girls" in women in tech spaces. I'd get put on lists of "10 women you should be following this Women's Day." I wouldn't constantly be asked to educate people on the basics of being trans. I wouldn't have to justify my existence as a trans person, and prove that I'm real somehow.

But no. If I go back to pretending to be a woman, that dysphoria would hit me like a freight train. I'd still be educating people on the basics of being trans, just again under the guise of "being an ally". I'd still be having to prove that trans people are real to jerks on the internet. I'd still be doing all this work I do for trans inclusion.

And, let's be real, I still get incorrectly treated like "one of the girls" or "pretty much a woman, right?" in women in tech spaces. I still get incorrectly put on lists of "women you should follow" and have to find a way to politely correct whoever put me on the list. I don't want to be treated like a woman, to feel that dysphoria, to be in pain. But in our eagerness to create "women in tech" spaces, so many people have decided that if you're not a man, then you're a woman. And all women share some fundamental experiences, the same suffering. And if you're ever had those experiences, then you're pretty much a woman. If you've ever suffered for being "not a man", then you're a woman, right?

I've stopped participating in women in tech spaces almost entirely since coming out as a nonbinary transgender person. That doesn't mean I haven't tried to be present, though. Like I did when I thought I was cis, I'm still the one to ask "are trans women and nonbinary people welcome at your event?" I'm still the one to ask if there will be gender-neutral restrooms. I'm still the one to encourage everyone to introduce themselves with pronouns. I'm still the one to ask event organizers to not require legal IDs for admission, because many trans folks don't have legal IDs that match our names and genders. I'm still the one to criticize "women and nonbinary people in tech" spaces for treating nonbinary people like an afterthought, for treating us like "one of the girls", for not actually doing anything to make the space safe for trans people.

I've found my home in spaces aimed at LGBTQ+ people in tech. Where I'm not the token nonbinary person, fighting to be safe and seen. In spaces populated by queer people, I don't have to be loud, and I'm not seen as "Fen, the nonbinary person who teaches us all about trans stuff." Instead, I'm "Fen, who knows about accessibility and front end and making zines and giving talks." In spaces that do a good job of being safe and inclusive of trans people, me being nonbinary is boring. I like it that way.

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sublimemarch profile

Fen Slattery

@sublimemarch

Accessibility lead and front end engineer. they/them

Discussion

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"But in our eagerness to create "women in tech" spaces, so many people have decided that if you're not a man, then you're a woman. And all women share some fundamental experiences, the same suffering. And if you're ever had those experiences, then you're pretty much a woman. If you've ever suffered for being "not a man", then you're a woman, right?"

BOY DO I EVER FEEL THIS. Honestly in some ways -- I'd strongly prefer to be in LGBTQ tech spaces, but if not that, women (and non-binary, but let's all be honest: they're for women) in tech events often feel more hostile than general tech events.

 

Agreed. I've been to several women in tech spaces that have a veneer of inclusivity, but will treat the audience as if it's entirely composed of white women. This will lead to things like the organizers instructing the room on how to respond if "you" accidentally use a racial slur, or "you" misgender someone, as if the people who are harmed by these actions are outside the room. The women in tech space can have a very "just between us girls," feel to it that feels very middle-school-cliquey, with in groups and out groups, and I'm just not here for that.

I'm not a woman as in "yes she can!" I'm nonbinary as in "can you just let them get back to work?" There's a big difference there.

I have no idea how much sense this even makes. I just have a lot of feels today on top of a very long week.

 

I just don't go to events and when I do I don't speak to anyone usually! 🙃

 

that is also a very very solid solution haha

 

There's something I don't really understand here with regard to some points you've raised about women only spaces in tech, and hopefully, it doesn't come across as rude to ask.

I absolutely understand you underlining that you aren't a woman, you don't want to be referred to as one of the girls. What I don't understand then is why "whenever a new women in tech event was announced, I was always the one to politely ask if it would be a safe and welcoming place for... nonbinary people."

Are you saying you're asking to be included in an event that's designated as one for women only? I don't really understand why you'd do that if you don't identify as a woman. Or are you more saying that you were asking whether the event was more of an "everyone who isn't a man" event rather than a "women only" event as the two are conflated so much?

 

I'm not sure why you'd think I'd want to be included in a women-only space if I'm not a woman. Specifically in the context of that sentence, I was describing an action I did when I did thought I was a cis woman. And yes, now when I ask, it's to clarify who is actually welcome in the space, since most of the time organizers do intend to include everyone who isn't a man.

 

So I misinterpreted your wording, I thought you when you said: "I was always the one to politely ask if it would be a safe and welcoming place for... nonbinary people", you were REQUESTING that women-only spaces include non-binary people rather than asking for clarification as to whether they were intended to include them.

Possibly you're asking as to why I would misinterpret it that way in the first place. I've seen other non-binary people use terms such as "woman aligned", "lesbian", or even "non-binary woman" to describe themselves, so I know that some non-binary people are not necessarily women, but identify with and relate to womanhood. At the same time, everything else you said seemed to suggest you don't identify with womanhood at all, which was where I got confused. Obviously, you do not need to account for or defend any identity or viewpoint (including your own), I've just written that to explain why I thought you could want to be included in such a space as you said you were not sure why I would think that.

Anyway, I understand now what you meant after reading your reply. Thanks for writing back and explaining :)

 

Thank you for sharing this, Fen.

 

it took literally one "women in ____ tech" event when i started school recently to have it devolve into a complete bioessentialist/genitalia-obsessed mess, and put me off hyper-women-"inclusive"-spaces. same red flag to me as using the phrase "women and femmes" while trying to appear inclusive. guess it was good i got the lesson early on in my tech journey? veeeeery discouraging tho.

anyway, i'm so glad (and relieved!) to know i'm stepping into a world with people like you <3