To evaluate the effects of COVID-19 on the tech industry seems a bit meta.
We’ve spent half a year in quarantine and have completely transitioned to a technology-dependent existence, even more so than we already were. We’ve been tethered to our screens, new apps, Zoom, and social media. But the technology we so readily utilize is but one small sect of the tech world. In a dynamic existence, we’re compelled to consider how our most influential industries — tech being among them — have adapted to our new world. The queer tech community — a small community within an already-small community — has had to grapple with a transition to virtual-only events. Queer folks in general thrive off of social interactions, and queer techies are no different, networking, developing, and finding inspiration in their fellow queer.
Of course, the queer community is not unique in losing their ability to congregate in person. We’ve all taken stock in our apartments and homes in a way that, at best, feels uncomfortable and, at worst, feels suffocating and painful. We’ve been forced to rethink what sociability means in a time of isolation, and the entrepreneurs, investors, and all sects of the tech world have felt the adjustments. According to queer software engineer Rina Schiller, “Not much has changed for [some tech industries] because we’re all computer-based. But there’s so much in in-person organizing. It’s been a hard adjustment in that way.”
When we talk about our queerness, we’re immediately struck with the idea of community, of a social hub — a meeting ground of sorts where we converge upon a specific place in order to relish in our identities. There’s safety in these spaces: an ability to be ourselves and converse with like-minded individuals, finding inspiration in the breaking of boundaries. The same can be said of Silicon Valley and the tech corners of New York. “Meeting in person, hanging out, and socializing is very much a part of the queer community,” Sydney Lai, Venture Capitalist and Developer Advocate, says. “They’re our spaces to network and talk to one another. Socialization in our community means something different than it does in the straight community. We have a lot of collectivism in the queer community, and that’s the bread and butter of Silicon Valley: the meeting and sharing of ideas.”
It’s inherently more difficult for queer people to break into industries, and, once they do, it’s more difficult to move up in those industries. Tech companies are predominately comprised of cis-het men. Start-up culture and an increase of widespread acceptance of queer folks in the workplace helped aid in queer tech folks being more welcomed in the workplace, but it’s hard to replace acceptance with true camaraderie and shared experience. In that, Lesbians Who Tech and other queer tech hubs are second homes to those in tech.
“I joined Lesbians Who Tech because it was incredible to be seen and appreciated,” Sydney Lai, Venture Capitalist and Developer Advocate, tells GO. “[In 2013], it was okay to be out in the workplace, but it was hard to know how to operate within those worlds. It was nice to have camaraderie, especially in a majority cis-male industry.” Lai joined Lesbians Who Tech in 2013 at their start in Silicon Valley, before they became the national organization we know today.
It seems almost obvious, especially for a laymen’s understanding of tech, that this specific realm of the world would have no qualms transitioning to a virtual space. And in many ways, that’s correct. But what do we lose in the spaces in between?
“It’s already so isolating being a queer woman,” says Cassandra Vnook, Founder of LetzB, an app and event production company that curates inclusive queer dating, events, businesses, and other happenings. “We were hoping to launch in June, but Covid obviously pushed us back. We’ve had several virtual events. They’re business-oriented and intellectual, which is great, but I think a lot of queer people are missing the social party scene.” LetzB’s several virtual events have garnered them a growing following, but they, like the rest of us, are ready to get back to some sense of social regularity. No matter how well-intentioned or executed a virtual space is, it seems it cannot replace in-person interaction.
Schiller, a previous Lesbians Who Tech mentor, went to their first event years ago. At the time of their first event, Schiller was working at JP Morgan, a company that’s reputation perhaps precedes it. Upon arrival at the Lesbians Who Tech event, they felt comfortable and at home in a way that was remarkable and refreshing. The virtual events just didn’t seem to hold the same value. “There’s a certain energy you get from so many queer techies in the same room, a certain electricity and excitement that just isn’t the same over Zoom,” Schiller says. “The best part for me was always just being in the room.”
We’re dealing with the emotional upheaval of a pandemic, an election year, civil unrest, and quarantine. It’s been a taxing year, and having to network and find safety on a screen can feel hollow and remind us how far removed we are from one another. In-person meetings and hangouts can more easily foster inspiration because they are distinct reminders of our existence: the close proximity of skin, music playing, glasses clinking together, and laughter from nearby conversation.
No matter how flawless the transition, it’s hard to imagine a virtual world where the essence of community is truly captured.
Of course, the tech community hasn’t squandered development during the pandemic in lieu of in-person meetings. A virtual existence can leave us wanting, but it does remain useful. Apps like LetzB are launching, businesses have opened, products are being marketed. But when we lose in-person networking, we lose more than our ability to socialize; we lose money as well. According to Lai, “The [monetary] gap has increased tenfold for minority groups.” In a time of grave disparity and isolation, culminating with hesitancy on the behalf of angel investors and venture capitalists to write checks to get businesses off the ground, we have to assume queer folks — BIPOC queer folks especially — have had to halt their businesses and product development plans.
The queer tech community has adapted. It’s a natural role for queer folks to assume, one of malleability and nonconformity. But even in an industry that so readily transitioned to the virtual, one that seemed made for it, there’s a pull to re-enter normalcy, to re-acclimate to those safe spaces and begin to network and create with one another. As a group of people so reliant on community, our four walls can feel claustrophobic without the option to go to Cubbyhole on a Friday night or for the queer techie to hit a Lesbians Who Tech happy hour after work. That kind of solitude can feel even further isolating and cumbersome and leave us longing for a time that feels simultaneously close and far away. But maybe there’s a small comfort in that fact: No matter how far we lean in to this new virtual life, the pull to be together in person remains — an irreplaceable quality of the queer existence.