067: Tech in Transition with Ashanti-Mutinta

Episode Sponsored By:
Support for this episode of the Greater Than Code podcast comes from the O’Reilly Fluent Conference. Be part of what past attendees call “a great center for modern web development and disruption,” and “the best place to see the current state of the web.” Fluent comes to San Jose June 11 to 14, 2018. Use discount code GTC20 to save 20% on your Gold, Silver or Bronze pass. Learn more at fluentconf.com

Panelists:

Rein Henrichs | Jamey Hampton | Coraline Ada Ehmke

Guest Starring:

Ashanti-Mutinta: @0x424c41434b

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Support us via Patreon!

Show Notes:

01:09 – Ashanti’s Superpower: People say they’re funny on Twitter!

02:37 – Having Dialogue and Engaging with Others on Twitter

07:42 – Finding Safe Online Community Networks via Social Media Platforms

16:13 – Making Platforms Safer

18:06 – Perspectives on Blocking

25:05 – Perspectives on Real Name Policies

29:59 – Gender Identity Education

36:57 – Transitioning in While Working in Tech

Reflections:

Rein: Listening and learning about trans experiences.

Coraline: Taking care of how we are presenting ourselves to the world.

Jamey: The act of sharing and receiving information as a give and take.

Ashanti: Conversation flows much more freely when people are in safe spaces.

Transcript:

CORALINE:  Support for the Greater Than Code podcast comes from the O’Reilly Fluent Conference. Be a part of what past attendees call a great center for modern web development and disruption and the best place to see the current state of the web. Fluent comes to San Jose June 11th to 14th, 2018. Use discount code GTC20 to save 20% on your Gold, Silver, or Bronze Pass. Learn more at FluentConf.com.

Hello and welcome to Episode 67 of Greater Than Code. I’m Coraline Ada Ehmke, one of the panelists today, and I am happy to be here today with Rein Henrichs.

REIN:  Good morning. And I am here with Jamey Hampton.

JAMEY:  Thank you. And I am very happy to introduce today’s guest, Ashanti. Ashanti is a Rust and functional programmer/enthusiast. They’re interested in using software to target fascism on the web. And they’re also interested in intersections of social justice with tech and how tech can be a good vehicle for this. They’re a non-binary person of color whose main interests out of technology include social justice that has intersections for all oppressed people. Welcome, Ashanti. Thank you for coming on the show.

ASHANTI:  Thank you for having me.

CORALINE:  All of your interests align with our interests and goals so well. This would be a great conversation. So, really looking forward to digging into the meat of it. But we have to follow our tradition here on the show and start off by asking you: what is your superpower and how did you discover it?

ASHANTI:  My superpower, I would say, [inaudible] that I’m a bit funny on Twitter. That kind of works out in my favor. I discovered it because my brother discovered it, actually. So, I guess all [chops] go out to him.

JAMEY:  It works on me. I follow you on Twitter.

ASHANTI:  Thank you, thank you, thank you. Sometimes I think it can be a liability because I’m on it a lot and I sound really angrier than in person. I meet people in person and they’re like, “Wow. I thought you’d be way more angrier than you come out.” I was like, “Do I really sound that angry?” But I think I’m just okay.

CORALINE:  I get the exact same thing. When I first met my girlfriend, she was like, “From Twitter I thought you were really militant. But you are just so kind and gentle.” And I’m like, “Yeah. I’m a nice person. I just have opinions on the internet.”

ASHANTI:  Yeah.

JAMEY:  Capital O, Opinions.

CORALINE:  Yes.

ASHANTI:  It’s the best place for it. I like the platform because it exposes us to a lot of different ideas and just a lot of people that think the same thing as I think. And I do adopt this community. Like, I haven’t met those people before. You just adopt this community of people who have like-minded ideas. It’s pretty great.

CORALINE:  On the last show we recorded, we talked about Twitter briefly. And one of the point that came up was a question of, how easy is it to have a dialog on Twitter? Because I think in your case and in my case and other cases that we could definitely point to, we tend to state our opinions pretty strongly on Twitter. And I think some of that is just the form factor of the medium, right? It doesn’t allow for a lot of nuance in a given tweet. So, in your experience, is it possible to have difficult conversations on Twitter? Or is it more a vehicle for broadcasting your opinions and just finding people who agree with you?

ASHANTI:  Having dialog on Twitter can be difficult at times, because – I mean, if you’re talking to somebody in real life you have all of those other elements of body language and all these other visual cues and they get the inflections in your voice. So, people are able to grasp what you’re saying much more strongly. With Twitter, it’s just text, right? So, you remove all of those elements and it becomes much more difficult to express the point that you’re making, pointblank. I would think Twitter is much more easier when you’re talking to people who have like-minded ideas, I think. But if it comes to talking to somebody who might believe something much more different than you, I find it’s very difficult in that sense because I don’t think you’d be able to communicate as effectively as you would do if you’re talking to somebody in the personal sense.

