My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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Perpetuating Intolerance: Microsoft and LGBTQ issues

I was horrified when i heard that Microsoft withdrew support for an anti-gay-discrimination bill. At first, i didn’t believe it. I always thought of Microsoft as being super queer friendly. They had won awards for civil rights issues; many of my friends at Microsoft are LGBTQ-identified. Only a few years ago, when i was thinking of going back to industry, Microsoft had done an amazing job of recruitment, involving my girlfriend in the process (and in a trip to a spa), introducing me to other LGBTQ employees and giving me a nice queer guide to Seattle upon arrival. I was exceptionally impressed.

As i dove deeper, i became outright angry and horrified. The justification offered to the LGBTQ group at Microsoft was that they chose to take a “neutral” stand on controversial issues. WTF? “’cause if you’re not trying to make something better / then as far as i can tell / you are just in the way” – Ani

Needless to say, queer folks everywhere got pissed. A prominent employee quit. Outrage poured in everywhere. Succumbing to pressure, Microsoft reversed its stance stating: “After looking at the question from all sides, I’ve concluded that diversity in the workplace is such an important issue for our business that it should be included in our legislative agenda.”

On one hand, i’m glad to see that pressure worked. On the other, i think that some education has to happen here. Whenever issues of marginalization come up, folks often fuck up and when the marginalized population gets pissed, they evaluate if they cries are loud enough. This is not actually a progressive approach. It requires marginalized people to demand their rights, to work extra hard, to always fight rather than forcing privileged folks to do a privilege check and think about what they are doing.

This is particularly problematic in queer issues because the common refrain from the straight world is “keep your sex life out of the professional sphere.” It’s often accompanied by “I don’t bring my sex life to work, why should you?” There are a *lot* of problems with this. Most obviously, take a look at photos on people’s desks, who they bring to company events, who they talk about going home to. “But that’s not about sex!” Neither is a queer identity. The only reason straight folks think it’s about sex is because in order to grapple with a queer identity, they have to bring sex into the picture. Queer issues at work are rarely about sex – they are almost always about identity. It’s about being comfortable with who you are, having the right to love and be loved, having the infrastructure to support your loved one, etc.

There is a hegemonic assumption of straightness and it penetrates this culture to the core. Last week, at the airport, a little girl with her mom looked up at me (traveling alone) and asked “Where’s your husband?” What was i to say? Instead, i stammered.

Straight folks ask me why queer folks always have to remind everyone that they’re queer. Guess what? Every marginalized population consistently reminds you of their identity. Queerness just isn’t written on the body in the same way. We remind you because we’re tired of being invisible. We remind you because invisibility is damaging at every level of society and the more invisible we let ourselves be, the more oppression occurs.

Companies think that they have no responsibility in social issues. Bullshit. Companies are societal infrastructure and when they choose not to get involved, they maintain status quo in the most conservative ways possible. Not getting involved is an act of making people invisible. Companies are hegemonic in their very nature and to be a progressive company, to be a company for the people means to recognize the inequalities and intolerance embedded in society and work to overcome that. It requires action because inaction perpetuates intolerance.

sitting in the boardroom
the i’m-so-bored room
listening to the suits
talk about their world
they can make straight lines
out of almost anything
except for the line
of my upper lip when it curls
Ani

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5 comments to Perpetuating Intolerance: Microsoft and LGBTQ issues

  • “Most obviously, take a look at photos on people’s desks, who they bring to company events, who they talk about going home to.”

    This is the intersection of privilege and discrimination.

    I recently quit job because the environment, however “normal” for the other people there, was incredibly toxic. A place where every joke and conversation begins with presumed prejudices (social, economic, sexual, racial and otherwise) and conspiratorial winks and smiles. On the sexual side there’s the constant talk of husbands/wives/kids. Even though my partner is male they assume I’m not in a serious relationship because we’re neither engaged or married. In order to assess our seriousness they often ask “are you going to have kids” (an INCREDIBLY personal question that they have no business even asking but is perfectly NORMAL…). It’s not until I say “yeah, we’d like to have *a* kid at some point” that they know we are “serious”. I find this whole scenario revolting because it measures my love and respect for my partner according to a bunch of centrist default settings. Now imagine if I told them I had a girlfriend. How do they establish how “serious” we are without the standard heterosexist benchmarks (i.e., engagement, marriage, breeding).

    You can’t simply opt-out of these conversations. Most of the people in these environments don’t seem to have very sophisticated boundaries – it’s normal to barge into somebody else’s space and ask certain kinds of questions “so what does your husband do?” Questions that are loaded with presumption. This is centrist culture and it’s corporate culture. What happened to danah at the airport is part of that. Corporate culture is intimately connected with centrist/consumer ideology. They reinforce and compliment each other.

    Unlike universities or cultural occupations, corporate culture rewards centrist social and cultural identities/values. If you don’t have a paint-by-numbers, made-for-TV life you’re a freak. It’s a little easier for centrist gays and lesbians to *fit in* to this kind of atmosphere but it’s still all about conformit. You’re A-OK-GAY if you’re otherwise the same as they are. That’s not any kind of equality as far as I’m concerned – that’s assimilation.

    Corporate culture has got to change. The whole script. All of it.

  • I’m seeing an enormous amount of pressure to fit in with the dominant religious groups in companies. Preference of some religious holidays over others, prayers (!) to a christian god in internal corporate events – things like that. Of course the dominant religion is anything but queer friendly.

    A young friend has taken to wearing horns in protest. Some people in San Francisco heard about this and someone made her a very nice set of horns (which she is wearing) … it is her reaction to chrome fish and W stickers on cars.

    http://tingilinde.typepad.com/starstuff/2005/05/robyn_wears_her.html

    She just wants people to know…

  • Daniel

    Sometimes little girls walk past me and say “boys can have long hair too!” to their mothers. Most of my friends have experienced something similar. I personally think that lil’ girls are trying out thier correct gender behaviours that have been studiously taught to them by thier mothers.. but thats just an un-informed opinion.

  • I have comments on this, but my head is about to explode with the no computer thing. Plus they’re sort of not-for-google consumption anyway. So I will have to remember to e-mail you.