This should be the dawn of a new equality. Stop inadvertently marginalising people.

This is a brief, important plea.

It it truly wonderful news that we now have something approaching equal marriage in the UK. It is brilliant that same sex couples can now marry in England and Wales. It’s disappointing that the details for those in existing Civil Partnerships who want to upgrade/convert to marriage haven’t been figured out yet, and that it throws trans* people under the bus, but still, it’s progress.

So please stop fucking it up by calling it “gay marriage”.

Equal marriage isn’t just for those who identify as lesbian or gay. There are a LOT of other folks who are going to benefit, including those who are bisexual, queer and those who prefer not to self-label at all. [Edited to reflect that there are real issues in the current same-sex marriage legislationthat make it definitely not good for trans* and genderqueer folks, in particular the concept of spousal veto]

Being in a same-sex relationship doesn’t make you gay. I’m a lesbian, my wife is bisexual. Being in a committed same-sex relationship doesn’t change that — that’s like saying someone is asexual when they are not dating. If you insist on calling our marriage “gay” then you are marginalising her, insisting that her identity is defined by our relationship.

That’s not cool.

So please, let’s call this what it is. Equal marriage, which enables same-sex marriage. Or y’know, just marriage. Marriage between people that love each other & want to publicly commit to each other, who no longer need to worry about whether or not they will be denied legal recognition based on their sex, or sexual orientation.

Let’s celebrate equal marriage. But let’s not do so by marginalising even more people. Surely we’ve had enough of that?

[This was originally posted on Medium, but I am self-archiving per the Tao of Tantek]

Why equal marriage matters to me

(cross-posted from the wonderful Medium because it’s important to have your own copies too, however great a community is: original)

I was a child without a future.

Don’t get me wrong, I had all the advantages. I was bright, got excellent grades. I’d been born white in Apartheid South Africa, experiencing incredible (undeserved) privilege. I was likely to get a full scholarship for university. I had a stable home life.

But I was facing the endless drudgery of working and going home to an empty life stretched out ahead of me. Painfully alone, forever.

I didn’t want that.

I remember contemplating suicide for the first time before I even hit my teens. How different I was became increasingly apparent from about the age of ten. The girls in my class started to get giggly around the boys, to dumb themselves down (in SA at that time, girls weren’t meant to be smart and smart girls definitely weren’t attractive).

I was bemused. I mean, boys were alright. Some of my best friends were boys. But this sudden attraction my classmates were feeling? I never felt it, never comprehended it.

And with puberty came planning. Futures, weddings, girls scribbling their names with their crush’s surname appended. Idle, childish daydreams, but central to conversations all around me.

I couldn’t imagine anything worse. Marrying a man I didn’t love? Enduring sex I didn’t want and could never enjoy? I decided very young that I would rather die.

And so my planning became razor blades, hoarding pills, finding secret hideaways where I wouldn’t be discovered until it was too late.

Dark years. Hard to write about, even decades later.

So how am I here today?

Xena.

Yes, that’s right: Xena, Warrior Princess.

In the relatively early days of the Internet, I discovered Xena messageboards. They gave me a lot of things: terminology for the things I felt, an explanation for why I found the show so compelling despite its ridiculously low production values and hilarious accent combinations (all medieval Greeks spoke with Kiwi accents, doncha know?), tentative new friendships. Exposure to a bunch of people in other countries, some just as backward as my own, some more progressive.

Interestingly though, the vast majority of us were in places where it wasn’t good to be gay: America, Africa, Australia.

The most important thing they gave me though was a friendship with a woman twice my age. She lived in Austin, Texas, with her partner of more than a decade. They were happy together, had a house, a business and a pair of adorable dogs.

I honestly had no clue this was an option.

Hearing about their life together was like being released from a tiny iron cell, coaxed outside and invited to look at a view that stretched out beautifully for miles.

I wouldn’t have made it out of my teens without knowing that view existed. I’d have been a statistic, part of the horribly high LGBTQ teen suicide rate.

In Apartheid South Africa, there were no visible, happy gay folks. We weren’t equal in the eyes of the law or society. I couldn’t daydream about marrying my dream girl, draw hearts round the names of my crushes. Marriage wasn’t an option for people like me. Happiness wasn’t an option for people like me. And it really felt like living wasn’t much of an option for people like me.

So if you’re bemused about the fight for marriage equality, wondering why it matters? It’s not just about giving folks equal rights and responsibilities. Not just about protecting our children and our families. Not just about legal and societal recognition and equality.

It’s about giving kids a future to believe in, too.

Last night I attended my first Women in Technology event. It was quite interesting, but more importantly inspiring to meet so many women from the industry.

When I think back to the ongoing “Where are the women?” conversations in the geek conference space, where some claim it’s impossible to get women to attend, it was wonderful to see a mid-week evening event with an attendance approaching 400.

Sadly I’m not down in London frequently enough to make it to many of these events, though I still hold out hope that I’ll make it to a Girl Geek Dinner!

