Cass Averill remembers the anxiety he felt walking into his manager's office in 2009 to come out as transgender.
"That was probably one of the most terrifying things I've ever done," said Averill, founder of TransPonder, a nonprofit for transgender education, support and resources. "I was, to everyone involved in my process, the first person to ever publicly and visibly transition inside my company. ... There was no precedent [or] anything to refer to."
Having adequate company support and employee resource groups for people who are trans or looking to transition is critical, he says. If people don't find that, they may decide a workplace isn't safe and "will either live a lie or leave."
Averill's experiences are just one example of the widespread challenges trans people across industries face on a regular basis. Transgender people, whose gender identity doesn't align with the sex they were assigned at birth, are susceptible to discrimination, marginalization and violence. This can pose serious risks to their health and well being. In tech, specifically, they can feel defenseless in an industry plagued by sexism, discrimination and "bro culture."
Events like Intuit's trans summit aim to shed light on these challenges and provide resources for trans youth, but there's still plenty of work to be done. It can be particularly challenging for those who are still in the early phase of applying for jobs to find the tools and support required to succeed.
That's why Angelica Ross, who stars as the feisty Candy on the Emmy-winning series Pose, launched TransTech, a social enterprise geared toward providing skills and support for LGBTQI people who want to enter the tech field. The organization, founded in 2014, offers free career prep and courses on everything from coding to public speaking, as well as mentorship. Ross, who is trans, leverages her own experiences in tech and knowledge about the industry to help others seeking employment opportunities and mentorship.
Ross, 39, is currently planning the third annual TransTech Summit, an event focused on providing attendees with tools to boost their careers, network with other LGBTQI people and learn new skills. This year's free program, which takes place virtually Nov. 14 and 15, is slated to have more than 50 workshops, around 3,000 attendees and over 50 corporate sponsors, partners and exhibitors. Past partners have included companies like PayPal, Uber and Groupon.
"As a black trans woman, technology was the catalyst to my development," Ross told me over the phone from Los Angeles. "Especially in my community, when it comes to employment, there can be a lot of energy that feels like hopelessness. But I am fueled by hope."
Expanding tech access
Before she began her acting career, Ross was a webmaster for an adult website and taught herself skills such as photography and graphic design from online video tutorials. As she began doing more work to customize the site, she eventually taught herself to code as well. Ross says these skills kept her from posing on adult sites, which for a while felt like the only option for work -- a struggle a number of characters tackle in Pose.
"Technology saved my life," Ross said. "I was like, 'If this could work for me, this definitely could work for other folks.'"
After shooting photos for rappers and designing backstage passes for artists like Ludacris and Cedric the Entertainer, Ross was eventually hired to develop the employment coordination program for Chicago House's TransLife Center, an organization that helps trans people find housing, employment and medical care. She had already been formulating the blueprint for TransTech, and asked her teammates at Chicago House to work with her on the initiative.
Ross has since been working on getting more LGBTQI centers across the country to become TransTech hubs. The current hub in Miami essentially resembles a coworking space, complete with conference rooms, computer labs and break rooms. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, members could access the space Monday through Saturday and use that time to look for jobs, connect with mentors, or access systems to help them find freelance, remote work during their transition process. Now, many of those trainings and resources are available online.
Because some young people have already transitioned before entering the workforce, TransTech also helps members with job training and sorting out any preliminary steps such as getting their names changed on documents so they can present themselves the way they want when applying for roles.
Removing unconscious bias
While some employees enter the workforce having already transitioned, others deal with the unique challenges of doing so in the middle of their careers.
Geena Louise Rollins had already worked in tech for several years before transitioning, but that didn't prevent her from facing prejudices that women -- particularly those who are trans -- deal with on a regular basis.
"I'm finding the hardest thing about being a trans woman is just being a woman software engineer," said Rollins, a distributed big-data consulting architect for consulting business Leapfire Solutions. People often don't believe she knows what she's talking about, she says, and she feels a greater obligation to back up what she says when giving a talk. Once, when expressing interest in a solutions architect position at another company, the director of recruiting responded, "That position is fairly technical. Maybe you'd like a phone support position."
The problem, Rollins explains, is people often don't even realize they have prejudices and treat people differently based on their gender or sexual identity. She notes that it's up to companies to get serious about holding gender equality training and sessions on managing unconscious biases, especially in orientations.
The resources offered through TransTech can be helpful for people who, like Averill and Rollins, have struggled to feel welcome in spaces where there haven't been many others to lead the way. Ultimately, the organization's mission boils down to supporting and promoting self-worth among members so they can go out and reach their professional and life goals, Ross says.
"When you don't value yourself, you allow others to devalue you," she said. "You can increase your skills and you can be valuable with whatever abilities you have. Focus on that and not comparing yourself to someone else, and you'll see how fast things start to change."