CORALINE:  I think one thing that Twitter is good at is if someone engages with me on something that I’ve tweeted, I do have the ability to click on their profile and go back through their tweet history and get a sense of, okay, where are they actually coming from? Who are the people that they’re retweeting? Who are the people they’re following? What have they said in the past? And so, we can mine for some context. And that’s something you can’t really do in real life. You can’t say, “Oh, what other conversations have you ever had?”

JAMEY:  That’s a really good point. Like, I find Twitter sometimes difficult to be like, “Is this person engaging with me in good faith or not?” And I do that. I go to their profile and see what kind of stuff they post to make a deduction about that. That’s a good way to think about that.

ASHANTI:  Yeah, it’s a good way to filter because at times, I’ll say something about how much I don’t like Justin Trudeau’s current stance on promises that he breaks towards the First Nations, right? So, sometimes I’ll get retweeted by people at the right and they’re like, “Yeah, Justin Trudeau’s terrible.” And I’m like, “I don’t think I really believe in the same thing you’re believing in. And you think I believe in the same thing you’re believing in. Like, I hate him for a different reason than you would.” It’s good in that sense.

REIN:  Sometimes it can be very easy. Hello anime avatar free speech person. Thank you for joining my mentions. Also, goodbye.

JAMEY:  The people say the weirdest things to me on Twitter. Oh my god, bigots are very creative in the very strange ways that they have found to be bigoted to me that I would not have expected. Like recently, someone told me, are you ready for this? I hope everyone’s sitting down. Recently somebody told me that using ‘they/them’ pronouns was offensive to people who were mourning the loss of conjoined twins. And I was like…

CORALINE:  Oh my god.

JAMEY: The mental gymnastics you just had to go through to accuse me of that. You should do creative writing, honestly.

CORALINE:  Wow. I had someone. I made a joke about JavaScript frameworks which maybe I shouldn’t have made because it’s kind of easy, and someone replied, “Oh, so you like diversity among people but not diversity among frameworks?” And I’m like, “What does that have to do with anything?”

JAMEY:  I can’t tell if that’s a joke or not. Because I feel like [inaudible] a joke.

CORALINE:  No, they argued with me.

JAMEY:  Oh no.

CORALINE:  They went into this multi-tweet argument with me about like, “Oh, you only like diversity when it favors you.” And I’m like, “What?” It was so bizarre.

JAMEY:  I didn’t realize you were a JavaScript framework, Coraline.

REIN:  Just tell them to give you a 500-page essay on the difference between human beings and software.

CORALINE:  But Rein, we are our code. I hate that. I hate that notion. Oh.

ASHANTI:  It’s like people that call code sexy. Like that one irks me. I just always find that weird people try to equate code to like, try to humanize code. It’s weird to me.

CORALINE:  Don’t interrupt amorphized computers. They hate that.

REIN:  Still my favorite joke.

CORALINE:  Yeah.

JAMEY:  I feel like that joke comes up like once every four episodes.

CORALINE:  It does.

REIN:  We’re both in a race to see who can say it first.

JAMEY:  No, but I agree with you, Ashanti. It’s not useful and I think it can e harmful because it makes you get weirdly attached to code in a way that you probably shouldn’t. Not you, but somebody.

ASHANTI:  Yeah.

CORALINE:  So, on the subject of Twitter, Ashanti I don’t know anything about your living circumstances but I know that for me as a trans-woman there really isn’t a trans community where I live that I am comfortable being a part of. And I doubt that there are in-person trans communities anywhere that I would feel comfortable being a part of. But what Twitter and social media in general has allowed me to do is find people that I do have things in common with that I also get along with and form a sort of community network that spans geography. And I’m really interested to hear if you’ve experienced the same thing in terms of the journey for your own identity and your work with anti-fascism and most social justice issues.

ASHANTI:  Yeah. Twitter was actually a good vehicles in terms of just figuring out my identity as well. Because you do have resources on the internet, but what I found is when I’m going through all of this, I just didn’t know what to look at first, right? So, I just need to log on and say, “If anybody knows anybody who’s non-binary, can they send me a DM. I’d just like to have questions.” Then I would ask questions in the messages and they would direct me to all this source material. It was just really good as a – because not only did they offer source material, they also offered compassion, care, and just encouraging words, right? And Twitter was the right place for everything to come together. So, a few friends of mine DM’d me, directed me to resources. And I found that yeah, I was able to fully come to who I was. Because I always had these thoughts ever since I was young to now. But just for that [inaudible] transition to happen, I needed the extra push. So, it was really great in that sense.

The work that we’re doing right now, I’m working with Emily and Lizzie who are trans-women. She found me on Twitter as well. So, we formed this group on Twitter as well. And I found that most of the connections that I’ve made – I found my mentor on Twitter as well – so, all the connections I’ve made over the past few years have been through Twitter. I’ve made less connections in person and more connections on Twitter. But, and the question [that] comes again is, we are on Twitter but how safe is it for us to use?

CORALINE:  Yeah.

ASHANTI:  Each time you log on you have to deal with bigots in your mentions. And these people just come from nowhere, right?

CORALINE:  Yeah.

