Does Silicon Valley Have a Transphobia Problem?

Tech companies like Google and Mozilla have policies to protect transgender employees. Enforcing those policies may be another story.

The tech industry likes to portray itself as pro-LGBTQ, but many transgender employees question just how true this is.

Dell is currently being sued by two former employees who say they were discriminated against because of their gender identities. Cecilia Gilbert, a trans woman, was fired during her transition and told by co-workers that she shouldn’t tell people she’s trans. Helen Harris, who is gender nonconforming, claims to have experienced discrimination on a regular basis during the three years they worked for the tech giant. This isn’t the first time the company has faced a lawsuit over alleged anti-LGBTQ discrimination.

And Dell is not alone. A trans woman and her husband sued Amazon in 2017, claiming they were verbally abused while working at one of its warehouses (they considered some of the slurs tossed at them transphobic). Meanwhile, a transgender man and former Google employee, Tim Chevalier, sued Google last year, alleging that he was fired for speaking out against racism and discrimination within the company while cisgender employees were not fired for speaking out politically.

Chevalier claimed in the lawsuit that the company’s “internal social networking platforms were widely used to belittle and harass women, people of color, LGBTQ employees, and other underrepresented groups.” After responding to certain comments made on these platforms, he says human resources criticized him for labeling the people who did this “white guys,” even though he is a white man. Multiple Google employees told Wired last year that white males have “weaponized” HR by targeting LGBTQ individuals with their complaints.

“I was being scrutinized for my political statements while people who were cis were being just as political,” Chevalier tells NewNowNext. “They were saying things that were offensive about minority groups, and they were not disciplined for it. I think trans people are hyper-scrutinized and are held to different standards of behavior.”

Chevalier thnks that anti-trans discrimination is common in Silicon Valley, the home base for many tech companies. He says that when he was working at Mozilla he was harassed for speaking out against homophobia in the workplace. “What had happened was that a very homophobic person who worked there had used company resources to make a post that was opposing same-sex marriage,” Chevalier said. “When my colleague and I complained, we were basically targeted by a harassment campaign.” He claims one employee anonymously left threats on the blog of the other person who complained.

A representative from Google tells NewNowNext: “All employees acknowledge our code of conduct and other workplace policies, under which promoting harmful stereotypes based on race or gender is prohibited… But when an employee does not, it is something we must take seriously, and we take appropriate action. We always make our decision without any regard to the employee’s political views or identity.”

Mozilla says the company has “anti-harassment policies and procedures, transgender workplace guidelines, and community participation guidelines that support our employees in showing up as their whole selves.”

According to the HRC’s 2019 Corporate Equality Index, tech companies do currently rate high in terms of having policies that aim to protect LGBTQ people from discrimination and promote equality. Google received a score of 100, and Mozilla received a 95, for example. This means the companies have policies that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and provide equal healthcare for transgender employees. That said, some sources do not think these policies are always enforced.

Sasha Buchert, a transgender attorney at Lambda Legal, says she has heard stories of transgender people being discriminated against in the tech industry, adding that it’s often very difficult to prove someone was intentionally discriminated against. One big reason is that the prejudice is often subtle.

“It’s one thing to have laws and policies—it’s another thing to have the lived equality,” Buchert says. “An employer isn’t going to leave out a smoking gun. They’re not going to tell you they’re not going to hire you or promote you because of your gender identity.”

In a survey from earlier this year, nearly 40% of LGBTQ tech employees claimed to have witnessed harassment of LGBTQ individuals in the workplace. Notably, 25% of LGBTQ Google employees claimed they’d witnessed the harassment of LGBTQ individuals while at work. In a 2017 survey of LGBTQ individuals who left their jobs at tech companies, 64% of them cited bullying as a reason for abandoning their position.

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Tech companies can be welcoming to transgender people who look cisgender, Chevalier explains, but less so to people who are gender nonconforming: “The more similar you are in your presentation and demeanor and opinions to a straight cis person, the more likely you are to succeed.” He says the offices at these companies are largely filled with cisgender straight white men and women.

Dr. Vivienne Ming, a highly respected transgender neuroscientist, artificial intelligence expert, and tech entrepreneur, tells NewNowNext that she faced discrimination early in her carrier. She was fired from an academic position while in the process of transitioning and preparing to have a child, and says that the first time she founded a company everyone was excited about her work but didn’t want her at the helm.

“Everything we were doing was right,” Ming says. “They just couldn’t see me as the person running the company.”

Ming has founded multiple successful companies since then and had a lucrative career (she was named one of the BBC 100 Women in 2017 and one of the Financial Times’ “LGBT leaders and allies today”). She says people pay less attention to her gender identity now that she’s done so well in the industry. “It turns out you make some people some money and no one cares about anything else about you.”

She argues that transgender people can often find a better path forward in the tech industry if they make their own. “Don’t become a part of the system,” Ming says. “Don’t send a résumé somewhere. Don’t wait to go through the system and get the job they want for you. Go create the job for yourself.”

Roxanne, a trans advocate based in Silicon Valley, tells NewNowNext that she started fighting on behalf of other trans women after she lost a job in the legal industry because of her gender identity. She claims that trans unemployment is extremely high in Silicon Valley, and is working to change that.

“All of the companies march in the Pride parade and wave the trans flag, but I know they don’t hire a damn single one of us,” she says, adding that she’s tried to raise these issues with multiple government agencies in the region and has been routinely ignored. She said even the government offices that are supposed to be focusing on helping LGBTQ people don’t actually do much for the transgender community.

“Silicon Valley and Santa Clara County are horrible,” Roxanne says. “They want to brag that they have an LGBT department, but it’s really just a lesbian and gay department.” (Silicon Valley is partially in Santa Clara County.)

Roxanne proposes that every company taking part in San Francisco’s Pride parade should have a staff of at least 0.1% trans women (she claims the percentage is much lower now). She wants these companies to reach out and recruit people from the trans community.

Chevalier says he’d like to see tech employees unionize to demand that more transgender people be hired and that those who have been hired be free from discrimination in the workplace. However, he’s not confident that tech companies will fix this problem on their own accord.
“We see over and over in tech that the companies are never going to self-regulate,” he says.

The bottom line: Transgender people in Silicon Valley just want the LGBTQ movement and its allies to recognize their struggles and fight for their right to work without fear of bias.

Says Roxanne, “We’re being left behind, and we have nothing.”

Thor Benson is a traveling journalist who is currently located in Los Angeles. He has contributed to publications like The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, Rolling Stone and elsewhere
@thor_benson