Extending digital opportunities to LGBTQ+ communities: An interview with LGBT Tech

Chris Wood and Kristen Kelley of LGBT Tech tell Computing about their work, and explain why it is needed as much now as it was was when this not-for-profit organisation was founded a decade ago.

LGBT Tech is a not-for profit organisation built on empirical research into the adoption and use of technology by the LGBTQ+ community, the benefit technology can bring and any trends specific to the community. Chris Wood, Co-founder and Executive Director (pictured), explains why this research was needed:  

"There's very limited research when it comes to the LGBTQ community historically because any data collection, even pre computers, was typically used against our community. Laws and tools were used to punish and out our community, so people would lose jobs, homes and economic status."

"We've continued looking further into the ways that LGBTQ individuals are using different technologies, either historically or today or possibly in the future, and we educate companies and policymakers about those unique needs and ensure that they're taking them into consideration, especially when it comes to sensitive data."

Wood raises privacy as an issue which has disproportionately affected and continues to affect LGBTQ+ people, but the organisation covers many other areas. AI, for example, disproportionately impacts minority communities due to high error rates. Digital healthcare services are also key as LGBTQ+ individuals face patchy access to healthcare and discrimination when they engage with it. They're more likely to need mental health services, but less likely to be able to access them.

Programme development

It was on a growing platform of research that LGBT Tech then went on to develop programmes such as their PowerON and PATHS programmes.

PowerOn involves the distribution of technology to disadvantaged LGBTQ+ individuals through a network of LGBTQ+ grantee organisations across the United States. LGBTQ+ individuals who have been beneficiaries of the program have used this technology to complete their education, find jobs and secure housing. Wood explains how PowerOn is developing:

"To date, we've distributed over $250,000 worth of technology. We've started piloting a programme where we're evaluating putting technology into the hands of LGBTQ asylum seekers around the world. We've partnered with an organisation that works with asylum seekers and provides not only connection points, but also a long training for them to feel more positive about themselves because a lot of these individuals are places which are homophobic or it's illegal to be LGBTQ. We also teach them basic skills so that when they gain asylum, they can find jobs and become productive members of society."

Kristen Kelley, LGBT Tech

Kristen Kelley explains the PATHS program, which tries to enhance the visibility of LGBTQ+ individuals working in STEAM - Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics. 

"We recognise that there are a lot of barriers to entry for LGBTQ+ individuals into STEAM fields, which includes areas like graphic design, UI and UX, and not only to enter into those fields, but to stay in them. We want to break down some of those barriers, mainly through storytelling. We're conducting interviews with people from across the LGBTQ+ community from across STEAM fields and talking about what their experience has been in those fields."

"Our goal is to create that visibility so, hopefully, people who are interested in STEAM roles from within our community can have a point of reference in terms of seeing somebody with whom they can identify. We also want to be able to provide the tools that empower them to stay in STEAM roles. We're looking at creating a network of mentorship and providing some other opportunities (which will be announced later this year) to empower people to be in those spaces, which are not only sometimes inaccessible for Queer communities, but also a lot of the time for cisgender women, for people of colour and for all marginalised communities."

Technology doesn't know borders - Chris Wood

Computing has explored the issue of high attrition rates of women in technology but, as Kelley emphasises, all under-represented communities face challenges that drive them out of the sector in much greater proportions than the white men who still dominate executive tables, as well as middle and senior management positions.

"There are lots of different barriers," says Kelly. "The pay gap and the way that marginalised people's work is undervalued in comparison to other men and white people poses some very tangible barriers in terms of being able to maintain that work, but also it can be very demotivating to be in those spaces.

"There's also a lack of good company cultures around inclusion. A lot of companies will implement a DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) program to hire diversely, but then stop there. What can then happen is that people are hired into unsafe working conditions where, for example, a transgender person doesn't have a safe place to use a bathroom, or they're vulnerable to harassment by clients or co-workers.

"It's really important that along with efforts to hire a diverse workforce that companies create a culture of inclusion as well. That begins with listening to those employees and doing outside research at the same time.  It's important to listen to employees when they talk about their experiences and make decisions based on that. All employees should be educated to support those employees in their work, but the responsibility for that shouldn't fall on marginalised employees."

Indeed, in a recent analysis of employee communities by Computing this point was raised by multiple contributors. Reshaping corporate culture into a more progressive and inclusive environment can only be achieved by means of executive support and involvement.

LGBT Tech are primarily US based, although Wood emphasises that he is keen to extend the reach of the organisation into Europe and the UK.

"We would love to do more work in the UK. We work really closely with several organisations around privacy. One of them is the Future of Privacy Forum which has an office in Brussels. We are definitely looking at ways that we can continue to expand."

"Having said that, PATHS is global. We're telling stories online. Technology doesn't know borders and so being able to put this online allows anybody around the world of any background and companies that are based in different countries to see that."