I grew up bilingual — speaking English at home with my British parents and Afrikaans at school. I can actually speak passable Dutch and German as well. I find it interesting, having moved to Britain, that this is seen as unusual since I had many friends at school who were completely fluent in 6 or 7 different languages. After all, in South Africa we have 11 national languages to choose from!

Growing up in the Western Cape, there were a number of interesting effects of the majority of people speaking multiple languages. For a start, if someone seemed to be struggling in one language, the polite thing for the other person to do was just to swap into their native tongue, where possible. Equally, you quickly learnt that there were some concepts that were just more powerfully described in one language over another. As a result, you’d just use the best terms from the best language available — resulting in a hybrid mish-mash of the different languages.

Personally, this is what I think the true value of multilingualism is. It’s about more than just understanding different words for the same concept — it’s about understanding the different concepts that exist, that possibly cannot even be articulated in your home language. This social bilingualism gives you a base-level understanding of the differences between cultures and an appreciation for the value diversity can bring.

Recently Eric Meyer posted:

“And here’s the worst part, the absolutely darkest most awful painful part of the entire situation: I let them down by being myself.

That tears. It rips ragged claws of paradox across my throat, up my jawline, through my brow.”

I realise that Eric was talking about the pain of finding out that an opinion he truly and honestly held was so abhorred by people he loved and respected, but it struck a real chord with me. Not in terms of having an opinion that people disagree with, but because it is a beautifully poignant description of why coming out is so horribly painful.

When people (whether it be parents, friends, teachers, coworkers or even total strangers) react with anger and pain and hatred to someone coming out, it doesn’t just hurt because what is said or done is hurtful, but because it is a rejection of the true self. They hate you for being yourself. And that cuts deeper than anything.

I’d already posted quite a lot as part of the discussion about the diversity of speakers at conferences. One of the things I said I’d like to see happening more was experienced folks mentoring those aspiring to becoming speakers. That thought got quite a good reaction and so as a result today I set up Make Me A Speaker!

Make Me A Speaker! is a simple site — a wiki where you can get advice, hear from others about their journey to becoming a speaker and also hook up with folks who are interested in mentoring the up-and-comings. For me the real crux of the site is two sections: Need Mentoring? and Got Mentoring, designed to let people put themselves out there to help or be helped. There’s also a Conferences & Opportunities page where I’d hope those conference organisers who really are interested in expanding the potential pool of fantastic, innovative, engaging and excellent speakers will come along and pimp their own events as possible stages.

If you’re interested in helping to nurture new speakers, an aspiring speaker yourself or a conference or workshop organiser wanting to broaden the pool of potential candidates for speaking at your events, please do go along and help make a difference.

As I said in my previous post: “You never know, we might just change the world”.

Ryan Carson and his team have taken a bit of a beating recently and I think it’s great that they’re trying to respond with positive steps.

That said, there was a particular part of the article that really didn’t sit right with me and I think is representative of a whole load of misunderstanding in our industry:

“None of the ideas were submitted by women. This was a great opportunity for women in the industry to put themselves forward for a speaking slot. But unfortunately none materialised.”

There is more to embracing diversity than just making “opportunities” available and then blaming the minority when they don’t take advantage of those opportunities.

I’ve done a lot of diversity work & training, in both academic and corporate settings. One of the most powerful workshops I ever attended on the subject was also one of the most uncomfortably emotional I’ve ever experienced. We were asked to think about our past experiences and how we thought they impacted our present behaviour. As a young lesbian growing up in Apartheid South Africa, I’m sure you can comprehend that I didn’t have the easiest time of it. Let’s summarise it as fear- & hate-filled and violent. So how do I react when people assure me it’s OK to be gay here in the UK? I don’t believe them.

The reality is that if a dog is kept in a cage and beaten every time it tries to escape, eventually it stops trying to escape. Merely opening the door can bring up such painful memories that it almost hurts to THINK about escaping.

Now, before I get flamed, I am not saying that women are like dogs that have been beaten. But I AM saying that we, as humans, all learn from our experiences. And saying “well, you had your chance” without understanding why that chance might not have been seen as a real chance by the group you are trying to reach out to is short-sighted.

Whatever the characteristic that puts you in a minority (e.g. whether you be gay, disabled, female, black or a member of a minority religion), chances are pretty good you have faced negative experiences in the past because of what makes you different. You will have learnt survival behaviours — for instance, many gay people “pass” as straight, because it’s easier than dealing with the stress of people hating and abusing you. Many women in technology “fly under the radar”, just getting on with their work and trying not to stand out. It’s easier than being harangued for your presence, or attacked for your gender.

Embracing and valuing diversity is about more than just going “here’s a chance”. It’s also about building an inclusive environment. Encouraging more diversity in your audience as well as on your speaking roster. Helping those new to speaking (or even to the industry) to find relevant mentors and coaches. Making clear that diversity is valued — that different opinions and backgrounds and characteristics are a good thing.

I am not saying that conference organisers need to pander to the possible emotional insecurities of women in the IT industry. But what I am saying is that offering “opportunities” that really don’t translate as such to the group in question comes across as nothing more than tokenism.


Please Note: For more positive suggestions on how to improve things, please see my previous post.

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