ASHANTI:  You just write something and you have some person already talking in your mention. So, Emily and Lizzie had this brilliant idea of what if we try to map out the crypto-fascism on Twitter to make it a much safer space? Because Twitter is not doing anything.

CORALINE:  Yeah.

ASHANTI:  Right? Like, they say they’re going to ban all of these fascists but they’re taking time to do it and Jack is just issuing apologies every time something goes wrong. And it’s like, we like this space so we want to help make it better. Another option would be just moving to another site, but moving to another site means you have to build up your community again.

CORALINE:  Exactly.

JAMEY:  I totally agree. I get why people are like, “I hate Twitter and I’m not using it.” But it makes me sad when people do that because I feel like I’m losing those people out of my community and it might be hard to reconnect with them.

ASHANTI:  Yeah, absolutely. I feel like just making Twitter a much, much safer place would be great. Because in terms of developers, a lot of developers are on Twitter. I know a lot of people who got jobs on Twitter as well, right?

CORALINE:  Yeah.

ASHANTI:  The platform is big. But I don’t think they’re doing enough to make it safe. And yeah, because those people go ahead and even issued threats. Like it’s not just them saying something bad. Those people are very, very malicious. So, if w’ere not doing anything to make this place much better, then it’s like, what are we doing? We have the technology. Why aren’t we making this space much better? And it’s the eternal question. And it’s not me being an amateur developer when I say, “Jack should have the ability to do it. Why doesn’t he do it?” because we know him. We know he does have the authority. In Germany those accounts, you can’t see some of those accounts with the hate symbols on them, right? Like you’ve got screenshots where they use Twitter in Germany, you can’t see some fascist [inaudible], right? So, why do we see them here? Are we using free speech as a vehicle for these bigots to be able to harass us some more?

CORALINE:  I totally agree with you. They have the technology to do this much more effectively. And anyone who’s ever received a threat on Twitter probably knows that there’s not going to be a consequence. The best outcome I ever saw for myself personally was they froze the person’s account until they deleted the tweet. And that does nothing for my safety. It just means that, “Oh, no one will be able to search and see that tweet.” But I still got that threat and that person is still on the platform. And I don’t understand what Twitter is doing. I don’t understand why they’re doing it. Is it because they’re these strong proponents of free speech or is there an economic incentive for them to allow hate speech on the platform?

ASHANTI:  I think they want to express the idea of free speech. That’s what I think, because well this is just a hunch, but when you look at Jack’s followers and he’s following people like Mike Cernovich and just more alt right people, you tend to ask yourself a question like, “Why is he following them?” Because if you are following those people, you would see the abuse that them and their followers give. So, if I’m the CEO of Twitter and I’m following that person, I have to ask myself the question of, “Why am I still allowing this on my platform?” Is the idea that, “Okay, Mike Cernovich should be able to express himself without any [repercussions] from that”? Should we only take actions when things start to manifest themselves in the physicality? I generally don’t think so. I think if you see somebody being abusive on the site, you shut them out. Don’t let them use your platform at all, because they’re not making that place safe for anyone. So, when you see the CEO just being passive like, “Eh, okay. Yeah, perfect. Okay. Yeah, we’ll just let Milo abuse more black women and more people of color. We just sit like there’s nothing going on,” that’s where I’m like, “You got to ask yourself a question of okay, I think this might be ideological in a sense.” Because there’s also the idea that it can be both ideological and economical.

REIN:  I think that he just fundamentally doesn’t care about the harm that his platform enables. And I think you’re right. He doesn’t have any business incentives to reduce it.

ASHANTI:  Yeah. But it’s like, it’s damaging to the platform as well. People go in there and they – yeah, people who have built whole [audiences] and whole careers just off that Twitter profile, right? And this space is becoming much more dangerous and dangerous each day. I have an application that mines 4chan, because 4chan likes to do operations every day. It’s like operation this, operation that. And they use Twitter hashtags as a way to attack. So, you have all of these fake accounts creating a Twitter hashtag that just promotes all of these bad stuff. And you can see the lifecycle of the whole operation and how strong it is, the damage that it’s doing. But there are no incentives like that in the platform to make sure that these things are not being put to bed as soon as they start. Like an example is ‘cut for Bieber’. So one time, 4chan had this thing where they had a ‘cut for Bieber’ hashtag. And this hashtag was promoting Justin Bieber fans to cut themselves. And if I’m seeing that as a CEO, as a person who works at Twitter or a person who works at Twitter [inaudible], I shouldn’t even let it get to that point where people are actually doing those things. That’s what I think. I think letting it get to that level is just me being passive in a sense. But again, there’s also another aspect of, well, I don’t know how the system works. I’m just talking from the outside. But if these things have happened so many times, you got to ask yourself a question of what is the platform doing?

JAMEY:  I totally agree with you. And I have a question. Because this conversation started with you saying that you and a few of your friends had gotten together to talk about how you can try to make the platform safer. And I’m wondering what your ideas are about that.

