Being Non-Binary in Tech

I wrote this poem autoethnography as a performance studies-based reflection on the talk I gave at Women in Tech Seattle on February 2, 2017.

I don’t belong here
Why did I come here
It’s a Wednesday evening in February
I fiddle with my iPhone
Crouch in a corner seat
And glance at the scrubbed white faces with white teeth
The other speakers file in, still early
Black women, Asian women, white women, a Korean trans woman, a white man
And me
Exposed brick walls meet tight gray carpet
Cucumber water suspended on a stand
A spread of Italian cheeses next to Indian-inspired hors d’oeuvres
I’m at Galvanize
A code school and coworking space in Pioneer Square
For people who can pay $21,000 for a 24-week web coding bootcamp
That’s not what I’m here for
A month ago
I applied to speak to their community on “gender and identity at work”
I’m here to give a five minute “lightning talk”
The tech industry and its endless women in tech events
And hollow diversity initiatives
I did this work for three years
Speaking out for women and queers in my tech company
Poking HR with my requests
Engaging in lunchtime conversations with my male colleagues
Giving them all of my true selves
I walked out one day
Coiled but relieved
I stopped believing in doing this
In Feminism Without Borders, Mohanty highlights the gaping problems with US feminism:
“Neoliberal, consumerist (protocapitalist) feminism [is] concerned with ‘women’s advancement’ up the corporate and nation-state ladder” (6)
This is not the feminism I will pour another ounce of energy into
Leveling the playing field is not enough
Let’s blow it up!

The speaker before me finishes
Telling us about her line of sexist male bosses
Who all still have jobs
Automatons producing misogyny
The audience of around sixty politely claps to her exit
I walk up to the front of the room
The white woman organizer smiles brightly at me
Encouraging me to begin
I grip the microphone in my left hand
And my iPhone with my evernotes in the right
Both of my damp hands shaking
I gird my arms firmly against my sides
And begin
I tell all the people in that room
I used to work with them in the field
I tell them I am trans non-binary
That I never felt welcomed
Of my free labor teaching management
about gender and racial equity
How I switched to design
And upon landing my first job as a designer
Was promptly fired by my manager
Because I told him I was trans
He had a hard time understanding
I was not going to be a good “cultural fit”
So I stopped thinking there was a place
For me in tech
Which is why I am leaving
Might never stop leaving

As I spoke
I see jaws open in surprise
Eyebrows arched in disbelief
Air sucked in and held
I quietly spat my ending sentence
Thanked everyone
And trotted off

Why did I come here?
To showcase my failure and uncertainty?
Performance is an act that brings something into being
I had no obligations to my ex-colleagues
But I wanted to bring my shadow story into being
Owning the stage for one night
“To operate within the matrix of power
is not the same
as to replicate uncritically relations of domination” (Butler, Judith)
I am an invited visitor-outsider
To this space I no longer feed
I was critical of their relations of dominations
And then they were too critical of me

Andrea Smith’s mentor, Judy Vaughn tells her
“You don’t think your way into a different way of acting;
you act your way into a different way of thinking” (Smith, Andrea)
I am trying to act my way
Into a different way of their thinking
Did they see me?
Diana Taylor speaks of performance as an epistemology
Sharing my small story
Is an act of transfer
A reflection of the culture they are swimming in

Halberstam suggests trying on
Failure as a way of life
My failure to be succeed in tech
Is a multi-faceted gem
It has stayed to become a teacher
Maybe I’m stupid for walking away from wealth and access
Halberstam, again:
“Stupidity could refer not to a lack of knowledge,
But to the limits of certain forms of knowing and
Certain ways of inhabiting structures of knowing” (12)

bell hooks taught us to see marginality as a site for resistance
Yet what does it mean for me to be on the margins
Of an elite bourgeois circle?
False marginality
Is not a strong argument
For pity

In my talk
I never mentioned my race
I am Chinese American
Asian Americans are well-represented
As Individual Contributors in tech
But are underrepresented
In management
I detest this pitting of people of color
Against other people of color
The world is not in black/white
As viral videos of police brutality
would have us believe
There is no room for “non-black people of color”
The term itself “non-black people of color”
Has been adopted by my Asian American
Communities in deference to
Black lives
Why do I accept my erasure?
In performance, there are always
Decisions of erasure
Why then, did I erase myself
In my own performance?



Butler, Judith. Gender trouble: feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2015. Print.

Foster, Susan. “Kinesthetic Empathies & the Politics of Compassion.” Susan Foster! Susan Foster! The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, Sept. & oct. 2011. Web. 27 Feb. 2017.

Halberstam, Jack. The Queer Art of Failure. N.p.: Duke U Press, 2011. Print.

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. Feminism Without Borders. N.p.: Duke U Press, 2003. Print.

Smith, Andrea. “The Problem with Privilege.” Andrea smith’s blog. N.p., 13 Aug. 2013. Web. 27 Feb. 2017.