The L in Tech

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A slightly different version of this article appeared in SF Weekly 

February 16, 2017

The Castro Theatre is about to be overrun by brainy lesbians.

An estimated 2,200 queer women with programming skills will soon attend the fourth annual Lesbians Who Tech + Allies Summit — four days of workshops, talks, and happy hours focused on strengthening a community that has power and wants to share it for the good of all.

Founder Leanne Pittsford conceived of the organization in 2012, in response to a lack of lesbian representation in the activist community that had gathered to dismantle Proposition 8.

“I found that the LGBT movement tended to be overwhelmingly male and white,” she says. “I was on the board of Equality California, and [I felt that] our niche was missing.”

Acknowledging that her work overlaps with broader feminist issues such as pay equity, Pittsford emphasizes that she sought to create an organization of “specific value” to the lesbian community. The impact of income inequality is felt more keenly when a couple is two women, and that is just scratching the surface of what makes lesbian reality a good starting point for discussions of equity and human rights.

“I lost sleep about our name, but I wanted to take back the word ‘lesbian,’ ” she says. “Ninety-seven percent of Google hits on that word relate to pornography. I wanted to honor our history and our future.”

Before establishing Lesbians Who Tech, Pittsford founded and led Start Somewhere, a design and technology agency supporting social service organizations. She knew firsthand that the tools of the digital economy need not be restricted to “brogrammers” and those solely interested in the bottom line. Although tech companies often position themselves as socially progressive, the culture of Silicon Valley remains largely white, straight, and male. Pittsford felt there were more lesbians working in tech than she was meeting in her work with either Start Somewhere or Equality California, and she wanted to help them meet one another.

After organizing happy hours in San Francisco and tapping the international lesbian geek scene online, Pittsford realized she was onto something big. The first LWT Summit in San Francisco in 2014 drew 800 people, and the organization now has more than 25,000 members worldwide. There have since been three summits in New York, and future ones are planned for Paris, Mexico City, and Singapore.

Lesbians Who Tech grew rapidly and organically because Pittsford kept asking members what kinds of programs were most important to them. While they liked happy hours, they wanted ways to help the next generation build tech skills and to increase visibility of lesbians working in related fields. As a result, the organization offers coding scholarships and programs such as “Bring a Lesbian to Work Day” — an opportunity for a mentor to be shadowed for a day by a young person interested in their career.

In 2014, the White House invited Lesbians Who Tech to help organize an LGBTQ technology summit. Led by the Obama administration’s chief technology officer, Megan Smith, the gathering focused on addressing complex societal problems with analytical tools.

“A lot of public data exists on the environment and climate, but it isn’t readily accessible,” says Google’s Lauren Joyce, whose White House group focused on climate change. Joyce emphasized the importance of “democratizing the data” as a means to support environmental advocacy efforts. How the broad dissemination of information might affect policy and ultimately make change on the ground remains to be seen. Still, the White House gathering served a democratizing purpose by acknowledging the role the LGBTQ community can play in bringing tech tools to service of the greater good.

Our current president is not likely to edit an issue of Wired — as Barack Obama did last November — and Lesbians Who Tech isn’t waiting for an invitation from the current administration. Rather, they are stepping up in the name of galvanizing the resistance.

Although the overlap of personal and political has been a consistent theme in past gatherings, the upcoming summit is particularly focused on how techies can advance progressive causes. “Technology + The Resistance” is ranked first among the topics the summit will address, and “Healing + Community” also makes the list. A recent announcement previewing the summit’s agenda didn’t mince words.

“After the election, we regrouped,” it said. “We reached out to leaders who are rising up and using tech to lead the fight on issues of reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, systemic racism and sexism, and more issues at the intersection of power and freedom.”

The keynote speakers hail from a range of organizations working at that intersection, from the National Center for Lesbian Rights and Planned Parenthood to NPR and Twitter. Madame Gandhi, a former drummer for British rapper M.I.A., will speak about music-making as an act of liberation. Another speaker, J. Bob Alotta of the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice, has titled her talk “Welcome to the Resistance.” Speaking at the Women’s March on Washington, Alotta invoked the human capacity for radical love, encouraging people to “step past the easy, the scripted, the societally sanctioned, the familiar, the safe notions of love, and let us choose the pathway to not only the greatest possibility but the greatest reward.”

The idea that technology can change the world for the better is part of the anti-establishment myth of the technology establishment, and that myth should be examined closely. But putting tools for economic advancement and social organizing in the hands of the historically marginalized might just lead to critical change. Lesbians Who Tech is helping redistribute the wealth generated by the digital economy and “creating value” for people who care about one another and the greater good, and that sounds utterly righteous.