ASHANTI:  Emily and Lizzie and I are working on this application called Nemesis. And what Nemesis does is it looks up Twitter for keywords. And after it looks up Twitter for keywords, it does an image search using certain keywords and it grabs the images and does some analysis on an AI machine. And the AI machine determines if it’s crypto-fascism or not. Because what fascists have started doing is they’ve started sneaking hate symbols in memes. Memes are shared all over. So, that’s a perfect vehicle for them to transport their fascism.

So, what we’re doing now, we’re just identifying it and we haven’t yet figured out the next step. Because you can identify it but you don’t want to have a system that’s automated and says, “Okay, this is a fascist symbol. I’ll report this.” Because what if you get false positives? That could be very, very damaging to label somebody as a fascist when your system is the one that’s actually the one that gave the false positive. So, we just want to find a way to map out fascism. We’re going to start with this but we’re going to build it up. The end goal would be to map out fascism across the internet, if we can. So, we’re going to start with Twitter then go whatever way we want to. And I guess, to answer the question of how can we make it much safer, is using such techniques, we can be able to look at patterns and accounts that are malicious and act very bigoted towards people. So, if we’re able to look at patterns and accounts, then I think we can be able to identify which accounts are dangerous and block them, if we can. Since Twitter wouldn’t do it.

CORALINE:  I have a question about blocking. I know that there are a lot of shared block lists and there’s a lot of controversy about who ends up on a shared block list and people accidentally getting on block lists. And well-known people in the social justice place who may be discriminating against trans people in their block list. I personally almost never block, because – and this means that I see a lot of really bad shit. But I feel like that for my own personal safety, I need to see what people are saying because I need to know if they’re organizing something against me. I need to know if I’m doxxed. I need to know if I’m threatened. How effective do you think blocking is, coming at it from a safety angle?

ASHANTI:  In my personal experience, the only thing that I use blocking for is if I just don’t want to see that account again because I don’t like what they’re talking about. Because I had a situation two years ago where I was on the platform and neo-Nazis got a hold of my information and started passing it around. And I realized that, “Oh, I could block them.” But that doesn’t really solve anything if they’ve still got my information. They could still pass it around themselves. Blocking the one you see, well that means I don’t have to see it. They’re still being malicious even though I’m not seeing them. Behind the scenes, they’re still being malicious. So, blocking in a sense, I guess it just gives me a clear mind to say, “I don’t have to see that account again.” But I guess you have to ask the question of, if an account is blocked, we have to ask why is it blocked and can we take further measures as a platform, to see what we can do about that.

JAMEY:  I have a different perspective on blocking. I preemptively block people because I’m afraid that they will quote-tweet me. And blocking people prevents them from quote-tweeting you. And I don’t like that.

CORALINE:  It does. But they can still log out, take a screen capture.

JAMEY:  That’s true.

CORALINE:  And this is not a hard technical problem. If I have someone blocked, they shouldn’t be able to see my tweets whether they’re logged in or not. And…

JAMEY:  I agree.

CORALINE:  Yeah. It’s ridiculous that that simplest of workarounds works.

JAMEY:  I do think though, and I mean you’re totally right. I totally agree with you. And if someone takes a screenshot and tweets it, it still sucks. But I think there’s something more visceral about a real quote-tweet than a screen-cap. And I think it’s that it makes it so easy for their crappy followers to click on me. Whereas if it’s a screenshot they would have to type it in. I know that sounds stupid, but that really is enough if a difference for me that I’m like, “Nope. You’re blocked so you can’t quote-tweet me.”

CORALINE:  So, when I worked at GitHub on the Community and Safety team, we had a retreat one year. And the team was supposed to be improving the safety of marginalized people on GitHub. And I won’t go into the whole politics of that and how that actually worked in practice, but at this one particular retreat, I brought up the idea of using personas which are kind of a regular tool that UX has introduced where you create sub-populations of users, give them a human name, and you could ask questions like, “How would Janet use this feature?” But I decided to take it one step further and not just talk about our ideal users but also the abusers on the platform. And that could be everything from people who are just misanthropic to people who are overt sexists to people who are stalkers and harassers. And we created personas for them. And normally with the persona, you say, “Okay, Janet’s goals are X, Y, and Z. How will we enable Janet to achieve her goal with as little friction as possible?” And conversely with the negative personas that we created, we asked ourselves, “How can we make it as hard as possible for these people to accomplish their goals?” And it seems like things like blocking, tools that are on the platform, introduce some friction for harassers. But if Twitter’s safety team considered the idea of increasing the friction to make it harder for abusers, not even getting to the point of banning them, but just making it harder for them instead of what we have today where anyone can harass anyone with no consequences and zero friction.

REIN:  That’s interesting because that idea of assigning, well originally it was just names, to particular characters, that’s been used in the cryptography world since the late 70s. Like Alice, Bob, Mallory, right? Would you find that that was effective in modeling the threats and understanding the motivations and the capabilities of the people?

CORALINE:  I think it was useful for us to ascribe goals to each other as people. Because I think we had previously been thinking about bad actors. And all bad actors usually are lumped into this category of simply bad actors. And that wasn’t very nuanced. So, thinking about it in a more nuanced way, especially if we have someone like the casual misanthrope – they’re not a bad person. They’re not setting out to make anyone feel bad. But they just have a rotten opinion of humanity.

