A curly-haired woman in a sleeveless black top smiles next to a brick wall.
Karla O’Brien. Image: Luke Maxwell

Being trans in tech: Why are we here, and where are we?

7 Sep 2018

Karla O’Brien wondered why she found so many trans people working in tech and asks if this is because of their experience exploring identity in an online world.

There are a lot of stereotypes around the indicators that a child might be trans that go around. Did you catch your son playing with dolls or dressing up in his sisters’ clothes? Did your daughter cut her hair short and want to play football with the boys?

While, fortunately, we’re growing out of such binary stereotypes as a society, these are still the sort of questions that get thrown around. It’s easy to see why, for centuries, boys and girls have been told to dress differently and play differently. So, what happens when we create new ways to play and to be, in a space distinct from somebody’s physical form and the expectations that come with it? In my brief experience, you end up with a lot of trans people knowing that space very well.

From the moment I was born, I was indoctrinated into the world of gaming. Before I could walk I could do a lap on Super Mario Kart. My first adversaries were Bowser, Ganon and the malfunctioning cartridge slot that would spit games out right as I was about to complete them. Most importantly, these games provided me with the first experience of escapism in my life.

Of course, I didn’t understand at the time why it was that I was picking Princess Peach for every race (apart from brief trials of the genderless and obvious best racer: Yoshi). I also couldn’t say whether or not the people around me became aware that this infant boy would continuously pick a female character when presented with the choice. I never had a sister, and hence no wardrobe to sneak things from, and the closest thing I owned to a doll was a toy of the pink Power Ranger. So, was this my stereotypical warning indicator of the future?

‘This little avatar wasn’t just going to be how I saw myself in the game; it would be how I wanted the world to see me, and I was already ashamed of it’

As I grew, I began to realise the disparities between the worlds in those cartridges and the world I lived in, with regards to who I could be and how I could be that person. As I entered school and began to play games of imagination with my friends, it was clear the rules were different here. This was a taste of the reality of those who came before me. There was only one world to live in and one way to live in it. Here, I wasn’t allowed to be the princess.

This meant, growing up, that I found a certain solace in a virtual, heavily pixelated world. While my time was obviously not exclusively spent there, the comfort I got was exclusive to that time. I’ll show my youth by saying I was not around for the birth of the internet, but I certainly remember when it became readily available to a suburban house in Ireland.

This was a game-changer for me. Suddenly, the script was thrown out the window. I was free to explore the bare-bones social networks, Second Lifes and Flash games.

I spent most of my time on a cheap Second Life knock-off. Once again, you could choose and customise an avatar to represent you in this world. I wanted to think nothing of continuing my trend of choosing a female character, but I knew this was different. This little avatar wasn’t just going to be how I saw myself in the game; it would be how I wanted the world to see me, and I was already ashamed of it. I would click out of the window every time a family member came into the office where our PC was. (Must not have looked in any way suspicious to see me sitting in front of the desktop background every time they entered.)

I kept up these sort of accounts through my adolescence, often having two separate profiles: one for me, and one for who my local friends thought I was. Unfortunately, as I got older, my dysphoria hit hard enough that this anonymous online transition was no longer cutting it. I had to come out in the real world too.

‘Will there be a gender option when our consciousness is uploaded to the cloud?’

I covered most of that story in my talk at Inspirefest 2016, but what’s happened since then has really inspired me to write this. People reached out to me from around the world after my talk was shared on social media. So many of them in the same position I was – on hidden Facebook accounts, reaching out from secret email addresses. It made me realise that the online world was chock-full of people living a life they couldn’t in another medium.

I started to think about the people in my position that came before me, and the workarounds they would use to be themselves. Not so long ago, they were limited to ads at the back of magazines in even the most progressive of areas.

Then, I start to look forward. Even in the time that my true self has left the online space and begun to be exposed to a world beyond my computer, there have been massive advancements. This year saw the world of VRChat take off – a social game akin to the ones I would play in my adolescence. Obviously, this is played with a virtual-reality headset and a microphone. I now know closeted trans people playing in what is very literally a virtual reality, using an avatar to represent a look closer to the one they want and a voice modifier to match.

So, what’s to come of this trend? Will there be a gender option when our consciousness is uploaded to the cloud? Obviously, the hope is that people stop needing a virtual world to hide themselves in, but for now I’m more interested in the effects of this practice.

In my short experience being trans in tech, I’ve realised just how populous we are here. My first realisation came when I told another trans person what it was I did and they just laughed and said: “Of course you do.” Without realising it, I was now fitting a new stereotype.

There are some well-known cases of trans people in tech nowadays. In a real-world sense you have people like Sophie Wilson, designer of the ARM processor’s instruction set as well as the BBC BASIC programming language. We’re even portrayed in fictional environments, too. Jamie Clayton plays Nomi Marks, a transgender hacker, in Netflix’s Sense8 – also created by two transgender women.

My theory is that the escapism felt by me and many other trans people is the reason so many of us find a home in tech. We feel a sort of nostalgia for the first place to accept us as we are.

‘The Wikipedia page of LGBT characters in video games shows a very clear trend of a silent T’

What I never understood in my years of gaming, however, is why, if there are so many of us here, is our representation so poor? The Wikipedia page of LGBT characters in video games shows a very clear trend of a silent T, with many of the few trans characters’ identities being used as comical plot points. Surely a field in which we are so populous would yield better representation than that? Is it a case that the general player-base is still too narrow-minded in the post-Gamergate world? Battlefield and Call of Duty received huge criticism from gamers this year for representing someone with a physical disability and a member of the LGBT community, respectively.

I hope, however, that we are living in a changing of the guard. That as the people who lived a similar experience to mine enter the workforce and start to create the content rather than consume it, we’ll start to see a positive shift. Dream Daddy a gay, trans-inclusive dating simulator, was released last year to almost unanimous praise.

‘I’ll always have a soft spot for the world that first allowed me to be a princess’

I find the world of online gaming strange to me now. I took an extended break after my transition and only recently returned to it more seriously. I quickly realised that though in my real life I am visibly and proudly trans, in this world I’m now largely represented by my voice. Which, to my dismay, still very much reads as male. So, as I started to play a couple of games with the same people, I realised that they didn’t realise I was actually female. Gaming had gone from my only escape to the only place I was still being seen as male.

Coming out to those near-strangers a few weeks back was surprisingly tough. I felt all the familiar fears I had three years ago in my kitchen in front of my parents. But, just like then, it had to be done. The word transgender hung over our voice chat for about three milliseconds before the response came through.

“Why did you think that would matter to me?”

All at once, I felt right back at home in this world. Try as I might to be one in my day-to-day life, I’ll always have a soft spot for the world that first allowed me to be a princess.

By Karla O’Brien

Karla O’Brien is a final-year student of computer science in University College Dublin and an intern with the Inspirefest team at Silicon Republic. Seasoned in gaming and football, she’s starting to dip her feet into the world of stand-up comedy, one stuttered punchline at a time.

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event celebrating the point where science, technology and the arts collide. Ultra Early Bird tickets for Inspirefest 2019 are available now.

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