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On appropriating gender identity

Or, why it actually does matter that Victor Johnson pretended to be a woman.

For years, even decades, there’s been no shortage of dialog about diversity. Biodiversity is important to human health and the planet.0 Workplace diversity can promote positive professional and economic outcomes.1 Diversity in the media can bring valuable perspectives2 that have otherwise, for decades, been mostly driven (at least in the United States) by white men of European descent. Conversations about diversity have become part of the fabric of our progressive society.

Tenderfeet studying diversity’s role in progress towards equity, civil rights, and social justice can be heard proselytizing, “I don’t notice the color of someone’s skin — we’re all the same,” or, “Women can do everything men can do,” or, “What you say is all that matters — your background isn’t relevant.” Unfortunately, these assertions ignore the core of diversity: We’re not all the same. Our differences are important. Our uniqueness creates the very lens through which we see the world. It’s the core of our identities. We can’t always do the same things as other people, for any number of reasons — physical differences, privilege, world view, mental state, personal and cultural history…. But differences mustn’t carry a value judgement. The differences themselves aren’t good or bad. But diversity is valuable because it disrupts homogeneity.3

And so, when a new plant is introduced to an ecosystem, a new person is introduced to a workplace, a new voice enters your news landscape, it tends to pique the interest of those who understand the value of diversity. We know that, in the best possible sense, this plant, this perspective, this voice might be just what the ecosystem needs to improve, to evolve, to increase its heterogeneity, and as such, its strength and resilience. (And we hope that it won’t become Audrey II.)

Smart, powerful people know that monocultures can become stagnant, change-averse, torpid.4 As such, we see some well-known names behind large-scale movements encouraging more women and girls to become involved in science and technology,5 helping them to overcome historical and systemic obstacles. Many well-respected men’s voices in the technology community (because, let’s face it, most of the strong voices in the technology community are men) have made it a point of supporting, advocating for, elevating, and respecting the voices of women, women who are trying to participate in a community that has historically done the opposite. Several men are doing yeoman’s service to try make women feel as comfortable as, and enjoy as many opportunities as, their men counterparts do. It’s a sea change.

Remember Rachel Dolezal, NAACP branch president in Spokane, Washington? Her cultural appropriation was an affront to people of color. She lied. She misrepresented herself, her past, her life experience, and the context of her message. She was offensive in her characterization of her fake self, taking on an identity that was manufactured by observation rather than experience. She deceived in order to avail herself of redress intended for others.

So what of gender appropriation?

Gender appropriation happens when members of the majority (in this case, men) decide that womanhood is a performance…Gender appropriation leads to womanhood being defined by people who aren’t women. It takes the control of women’s lives and identities out of their hands and into those who benefit from their oppression. —Jonah Mix

Gender appropriation is a big deal. When a man appropriates a woman’s gender, no matter what he says or does otherwise, his message is necessarily eclipsed by his character.6 A man misrepresenting himself as a woman in the tech world is a tidal wave against progress.

I smile when tech mavens invite less-known (but exceptional) women onto their podcasts for the first time. It was delightful to see a popular man in tech recently publish a list of interesting women bloggers who are now likely to see a well-deserved bump in readership. Other men have chosen to write long form, and with specificity, about the importance of women’s voices. If more men notice and emulate this behavior, something exciting and positive can begin to spread.


What happens when they’re duped by a poltroon appropriating the gender of a woman, even lied to about hot-button issues to get attention? They’re deceived, and unwittingly elevate the voice of a fraud. When the fraud is discovered, what begins to spread is, instead, suspicion and mistrust. What will those progressive men do next time? It’s human nature for them to be more cautious. To at least look for proof. At worst, to avoid welcoming those voices until they’ve made darned sure that they’re not going to be duped again.

As a woman, my first fear is, “Will men be comfortable including me anymore? Will I have to share my photo, my voice, my contact information to prove the authenticity of my gender before I am welcomed? Do I feel safe sharing those things?”

“Or should I just continue to sit down?”

Here’s hoping that gender appropriation will not drown progress.

Some personal context
I studied computer science in college, back in the mid-1980s. I’d planned to major in it. I was the only woman in my first relatively large CS lecture course. While I did get along with many of my classmates, even those I was close to would figuratively (or, yes, literally) pat me on the head when I struggled with some part of the curriculum. Can any programmer say s/he hasn’t grappled, however briefly, with some part of a technical concept or syntax? But my struggles were labeled “cute”. Even my advisor tended toward dismissive — I was the only woman in his cohort, and I never enjoyed equal time compared to the men who were colleagues. All the CS faculty were men. Before I finished the first semester, I knew this was not a world I wanted to work in any longer. While I did go on to study — in fact, I did pretty well in — logic (in the Philosophy department, not CS), and continued to learn about programming with a few courses here and there, I switched my major to English.

Did my gender matter in this case? Of course it did. Was I welcomed into this established community of (virtually all men) computer programmers? Only as a novelty. (One lab group actually dubbed me the “little sister” of the group, even though I often coded circles around them.) Was I brave or mature enough to stand up for myself, to reject the discrimination? Nope. I was 17 years old. It was the 1980s.

I sat down.

I quit and ran away.

Now, it’s 2015. The world is different, and I’m again in the world of technology, as a web programmer. Decades after bending BASIC and Pascal to my will, I cut my teeth on HTML and CSS. Then Perl, PHP, and JavaScript were a natural progression for me. I started (but mostly skipped) the Ruby on Rails trend, but am recently picking up Python and R. And you know, it turns out, I’m pretty decent at this programming thing. (Well, good enough to have made a career out of it for the past twenty-mumble years). All this to say, I know what it’s like to be a woman working in tech. Sometimes, other people make it suck.


One Comment

  1. Sonya Mann wrote:

    Thank you for writing this!

    Tuesday, December 1, 2015 at 1:10 am | Permalink