So, one way we could introduce friction to prevent them from making GitHub unsafe for other people is, let’s say they’re typing in a comment on a PR, it would be technically feasible to do sentiment analysis of what they’re typing. And if the sentiment seems negative, we could not prevent them from making that comment but we could pop something up next to their text box that’s like, “Hey, remember to be constructive in your feedback. And also, here’s a link to the Code of Conduct.” So, there are ways that we could address bad conduct before it happened. And obviously if someone wants to be an asshole, that’s not going to stop them. But for people who weren’t thinking about what they were doing and are going to have unintended consequences, that little reminder could prevent bad behavior. And that’s not only adding friction to bad behavior but also saying, “Hey, here’s an alternative thing that you could do that would be behavior that we want to encourage.”

JAMEY:  There’s an XKCD comic about YouTube should read back everyone’s comments to them out loud before they post them. And it has a picture of a little XKCD stick figure and he’s like, “Oh my god. I’m an asshole and I never knew!” But that’s what I was thinking about when you told the story.

ASHANTI:  I like the way Facebook does it in terms of if you block a person. It’s almost as if the person has disappeared from the platform forever. You don’t see what they post. You can’t search for them. You [inaudible].

JAMEY:  You can’t see their comments, yeah.

ASHANTI:  Yeah, yeah. Because I think that was a bug in Twitter, [inaudible] to fix it a lot, but you can block somebody but you can search for them. So, if somebody’s blocked by you, they can still search for your handle and see conversations that are happening.

CORALINE:  That feature on Facebook is good, but Facebook then conversely has a real name policy which is very damaging to a lot of marginalized people. I wish what would happen is for people who work in community and safety across various platforms, if they would actually talk to one another and share best practices. But they can’t because we tried to do this when I was at GitHub. We had a gathering of people who work in this field. And no one would identify what company they worked for because they couldn’t talk about what their community and safety efforts looked like. They couldn’t talk about any kind of political pushback they got within the company. So, everyone was anonymous. And until we figure out why safety is such a taboo issue to discuss in a corporation, the efforts to make social media safer, they’re going to fall down because no one’s learning from anyone else.

JAMEY:  This is true in offline spaces too, I think. Like I’ve been trying to get together a group of people who run art and music venues in my city to share code of conduct policies and share what list of people we’ve had to ban from our space just so that we’re all on the same page. And it’s just impossible. It feels like it should be possible.

CORALINE:  On the real name issue, I did see someone, a pundit and I won’t name them, on Twitter, the speaker last week saying, “Oh, Twitter could solve the Russian bot problem by requiring real names.” And that is a trash idea. And I think we all know it’s a trash idea but I’d like to discuss the nuances of why that’s a trash idea. Do you have opinions on real name policies, Ashanti?

ASHANTI:  Yeah. Well, I guess from my perspective the reason why I don’t use my real name on Twitter is because being queer and being trans is still illegal in the country I’m from. So, if I’m using my real name, it’s easy for the cyber unit back home to easily catch me. They’ll just search for my profile. “Oh, that’s their real name.” And they’re going to see what I’m doing. And that’s [viable] for them to try and imprison me. So, in terms of real name, I think it attacks a lot of trans people and [inaudible] people that just want to stay low on the internet and people that fear they’re going to be persecuted. So, I definitely don’t support the real name policy. I feel that these spaces should be safe spaces and good enough spaces fro people to be able to express themselves. So, adding a real name is just making it complicated for everybody else. That’s what I think.

CORALINE:  We should also mention that a real name policy negatively affects sex workers. So, sex workers and trans people and domestic abuse survivors. And I think only a privileged person could think that a real name policy is a good idea.

REIN:  Who’s supporting it this time? An extremely rich white dude.

CORALINE:  Yeah.

JAMEY:  I’ve also seen native people get blocked from Facebook because they don’t think their names sound real enough. Just throwing that out there, too.

CORALINE:  Wow.

REIN:  I guess I can understand the motivation for wanting that policy. Just, if you don’t actually look at the real impacts of that policy versus what you want the impact of that policy to be, then you might think it’s a good idea.

JAMEY:  I think that’s true of literally everything. Like you just said, a tautology for the universe. So, thank you for that.

ASHANTI:  I guess it also brings into perspective how people that are making the decisions should be talking to a lot of people in the intersections. If that person was talking to a trans woman of color, I don’t think they would want to propose such a ridiculous idea. I think a lot of the spaces just don’t talk to a lot of us. And they’re like, “Alright. I’m going to think of this idea but I’m not going to think of how it’s going to affect black people or any other marginalized group.”

JAMEY:  I think that’s a very generous take that if they thought about it, they wouldn’t do it the way that they’ve done it. And I like that it’s a generous take, actually, because I think it’s very easy sometimes to be like, “All of these people that are making these policies are completely malicious to me.” And I feel that way sometimes. And I know, I totally understand the temptation to feel that way. But I think that maybe that’s not always helpful. And it’s definitely not making my blood pressure at a safe level. And I think being able to step back and be like, “Maybe if there was better education people would make better decisions,” is like, I don’t know. Hearing you say it in that way was calming for me. So, thank you.

