“Lesbians Who Tech” Is Back at It Again With the Badass Queers and a Lot of Good Ideas

It’s hard for me to follow up my good friend and colleague  recaps and go solo this year, but here I am, and here you are, and we’re going to do this together, y’all!

This is my personal third year at “Lesbians Who Tech,” and my second getting to speak! Every time I’ve come, the overarching theme has been how damn great it is to be surrounded by so many badass, queer, inspiring women. Friends, that has not changed. Everyone there was so supportive and sharp as hell. It’s still the only tech conference where you’ll see a group of women dance in the aisles to Cardi B in-between talks. Bless.

It’s always fascinating to see, despite the fact it’s inherently a niche-group conference, the extraordinary breadth it can cover: from reusable rockets to democratizing land ownership and food security, from becoming a CTO or a founder to designing better government services and good ol’ user experience. It turns out, lesbians, queer women, and non-binary folks, though all technologists, are a varied group! The same main stage can feature a woman who is a former solider-turned-director of a company building defense missiles for the government and a desi feminist activist and DJ who not only went to a Harvard, but also went viral for free-bleeding during the London Marathon (more on her later). It’s a conference in which you hear impassioned cries for accountability, anti-bias work, and social justice, attended by some of the biggest corporations in the game. Friends, it’s a strange and beautiful thing. It’s impossible to cover it all, but in the spirit of Osworth’s precedent, some high-level themes and standout haps:

Missed Flights, Surprise Guests, and Big Names

The Nor’easter proved troublesome for a lot of guests and speakers, including Ilene Chaiken, to all of our L-Word loving/hating/living/laughing/etc dismay, and Alicia Garza, founder of Black Lives Matter. However, some surprise guests came through, including Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who spoke movingly on the need to curb gun violence in America, alongside her husband, who humbly described his experience. Samantha Bee came by to film some surprise interviews, as well as hire for a new application her team is building to drive meaningful political involvement. Sheryl Sandburg, of Lean In fame, talked to Kara Swisher of Recode about being women in tech.

The hot tech trends right now— Augmented and Virtual Reality, Artificial Intelligence, and Automation

And what these things mean for our future. While the cutting-edge is super exciting — speakers from Facebook, Google, and other big tech firms talked about how meaningful, intelligent Augmented Reality can improve our future experiences (much like Pokemon Go and the happy dancing hot dog from Snapchat did). Marley Rafson described a potential future where candidates can engage and activate their constituents with virtual avatars that can answer questions and hold town halls; Cynthia Yeung described a semi-utopic future in which jobs that are dangerous, dirty, or dull can be replaced by robots, so humans can focus on human interaction, innovation, and art. But she also wanted to ensure we didn’t forget the people who will struggle with the transition, urging for new training and education for people whose jobs are becoming obsolete. Jeannie Fu and Camille Edy described the opportunities coming with the increased amount of data we will be producing — and cautioned against letting algorithms and AI systems run untested, lest they encode our same biases. Many of the speakers called for lesbians and queer people to add their data to the mix, so the algorithms learn that we exist and we matter. The progressive edge of technology is bearing forth unheeded, and if we aren’t a part of it, it will continue to leave us behind. Luckily, these women are not letting that happen.

If you want to get hired, come to this conference

It seems like the fact that diverse and inclusive workplaces make better work is finally sinking in. So many people are hiring, and they all want lesbians, queer women, non-binary folks and people of color! Half of the main stage talks either revolved around recruitment efforts or mentioned, as an end-note, that their companies are hiring. More diverse people are getting into leadership positions, and they’re coming to conferences like Lesbians Who Tech looking to help people like them. The conference also featured — along with the typical job fair market next door —an instance of their Tech Jobs Tour, which is taking access to jobs looking for non-traditional tech candidates across the country.

