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Silicon Valley: Queerness in the Age of the Internet

Zoe is a graduate student of Anthropology at the New School. Focussing on the US region ‘silicon valley’, noted for its role in global technological innovation, she looks into the geographically situated experiences of queer people.

The Silicon Valley is a US region in the south bay, starting around Belmont and going down to its ‘capital’ San Jose. As the tech industry grew, the valley became inextricably related to silicon as an essential component of computer chips and semiconductors– the base of (now) everyday tech like computers and cell phones.

The internet revolutionized queer culture in many ways because it allowed us to finally connect with people everywhere.

I used to take for granted how easy we have it in the Bay Area. Living in a liberal hub, where social attitudes are generally progressive, one can easily forget about the hard work and sacrifice that brought about our current situation. In the 1980s, during the AIDS epidemic, the High Tech Gays (HTG) formed as a social LGBTQ group which played a large role in campaigning for employee protections in the tech industry. This led to a place where now, in the 21st century, we face a much lower threat of violence than most places in the United States. San Francisco, like New York City, is one of those places young queers knew they could (and still can) set out for in hopes of escaping to find more welcoming communities.

The contemporary tech industry is getting more queer. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusivity (DEI) departments are established at most companies in the Bay Area, although some of them seem to be more performative than others. Some companies are structured with DEI as a central component and spend time ensuring change is integrated into the work environment whereas other companies seem to only have a 90-second blurb about workplace diversity for the press and then forget about it. But because of the work earlier LGBTQ+ tech employees did, and the work current employees continue to do, people in the industry today generally feel safe enough to be out at work.

In the Bay Area, there is mostly widespread acceptance of cis white gay men and women, but people are slower to accept others past the ‘LG’ letters. My girlfriend is a heavily tattooed trans woman who works in tech and tries to show people that it's ok not to conform. A lot of the Silicon Valley ‘techies’ look similar, so being visibly queer among them becomes a statement.

Silicon Valley’s ‘start-up’ culture praises innovative thinkers who can bring the newest ideas to the table and thus encourages diversity. LGBTQ employees can shape the virtual landscape and respond to the ways that queer people use these virtual spaces. I think in more ‘progressive’ areas like the Bay Area and New York, online queer culture can affect what kinds of expression is acceptable at work. But in many places workplaces continue to reject reflections of online queer culture. It is in these cases that we turn to the internet.

The internet revolutionized queer culture in many ways because it allowed us to finally connect with people everywhere. People started adapting social networking sites to fit their needs and ‘queering’ digital places. Reddit (2005) and Tumblr (2007) are websites based on social interaction between users and allow people to stay anonymous if they want, unlike Facebook which requires a ‘real name.’ This allowed queer people to be more open about ourselves without as much fear of rejection or persecution. It became a ‘place’ you could go to find people you related to when your real-life prevented this location for whatever reason. On Reddit there are dozens of subreddits where people can explore their identities and get advice in a safe place.

Some apps are designed with queer communities in mind (Grindr, HER, etc.) but most of the time we ‘queer’ the spaces we are given. The data mining features of most social networking sites means that our preferences are recorded and our online experience is curated using this data so we see more of what we like. Sometimes it feels like the apps know we are queer before we do. I have found this to be helpful in finding like-minded people but also feel like it promotes (via Instagram especially) the idea that there is a certain way to visually express one’s queerness. Unfortunately, the proliferation of queer culture in online media does not seem to result in more inclusive physical places, unless those places are already more progressive and open-minded.

These digital queer spaces introduced me to LGBTQ+ identities and culture in high school. At that point I identified as bisexual and always felt excluded from physical queer spaces because I felt like I did not look visibly ‘queer’ enough. I found solace back in Tumblr, where I learned about biphobia and how I was not alone in the feelings of exclusion I felt from typical queer spaces. Being queer, you already feel so different, so finding connection to people is an important part of feeling whole.

It took me years to find the queer family I have now. Through friends of friends, I started meeting and becoming friends with bi girls and other queer people. We added each other on apps like Instagram and Facebook where we could stay loosely connected with little effort. Like my experience with Tumblr, this got me by for a little while, but I was still missing real life connection… no matter what, I still must live life outside my phone screen. Luckily, through staying connected on Instagram, I finally found a group of friends I could hang out with regularly - friends who had similar interests and were incredibly loving.

Being queer, you already feel so different, so finding connection to people is an important part of feeling whole.

As we continue trying to navigate life through this pandemic, finding queer spaces and community has changed dramatically. Without the bar scene or community centers, it is harder than ever to find physical spaces to meet. In the new landscape of the pandemic, technology has ‘come to the rescue,’ so to speak. The Billy DeFrank Center - a community space for LGBTQ+ people in San Jose - closed its building to the public and went virtual like most local businesses. The queer house (a place where queer people meet to support each other) I got invited to went on lockdown too, but luckily after a while a small group of us formed a quarantine ‘pod’ so we get to see each other in person. However, for others, the separation from their chosen families is especially damaging during this pandemic. At the moment, many of us are questioning how the pandemic will affect our relationship with technology in the future, this is especially pertinent for the queer community.


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