ASHANTI:  There are times when I’ll be like, “Alright. This person is just being malicious.” But I mean, growing up and trying to figure out what gender identity I was, I think the education back home for gender identity is not as strong as I want it to be. Trying to explain my gender identity to some people that I grew up with is just like – they still accept me for who I am. But at the end of the day, they just, I guess it’s the first time they’ve ever heard of it. So, they’re like, “Wait a second. You mean you don’t identify as this or this? And you’re kind of in the middle?” And I’m like, “Yeah.” And they’d make the effort to understand it. And that’s what I like. But for some people, I just see them being malicious from the [inaudible]. I’ll just be like, “Alright. This person just doesn’t want to understand me and they’re just being extremely, extremely malicious.” So, I guess making the distinction is difficult.

CORALINE:  Yeah. I think it’s…

JAMEY:  I’ve had similar experiences. And I agree.

CORALINE:  And I think it’s especially difficult online. But at the same time, being online and being visible means that you can also find people who do understand and maybe who have those things in common with you. When I was 24 years old, that’s when I first thought about transitioning. This was in the 90s. And there were very, very limited resources for trans people available online back then. And I found an IRC community that turned out to be really toxic and it actually really turned me off from a lot of transgender people. Not only did I not find community there but it was an actively hostile community. And for that and lots of other reasons I ended up not transitioning. So, things are definitely a lot better now with the resources we have in place. And I’m thankful for the existence of social media beyond IRC. So, I can find people that I get along with and that I share things in common with. But identity now is so much more nuanced because in the old days when there’s an IRC channel, you were there because you were trans. And it was a random sampling of the population that happen to be trans that were all lumped in together. And I guess the idea is that being trans would be so central to your identity that any other differences wouldn’t matter. But the differences did matter. My communities now are a lot more blended. I don’t have anywhere that I go where it’s like, “Oh, here’s where I’m going to talk to my trans friends,” or, “Here’s where I’m going to talk to my social justice friends,” or, “Here’s where I’m going to talk to my [inaudible] friends.” Everything is a lot more blended now, which I think is a lot more positive. But at the same time, it makes you a lot more vulnerable, too.

REIN:  Can I tell you a quick story about that? A friend of mine was saying that he mentioned my – “Hey, do you know @ReinH on Twitter?” to one of his friends that I don’t know. And the friend’s response was, “Oh, the Twitter socialist?” Because apparently my socialism cred has surpassed my tech cred, even though I’m not much of a Twitter socialist. So, it was weird.

JAMEY:  I think Coraline is hitting on something that I’ve struggled with, which is that I really in my heart deeply just want to get along with every trans person. And I feel like because we’re trans and we’re in the trans community, we should be friends. And that’s just not how it works at all. And I understand that logic…

CORALINE:  [Inaudible] there Jamey and say there is no trans community.

JAMEY:  I guess trans community was the wrong word. But if I meet someone who’s trans, I get like, “I have something in common with you. And we’re going to be friends.” But that’s not true because trans people are like, “I can’t believe it. We’re like, regular people. We have different opinions about other things.”

CORALINE:  Yeah. And there are trans [turfs]. It’s mind-boggling.

JAMEY:  It’s very confusing.

CORALINE:  Yeah.

ASHANTI:  Most of this is pretty new to me. And I found it difficult try to find, in the city that I’m at, finding an intersection between being non-binary and being a person of color. Because if you’re going to spaces – if I’m going to a space, I want it to be a safe space, not just for my non-binary part but for my blackness as well.

CORALINE:  Yeah, your whole self.

ASHANTI:  Yeah. So, you go into spaces where it’s like, “Yeah, this space is a safe space for my queerness. I could put it there. But I don’t know. It’s kind of, it doesn’t look like it’ll be very comfortable for a lot of black people that I know.” And you go to another space which is like, “Oh, let me go to this safe space for black people. But I don’t know how accepting it is for my gender identity.” So, just trying to find those intersections can be difficult, I find.

CORALINE:  Is that easier online?

ASHANTI:  Yeah, yeah. Because like you said, when you meet somebody online right off the bat you know who they are. Because I mean, a person online would tell you their full story just in their bio. And through that you can be able to get a sense of who they are. And even get a better sense through what they are writing on their social media. And I find online spaces are really great for that, because people do express themselves really intensely. And I find online was really great, because when I was going to the queer events and some events are not really that welcoming to PoC, I would text my friend. And I would say, “Hey, do you go to the same thing?” And they’re like, “Yeah. Yeah, this thing happens,” and they would give me advice based on that.

