60 and Gay in Tech

Below is the video and text of a presentation I gave at Tech Inclusion in San Francisco on October 19, 2017

Today is my epic story and some techniques for surviving as a graying, gay person in tech.

I’ve worked in tech for close to 35 years and alternative newspapers before that. 

I was always interested in changing the status quo through media and associated myself with organizations that I thought at least accepted who I was.

When there was discrimination it was often subtle, but thanks to some early activism I was always reactive first.

Sorry mean people.

I survived with a technique I’ve come to call

“The Humanist + Activist Approach”

Here’s how it works and why it’s more important than ever today.

  1. If you haven’t noticed… blatant harrassment and discrimination is filling the news cycles.
    1. We’re in a dangerous political environment.  Those in power today are turning back the clock on many gains in civil rights. Just yesterday our vile, so called president was joking about lynching gays. Seriously
    2. This thinking is becoming normalized and will bleed into the workplace and discrimination will become even more OK.
  2. This may be hard, but before you react, take time to understand the experiences and point of view of the people you interact with. That’s the Humanist part.
  3. You DO have a right to be at the table without discrimination though. so, Don’t ever back down.- That’s the Activist part.

Humanist Stance

  1. Some Signs
    1. Subtle uneasiness. Always can tell that something is off that you can’t put your finger on it. This is when understanding that person matters.
    2. Still, a lot goes unstated. You can almost hear it “He’s old and doesn’t get it” “Gay people are different” “I’d rather not know about that thing I don’t understand” “we don’t have anything in common.”  
    3. Same thing we see in polarized politics. Nobody is listening or understanding the others outside of their bubbles.
    4. And many times what is going on doesn’t even have anything to do with you. Can you tell the difference?
    5. Through protege/mentoring relationships, You can get to know each other and find common ground. Especially as it relates to ageism.

Activist Stance

If I look back 40 years, my influences were usually older artists, writers and activists that had been through the Vietnam War resistance. They were my teachers and the classroom was challenging.

An example:  I worked for a leftist newspaper collective – much good was done by keeping many bad guys honest and staying defiant. The internal workings to make that happen were as antagonistic as what was being published.

I was also present for some of the early meetings for ActUp. The radical organization that stood up to the AIDS epidemic. The meetings were held in the basement of the gay and lesbian center in Greenwich Village. They were wild and passionate shouting matches to get to the very best way to fight for the attention for an epidemic of gay men dying by the hundreds and was being ignored. As they say, We went through it to get to it.

These experiences illustrated to me how similar tactics could be brought to new challenges.

It established my response to discrimination

To address AIDS we broke all the furniture in the room to be heard.

We challenged the government, the drug companies, the Catholic church. We made everybody uncomfortable to be heard.

We had ZERO tolerance and questioned everything.

At the same time we were emotionally beaten and grieving from the relentless death around us.

And THEN we had to get on with things.

In the middle of all that resistance and mourning, those of us that survived were gathering ourselves and starting our careers with peers that had radically different experiences.

The activist bent stuck for me and was an uncomfortable stance to bring into the workplace. Certainly one that didn’t resonate with many in the room who may have been getting away with keeping people marginalized before.

So that’s a conflict by definition. Ready to fight for what was right but with a tendency toward empathy and tenderness.

And now a new form of discrimination for me, AGE.

My friend Karen Wickre wrote in Wired Magazine recently.

The very people who might be affected by age discrimination often don’t want to bring it up—especially in Silicon Valley.” She got that right.

With something fairly new to me like age discrimination, I can miss these signals and it seems nobody wants to hear it anyway.

I know that there are plenty of signs that our industry is not considering the value that age and experience bring to an organization and often it’s not an easy topic to broach.

So let’s talk ACTION. If you find yourself losing power due to discrimination. Stop it in it’s tracks.

Maya Angelou said “If you let a bird nip at your ear, before you know it your whole head will be gone.”

As discrimination incrementally goes unchecked what was questionable before becomes normalized. The toxicity is multiplied.

So Stop it! When you see it. Stop it. You can try first with compassion and grace, but don’t back down if that doesn’t work.

Understand your boundaries, let them be known. Or … the bird will eat your head.

Let’s wrap this up with the following.

Try, try, try to find some common ground with people you work with who come from different experiences and points of view. It provides context and some humanity when observing behaviors and interacting.

From an activist side, Do not kid yourself, the assault on our rights are more aggressive than we’ve seen in decades. This is becoming the new normal again and requires vigilance in calling it out.

Working in Tech means that we’re creating the platforms for the future and with that comes a responsibility. If there is humanity and an adherence to principles in the room it will translate into the products we create.




Surviving As An Old in The Tech World by Karen Wickre – Wired Magazine

Everybody Needs Mentoring by Jeff Tidwell








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