Don’t worry about meeting your heroes, Tegan and Sara are just as delightful in person

Despite this being their “first keynote” — which they reminded us often — our favorite Canadian-lesbian twins killed it. Amidst their patented banter, they gave an overview of their foundation, the Tegan and Sara Foundation, which is for economic justice, health, and representation for LGBTQ girls and women. Their initiatives are awesome and varied and include projects with the 3rd LWT Tech + Innovation Summit, which work to increase access to gender-affirming medical care and to career mentorship and advancement for queer women. They encouraged us to give even one dollar, even five dollars, the main amounts they’ve worked with on their foundation — “We’re like the queer Bernie Sanders!”

Wakanda Forever

A refrain and a now-beloved gesture, put forth by nearly every black speaker, asserting black girl magic. Black women owned this summit, from the MCs, Leslie Henry and Leah Gilliam, to CTOs Megan Rose Dickey and Erica Baker and founder Stephanie Lampkin on leading organizations, to Bozoma Saint John, the new Chief Brand Officer of Uber, who showed up in the most amazing outfit, saying “if people are uncomfortable with [my hair, my style], then they are going to be uncomfortable with anything I’m going to bring.” She went on to encourage us to show up as our full, authentic selves, breaking down personal and professional barriers: “You’re so used to showing up as the fake you, that you don’t know the real you when it comes time — and the fake you can’t be empathetic. They can’t make decisions between right and wrong because their shields are up.” Arlan Hamilton, founder of Backstage Capital (and @modernLWord) held a Q & A where she encouraged other people to found organizations — and get that paper.

Turning the tables: the resistance ain’t over and (lesbian) tech is on it

Former Fox News commentator and out lesbian Sally Kohn talked about how to turn trolls onto your side through kindness and humor, while the lawyer for Edie Windsor’s marriage case, Robbie Kaplan, is suing white supremacists. Planned Parenthood’s Dawn Laguens called for us to start building a “Web 2.0 for inclusive sex” to fight harmful effects of cis male-centered porn, including a gender-neutral, “no-nonsense” period-tracking app and virtual-reality “empathy-building” experiences where someone can walk a picket line or respond and learn from challenging situations — like navigating consent — in a safe space.

Megan Smith isn’t CTO of the United States anymore, but she’s still our north star

Somehow, by the grace of the “lesbian god,” according to LWT founder Leanne Pittsford, Megan Smith‘s plane was the only one to make it into New York. She was hoarse from the travel, but that didn’t stop her. Ever-enthusiastic, with an unflagging belief in the power of technology and access, Megan Smith’s keynote remains an endless riff of inspiring stories, big ideas, and reminders of our past herstory.

Madame Gandhi got herself 5,000 ardent new fans

Madame Gandhi, the nom-de-DJ of Kiran Gandhi, is an activist and electronic musician, who drummed for MIA and went to Harvard Business School (chill). Onstage, she showed a packed theater how she makes a certified hit out of a voice sample on her iPhone. While she played the track, she showed us her Ableton file on the big screen, walking us through the decisions she makes and the stuff she tries out when she’s making a boppin’ hit. She also spoke movingly on agency and the beauty in our nuance — calling us queers not to define ourselves by only our oppression, but by our joy. She also hosted the closing party at El Rio, one of the last queer bars in San Francisco, and by all reports, it was lit.


On a personal note: I was delighted to sit in a room and envision a future that was made for me, by me (and people like me). Part of being a technologist — and, for me, a designer— is the desire to look forward and improve the future. Lesbians Who Tech is all about taking our power into our own hands, owning our voices, and defining our future. It can be very frustrating to be in tech when you look like me — and so often, decisions are made without my well-being at heart (or worse, with my well-being in the lurch). Lesbians Who Tech helps me see a future where I’m included, and I’m thriving.