JAMEY:  I feel like both Ashanti and Coraline have been hitting on something that I think about a lot, which is that a lot of our resources are just talking directly to other people and hearing about their experiences. I’ve particularly experienced this when it comes to medical transitioning stuff for non-binary people, which is still a pretty new territory for a lot of people and a lot of medical professionals, too. And I look online for advice and guides and I find myself in a Facebook Group where people are like, “This is what I said and this is what my doctor said and this is how it worked.” And I feel like a lot of this community is based around, “Okay. I had trial and error and I tried this. And now you try it and see what happens and then tell someone else what happened,” if that makes any sense. And Ashanti, when you were talking about reaching out to people on Twitter and then them sending you stuff to help you with your gender identity and stuff, I feel like that’s very similar to the experience that I’ve had online, connecting with other people and trying to figure stuff out. And I think that might be as close as I’m going to come to saying that anything is a quintessential experience, if that makes sense.

ASHANTI:  It does. It does. And this is a segue into my next question. Okay, if anybody has ever been in such a situation, how difficult was it to transition while at work in your career?

CORALINE:  I have a funny and a sad story about that. So in 2013, that’s when I made my decision that I needed to transition. And I talked to friends and peers about the fact that I was trans and I was planning on transitioning. And at the time I was mentoring a young woman here in Chicago who was head of the local Girl Develop It chapter. So, she knew that I was trans. So, I had this idea that I was going to transition but I didn’t have any firm plans. And we had our regular mentoring meetup and we were talking about our lives and what we were doing and she was like, “I’d really like for you to come and talk to the Girl Develop It chapter and give your open source talk.” And I was like, “Yeah, I’d be happy to do that.” And she said, “To be clear, I want Coraline to come and give that talk.” And I was like, “Oh my god. Can I actually do that? Is that something I’m capable of?” And I thought about it and I’m like, “Yeah. Okay, I’ll do it.” So at the time, I was working for a big company that I went to specifically because I hoped it would be a safer place to transition than the startups that I’d been working at. And I was really involved with the recruiting group because of my name and my network and so on. So, this Girl Develop It talk announcement goes out and I immediately get an email from the head of recruiting saying, “Oh my god. I had no idea your wife was also a speaker. We have to organize a whole group of us to go and see her speak.” And I was like, “Oh, fuck.” So, I wrote her back and I was like, “We need to have coffee.” And that’s when I told her that I was trans and I was planning on transitioning. And at that point, I had to go to my managers and tell them because I knew the rumor would just fly up the hierarchy. So, I met with my VP and told him. And he was like, “Oh, when are you going to transition?” And I felt really put on the spot. So, I was like, “March 1st?” And I just pulled the date right out of my head. So, March 1st came around and it was the most terrifying day, one of the most terrifying days of my life. I had my partner drive me into work and I had one of my female coworkers come to meet me in the lobby and walk me up. It was incredibly awkward for me and incredibly difficult for me. But I just did it. So, interesting thing. In January of that year, I got promoted to Principal Engineer at that company. In February of that year, I told them that I was going to be transitioning. March 1st I transitioned. And halfway through March, I was fired. Draw from that what conclusions you will.

ASHANTI:  Holy shit.

CORALINE:  I can also tell you that interviewing for a job when you have been transitioned for one month is the worst experience anyone can possibly have. It was horrifying. That’s my experience. Jamey, what’s it been like for you?

JAMEY:  I’m sorry I laughed. Your story was very sad at the end. But I can’t get over this idea that you just picked a date. I wish I could do that. Just like, “Here’s the date. And after that date, it’s done.”

CORALINE:  That date, that’s not very typical for a lot of trans people, because a lot of trans people tend to go through a – like for trans-women, they tend to go through this androgynous period and they may stay there. They may find that’s the most comfortable for them. But for me, I threw a switch. And literally, the last day of February I went to Goodwill and dumped off all my boy clothes.

JAMEY:  Oh my gosh, that’s crazy.

CORALINE:  And for me, it’s really nice having that clean break where it’s like, “From this point on, there’s no question. This is exactly who I am. This is exactly my name. This is exactly my experience.” And I celebrate March 1st every year as my rebirth day.

JAMEY:  I celebrate the day that my name change came through legally, is the day that I celebrate.

CORALINE:  Yeah.

JAMEY:  For me, it was not – I don’t have a dramatic story like that. I have never worked in an office. I’ve always worked remote. I came out at my old job and I was like typing on Slack like, “Hey, guess what guys? This is what’s going on. And this is the name I’m going to use.” And that was mostly it. And nobody saw me a lot. So, it was just not very dramatic. So to me, Ashanti, to your question, when you were like, “Is it hard?” I kind of almost chuckled at that because obviously to transition is pretty hard. But to me, the work part of it has been kind of a background part. I’ve been much more focused on other parts. And I think I’m lucky to be able to save my focus for other parts that are important. Because I haven’t had to spend a lot of that energy at work. And I think that not working in an office and not seeing people on a daily basis is a big part of that.

ASHANTI:  I’m preparing to go through that and I also work remote. So, I just want to I guess get a perspective of everybody’s journey through that. Because I do want them to know what I identify as and everything else that comes with the name change and everything else. But part of it that just makes me nervous is I’ve talked to those people and I know how they talk when I’m not at work. So, just thinking of well, “What is the response going to be?” in that sense. One way to say it is well, just don’t think about it whatever they think. But somebody like me with anxiety, it gets very difficult to go through that hurdle. So, I’m mentally preparing myself through everything that gets thrown my way.

