Coming Out and Opening Doors in the World of Tech
As an Asian man, I see myself somewhat represented in the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). However, as a gay Asian man (a “gaysian” ) that is part of the LGBTQ community, I don’t see much of myself represented at all and I’m hoping to address that as I embark on my journey to become a software engineer.
I just turned 37, and 8 weeks ago, I started my journey as a student in the Flatiron School Web Development Fellowship. I had been trying for over a decade to make a living as an artist, but I was languishing. Right before the pandemic closed down New York City, I applied for the fellowship, and after interviews and technical challenges, I was fortunate enough to be selected.
I’m grateful every day for this opportunity, and every week since the fellowship began, the debugging tools of Ruby remind of my unremarkable coming out story at the age of 33. On June 22, 2017, I had finally mustered up enough strength to call my parents, and after some small talk, I stammered, “I’m.. uh..I’m…… I’m gaaaAAYYYY” (it was a complete slow-motion moment, complete with a voice crack).
You were born that way
After what felt like an immeasurable eternity, my Mom sighed and said, “That’s okay, you were born that way.” I was shocked hearing those words come out of my Mom’s mouth, and what followed was a 2-hour long phone call where I finally told them about my partner Joel and our two little girls (rescue dogs to be exact, who completely rule our lives). During that phone call, we laughed more than we cried, and I had finally opened the closet door and walked out.
Open these doors
Flash forward to three years later, and I am opening more metaphorical doors. Every time our Flatiron School instructors demonstrate the use of Pry and Byebug (the Ruby debugging tools that allow developers to interact with code), they say “by placing a binding.pry (or byebug) in this section of code, we now have the ability to open these doors.”
“Open these doors” is a positive trigger for me. It brings me back to my coming out experience, and reminds me that another door opened for me to be a part of the fellowship program. As a result, I feel I have an obligation to open doors for others, especially being part of the LGBTQ community.
Where are the women? Where are the gays?
It is well-documented that white men, especially young white men, dominate the tech industry. On average, white men make up about 64% in the United States (worldwide, men account for 72%). In the United States, women are underpaid and disproportionately underrepresented, making up about 25% of all computer-science related jobs and only 14% in software engineering.
The numbers are even lower for women of color, who make up about 11% of the tech industry. In a July 2020 Stack Overflow poll of over 36,000 respondents, less than 8% of developers identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer. While the gender inequality in STEM fields has been extensively covered, the LGBTQ community has received little to no attention in the efforts to broaden representation and visibility in the STEM fields. In one study, it appears that LGBTQ undergraduate students have a 7% lower retention rate than their heterosexual peers to persist in STEM majors.
Why is this the case? Although great strides have been made regarding civil rights and societal acceptance, the LGBTQ community must still contend with all of the following:
- discrimination, racism, and oppression
- transphobia and homophobia
- socioeconomic barriers
- pay inequality
- pressure to remain closeted (more on this below)
- lack of support and resources to foster an inclusive environment
- toxic masculinity and heterosexist climates that promote stereotypical gender roles
- lack of awareness about LGBTQ issues amongst those in the sexual majority (heterosexuals)
Back to the Closet
In a STEM workplace, even LGBTQ individuals who are out in their personal lives find themselves going back into the closet at work due to stereotypical, heteronormative norms and a competitive climate. In a study surveying LGBTQ professionals in STEM fields, researchers found that there are “complicated negotiations of self for queer professionals,” and these individuals often find themselves living a double life.
Across all workplaces, and especially in STEM environments, there is often an unsaid expectation that your personal life should not overlap with your professional life. However, this is a struggle for LGBTQ individuals, because as Dr. Daniel Cruz-Ramírez de Arellano says, “it’s exhausting for some people to have to separate their work and personal identities in such a way… If people could bring their whole selves to the workplace, without any sort of reservation, not only were they happier, but they did better work.”
“If I’m the best in my field, it won’t matter that I’m also gay.”
In the same study, LGBTQ employees felt pressure to conceal themselves, because being forthcoming and open with their personal lives was regarded as unprofessional. To talk about being queer led to decreased prospects for promotions and advanced positions. Dr. Cruz-Ramírez de Arellano also recounted, “We also had participants saying, ‘If I’m the best in my field, it won’t matter that I’m also gay.’ It feels like you have to be the absolute best to counteract the fact that you’re gay. That resonated with me because I went through a stage like that.”
Perfection is Boring
It took me 33 years to come to terms with my sexuality, and for that duration of time, fear and insecurity were constant roommates. Those roommates moved out when I walked out of the closet, but they simply moved about a block away — just around the corner but not always in sight. When I received the news that I had been accepted into the fellowship program, my ex-roommates decided to make daily visits again:
- “You’re too old, all your classmates are going to be younger than you.”
- “You’re too dumb, you’ll never catch on to the material.”
- “You’re gay, people are going to find out and they’re going to judge the hell out of you.”
- “You’re ill-equipped and completely unprepared, what are you doing here?”
Our remote learning due to the pandemic has not been ideal, but it has brought about a surprising benefit for me. Since we are outside of the classroom, I found that I am learning code in my own space, my comfort zone, and I am simply too busy focusing on code to pay attention to those pesky ex-roommates. I’m full of flaws and imperfections, but so what? Perfection is boring.
Steps toward inclusion are being taken in the workplace worldwide, but in the meantime it doesn’t matter who is doing the coding, the coding is getting done. I am proud and encouraged by the diversity represented in the cohort. For me, our backgrounds allow for opportunities of innovation, broader development, and different perspectives in creating code.
Being part of the Flatiron School Web Development Fellowship, it is not lost on me that I’m part of a unique situation. Even though I am a man, with all the privileges afforded me, my cohort is extremely diverse, brilliant, talented, supportive, and the women outnumber the men. As the tech industry carries on into the future, my drive to be an agent of positive change and inclusion grows stronger everyday.
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