On a personal level, as I mentioned it was my second time to speak at the conference; my first time (as I wrote about, briefly, here) was at the New York LWT! It was so personally empowering to take a talk that I first delivered, very shakily, to a small room and refine it and present it to a packed hall. Some more of my favorite small moments:

  • Tegan F*CKING Quin let me follow her into her VIP parties where I met tons of awesome women, including one of the engineers at SpaceX
  • I recognized an Autostraddle reader by her “read a fucking book pin” and went on to have a great conversation about Demi Lovato and Carmen’s Black Panther article
  • The head of product at a major news and media site told me that as a direct result of my talk, all of her media verticals were now fully web-accessible — and yes, my heart broke and soared at that moment.
  • Many speakers thanked the lovely ASL interpreters for their unfailingly great work.
  • A topic dear to my heart — civic tech — was highlighted by a main stage talk from Carrie Bishop, a panel for the digital service, and a panel of the queer members from the Hillary for America campaign.
  • Madame Gandhi smiled at me and said “hey what’s up” — in Portuguese (Reader, I died…)
  • I made it into a recap video (for a hot second).
  • I met so many amazing people, doing amazing things, each of them so sharp and so humble and so fun. Truly, it’s a queer utopia.

The overall takeaway is always the same: a heart full of meeting amazing people, and a head full of ideas. A few logistical problems, a few confusing moments, and a lot of wonderful. Like first-time LWT conference-goer (and aforementioned AS reader) Julia Dressel, a software engineer at Apple told me:

julia's quote

There’s the truth. ‘Til next time, folks!

Raquel is a Brazilian-American designer and writer. She's from Austin, TX but she lives in Washington, D.C., and she's mostly ok with that. She’s fluent in emoji, gets emotional about fonts, and is always down to photoshop something weird. Find her at basically all hours on twitter @raqueldesigns and occasionally around the rest of the internet.

Raquel has written 22 articles for us.

12 Comments

  1. I really like your talk in NYC last year, and that’s awesome that you influenced the design of a major news and media site!
    My heart would also stop if Madame Gandhi smiled at me and said, “hey what’s up” in Portuguese

  2. Just wanna apologize for in advance for any incoherency that’s about to happen as a result of my excitement. Thank you for your time:

    Yes! I’ve been so ready for your post and I’m so glad it’s here! This was my first LWT (and first time in San Francisco!) and your’s and A.E’s posts have been a guiding light on how to handle it and what to expect, thank you!! This is great because I’m still mostly on cloud nine, and wasn’t able to attend/see a lot of the things you’re talking about and this gives me a chance to scream about how much I loved what I saw and scream anew about the things I didn’t!

    RAQUEL YOU ARE LIVING THE DREAM I’m so glad all these good things happened to you!! And hearing that your talk directly influenced necessary work I JUST!!! IM SO HAPPY!!!!! YOU ARE DOING SO GREAT!!!

    I LOVE MADAME GANDHI SO MUCH, as she was speaking I was like, has she transported us to a different plane of existence because I’m sure I’ve never felt so much light and hope and church YES before. When she said, “I want to know what it’s like to have our stories not rooted in our oppression but in our nuance”???? Flabbergasted, amazed, in awe, I need a thesaurus for the things she had me feeling during her keynote.

    And Tegan and Sara! I love the work their doing but was especially excited when Sara was like, “we know people are already doing this work so we’re not trying to like step over them, we’re using our voice to elevate the work that’s already being done” I was like this is the best ever, because how many times do you see people with privilege doing that necessary work and not even really calling attention to it, just like, hey this is a thing that’s happening let’s look at the people who’ve already been doing this cause you may not know about it. And when Sara was like, “I know we may not all go to the doctor’s because we as queer people may not feel like we deserve to be healthy.” I was like, oh I didn’t know we were signing up for crying as a result from truth telling today, but cool thanks.