CORALINE:  Yeah. Literally anything can happen.

JAMEY:  And putting yourself out there is really hard, but I think having a support system outside of the people that you work with can be a real blessing.

ASHANTI:  Agreed.

CORALINE:  I wish you the best of luck, Ashanti. And I hope you have a really good experience with it. And I hope that where you work is a safe place for you. That’s my biggest wish for you. Because what you’re going through, what trans people go through, is absolutely life-changing. And for me, transition’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And I’m not done with it. It’s four years later and I’m still struggling and still learning and still growing. So, I just wish you the best of luck. I hope it’s as smooth as possible for you.

ASHANTI:  Thank you.

REIN:  So, this is the part of the show where we like to talk about what we’ve learned or what we think was important, what we want to take with us from the conversation. And I’ve really enjoyed this conversation. And I would like us to share some reflections about it. So, I as a cis-person can’t relate very much to the trans experience. But I like to be around so I can listen to people who are discussing it so that I can get a better understanding. And so, any chance I have to just be a fly on the wall and listen to these conversations, it really helps me to understand what the world is like and how other people feel. So, that’s been great for me.

CORALINE:  I think one of the things that I took from this that I want to think about a little bit more, and it’s something that you said, Ashanti, about reading someone’s Twitter bio and knowing about them. Twitter bio for me, it is a statement of one aspect of who I am. But of course, we’re complicated creatures and we have overlapping identities. And I want to think about, how can I fit everything that I am, everything that I want someone to know about me, into 200 characters in my Twitter bio so that they don’t think that I’m just this militant social justice warrior but that my identity is more nuanced than that. I think we have to take care with the way we’re projecting ourselves onto the world. And open ourselves up to different conversations and different situations by being nuanced about how we present ourselves. So, that’s what I’d like to think about a little bit more. How about you, Jamey?

JAMEY:  I feel like what I’m thinking a lot about right now is this act of sharing information that I think almost every aspect of what we’ve talked about today has gotten at. And I think of myself as having received a lot of really great information from people. And I feel thankful for that. And I guess I’m starting to see it more and more as a give and take where it’s like I’m getting information from someone and I’m passing on other information to someone else. And I think that’s kind of beautiful because you’re passing information but you’re also passing some sort of human connection when it happens. And I guess I got thinking about that on the show because I feel like I’m still in a beginning point in my transition. But actually listening to Coraline, we’ve been transitioning for about the same amount of time, and I guess I had never thought about that before. And then to talk to you Ashanti, someone who’s kind of entering into this phase of their life which is a very exciting and a very scary time, and it was interesting to me. Because normally we ask questions of our guests. And I thought it was kind of cool and interesting that you asked questions of us and we were able to have this really back and forth dialog about it.

CORALINE:  Yeah.

JAMEY:  So, that’s kind of what got me thinking about this never-ending passing information around this giant circle so that hopefully everyone will get it eventually. And I like thinking about it that way. So, I think I’m going to try to think more about that metaphor and how it might serve me and hopefully other people in my community in the future.

ASHANTI:  Having this conversation today is just a testament of how conversation flows more freely when people are in such a safe space, right? This space that we have, the four of us, is very safe for me. And I feel like I can be able to express myself much more freely. And this goes back to the Twitter conversation that we had of people sharing like-minded ideas. And you feel as if you can share those ideas much more freely because of the community that you create with all the people that are going through the same thing you’re going through. It’s a safe space that you have. And I feel like it was very educational in the sense of Coraline and Jamey giving me their experiences. And I feel like it’s preparing me for what’s going to come forward. And I want to look at it in the face when it does come to hit me.

CORALINE:  Thank you very much, Ashanti. This has been a great conversation. And I’m really glad to hear that you felt safe here.

And I want to remind our listeners that we’re listener-supported and that conversations like this only happen because people like you pledge to support us. Go to Patreon.com/GreaterThanCode, pledge at any level, and get access to our Slack community of listeners and panelists and guests to continue the conversations that you’ve heard here in an online setting. So, thank you to everyone. This has been a great episode and we will talk to you again very soon.

JAMEY:  The other panelists and I have some really exciting news that we’re looking to add some new panelists to our show and we think that maybe it could be you. We’re particularly looking for people of diverse backgrounds who feel that they could bring a unique perspective to our show. We’d especially love to hear from people of color, or people living outside the United States who’d be available to record with us at noon, Eastern Standard Time on Wednesdays. If you’re interested, here’s what you should do. Listen to one of our shows. You know how we do our reflections at the end? Record yourself giving us your reflection on the discussion from that episode. Tell us a little bit about yourself and give us your perspective. Then send us a link to your audio or video file at panel@greaterthancode.com before March 16th. We cannot wait to hear your reflections. We can’t wait to hear about you. We can’t wait to start working with some of you. Thanks so much, and looking forward to hearing from you.

 

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