    And Bozoma!!!! When she said, “I’m in the feelings business” I just. I didn’t know you could be a black woman and in tech and in this world and still be in that business. LIKE. Her whole talk was so much of everything I never knew I needed. When someone yelled out during her talk and her first reaction was, “Do you want a seat up here? Can you stand up so I can know who you are and what you said, let’s have this conversation.” and everyone was like “ooooooo” like the students who are hyping the teacher up when someone’s in trouble and Saint John was like, “what are you oooooing for? I’m really asking what they need here.” I was like, I gotta follow her wherever she goes cause that’s the path I want to live my life on. (Especially after Rose McGowan’s not good reaction either? Bozoma Saint John was a masterclass in how to call people in, and even call yourself in if necessary and I’ve never understood how to do that gracefully, but I’m learning from her.) And when Leanne asked, something about how she navigates blackness, and Bozoma was like, “I’ve got to navigate the world’s reaction to my blackness just when I step in the grocery store.” and I cheered and heard at least fifty black people cheer with me. It was like the best kind of church! I’m still in awe I love it I love it.

    I could only do some pre-events (I won an Amazon water bottle!) and stay for the first day, but I agree with you on that hiring part. I went in, because I just started to get into tech and I know how important it is just for people to know you’re *there*, cause they can’t find you if they don’t know what look for, you know? I really got to understand how important community (outside my family) is when I got to go to Pink Door and Lambda and I really wanted to find community here and I was given even more than I could’ve hoped for. Like, just people rooting for me even though I’m but a baby in tech, was so much like how Dera said there’s so much overlap in being a baby gay and a baby in tech: so many people meet me where I’m at and encourage me to move forward. It’s so lovely. I’m in a place where I just had my hopes kind of tucked away in regards to work/finding a new career path, but so many people demanded I come in with my hopes pinned to my chest because they were gonna hope alongside me. I don’t know, I’m a little flustered still, but this was amazing.

    The QWOC (it always helps for me to see women and nonbinary people because it’s still. tough) meetup was one of my favorite things and I love how much everyone looks out for each other. You already felt like you weren’t alone cause the place was packed, but just in how people looked at you, in how they talked to you and their eyes wouldn’t wander to someone else, how they’d turn right back to you if someone they knew came to catch up with them for a split second after seeing them in the crowd, how they’d make sure they got your name right and you were comfortable, it’s really little things that QTPOC always do that makes me wish I could be in their presence all the time, you know?

    AND THERE WAS A QUEER BOOKSTORE I GOT TO CHILL IN WHEN I GOT OVERWHELMED (they had books I’ve been looking for for a while! the main person was like, “I appreciate how thorough you are” cause I was there for hours cause anxiety and they were very kind) I think I had some points where the gender conversation especially as it interacts with race/race in general felt awkward/there wasn’t as much space as I’d hoped there’d be, but overall I’m really glad I was blessed with a scholarship ticket. Coming home I was even forced to like talk to my family more about queerness and stuff, and even my laptop forces the conversation cause these stickers are being put to good use, and I’m just really thankful even though talking is hard and making sure my voice is being heard in spaces that weren’t always welcoming is tough, I’m glad I was given this opportunity and I’m already trying to figure out how I can go to the one in New York in September!

    Thank you for coming to my TED Talk, the end.

  3. Thank you for this epic recap! This was my second time attending and I was overwhelmed again at how much there was to do and see and how many people there were to talk to, so I’m super impressed that you managed to catch most of the main events!

  4. This was my first LWT (and I won’t be back unless they change the venue or start selling fewer tickets, I’m not paying $400 again to not be able to get in to the talks I want) and it was… interesting. That’s what I keep telling people. It brought up a lot of complicated feelings.

    I didn’t make it to Bozoma’s talk but I know the person who shouted something out was asking if Uber considers drivers to be employees. That whole moment encapsulates many of my issues with corporate “diversity and inclusion.” Bozoma is the brand ambassador for Uber. According to the company, their tech employees are only 15% women and 1% black. Yet the thing they chose to hire a black woman for was to be their face. To literally put a black woman’s body between the company and its critics.

    The missile defense talk was very jingoistic… and fascinating to me in the sense that whether to support gay and lesbian people openly serving in the military as an activist cause was a hot debate that divided the gay and lesbian activist Left in the Castro back in the 80s. Surreal for a conference today to be inviting that kind of talk in.

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