Creating Space to Share LGBTQ Experiences with Sarah Foster
Sarah Foster started her career in tech contracting at a Yahoo datacenter in Fort Worth, Texas. Subsequently she joined a full-time site operations team in Omaha, Nebraska. She later moved into infrastructure tooling, worked at Facebook in their datacenter operations team for two years, and moved back to Yahoo to join the Performance Engineering Group. In her career she's coordinated with a broad cross-section of wonderful nerds, becoming increasingly loud and queer along the way. She's just celebrated her sixth anniversary with her wife and the co-mother to her three children, all of whom are cats.
Sarah Foster is a trans woman who creates space to tell her story and help open a dialogue with her primarily cis-generdered, heterosexual (cis het) coworkers. She knows the workplace is not always the friendliest place for queer or trans folk, but it can be improved by being open about our experiences. She was kind enough to share her experience and endless advice with us.
BUILT BY GIRLS: Can you describe what and inclusive space means for you personally?
Sarah Foster: Yes, I'm available to speak frankly about my experience as a trans woman and be open about who I am, where I am, what the process has been for me, where I think I'm going, where I've been. I do that because I want to make it more comfortable so that when people who come after me, someone has sort of primed people on what to expect.
But for a lot of people, that won't be the case. Maybe they don't want to talk about it. And a lot of my trans friends are actually currently experiencing kind of like, an openness burnout, where they just don't want to anymore. They just don't want it to affect their day to day work life.
Everyone wants different things. And in the same way that like, you can't say, oh, this is the strategy that makes the people happy, the same is true of LGBTQ people. It's not a one size fits all solution. It's just being responsive.
BBG: So in the workplace, especially, but I guess even just in general, what is an appropriate or a comfortable way for people to ask about your experience?
SF: Well I think one key is if you are looking to discuss LGBTQ things with people, the first step is to be open with your own experience, and say, this is how I identify. Like, for instance, how do you identify? I haven't had that conversation with you.
BBG: I'm a bisexual woman. My pronouns are also she/her.
SF: Great. But that's the sort of thing when you are talking to people, your sexuality isn't going to be an enormous part of it for the most part. My wife is bi. And you know, she feels pretty comfortable being kind of straight and passing in those circumstances, unless I'm there. Like, whenever she's just out and about, it's not really a thing.
The queer community is not perfect. You know, there's a lot of bi erasure. There's a lot of you no doubt around the verisimilitude of people who are visibly queer. And that's not cool. So you know, you can't even trust-- if there's a LGBTQ ERG, are they actually making it a friendlier space for queer people? Maybe, maybe not. It's something that you know, the dialogue needs to be opened up.
And so people who are het need to be comfortable presenting that as not a normative thing. So if you're looking to ask someone about how they feel about their identity, a good place to open up is to just share your own.
BBG: Shifting back to work a little bit, do you have any advice for someone who's newly hired, maybe they're more of a junior team member. What can they do to make themselves, their community, or you know, be a good ally, and make it more comfortable at work?
SF: So my current team is all dudes, all cis, all het, and predominantly white dudes. I do love my team, though, because they never make a deal about it. Like, when they're inviting people and their partners, they don't make a particular point to say like, oh, and you know, Sarah, of course, your wife is invited too. t's just like, yeah, everyone plus one. Cool.
Normalizing it. And again, like, if you think that there might be a trans person on your team, consider just putting your pronouns in your signature. Be the first person to make that move. And don't ask, don't push it. Just you know, engage in good faith.
Even for queer people. Like, start attending. Show up. Do it. Go to the meetings. Engage with the culture internally and get to understand people.
BBG: What would you say to maybe a cis, het person or even a queer person who doesn't know a ton about the trans community and feels awkward or uncomfortable walking into those spaces?
SF: Yeah. So Prism (the Verizon Media LGBTQ ERG) is specifically like, in its charter for queer people and allies.
So I started working at Yahoo, quit for two years and worked at Facebook, and then came here. But where I worked at Facebook was in Iowa. It was very like, oh, we're very funky. Look at our walls of graffiti. Graffiti, we're obviously cool. But everyone made such an effort to include me. And clearly, they hated it. Like, if you hate making particular efforts to include me, I'd rather you just didn't.
BBG: How can you tell if an office or a company is going to be a good fit for you as a queer person?
SF: It's a hard call. It's just like a tactile feeling. When you go into a space, you can kind of tell if you're having to put on a persona. And it's one of those things where I think you just have to be cognizant going in.
When you interview for a job, you're interviewing them as much as they're interviewing you. The best interviews I've ever had, I went them in just like, a casual outfit. And I walked in with the point of view of like, I don't need this job. I need a job, but I don't need this one. There is a job that I can do that's the right one.
And so whenever I go in, I consider like, the effort I'm sitting in right now, can I do this five days a week for eight hours a day? Do I feel a weight? And if you feel the weight, it's just going to build up. So listen to your instincts, and accept that you know, people can change what they do with you. Like, how they respond to you. But they can't change their willingness to change. Like, if they are not responsive in the interview, and you find yourself continuously going to meet people where they are, and they're not meeting you where you are, you get a feeling for it.
BBG: So we did kind of touch on this, but I don't know if you have anything else to say in terms of what specifically straight allies can do.
SF: Minimize your use of excluding pronouns in emails. Make things gender neutral as possible. Make things sexuality neutral as possible. Introspect on where you are making presumptions of cis het normativity. And you know, you're not going to make it perfect right away, but just gradually make an effort to be cognizant of where you might be excluding people. And you can do it continuously in any number of ways. And we all do it. I do it every day. I am a trans sapphic woman, and I still fall into patterns of cis heteronormativity.
Another thing. So there was a guy who asked me about how do I want people to respond when I'm misgendered. Because he said, you know, I'm terrified. Like, it's like kind of when I don't pass super well. So he said, you know, maybe I'll misgender you, but I don't mean to. What do I do? How do you respond to that? What do you want?
Say you're dating a woman, and she says the name of an ex when she means to say your name. Like, it's horrifying. But what do you want her to do after that? And you want her to acknowledge it, you don't want her to harp on it. Just say, oh no sorry. And then move forward. A singular acknowledgment that it happened, and move forward.
Also, ask people, you know, what do you want? Ask them what they need. Let them come out to you. Even if it's me-- like, I saunter in looking hella trans. Like, maybe I'm not?
BBG: What are some things that you think the tech industry in particular do well in terms of like, accommodating LGBTQ folk, and do poorly, like, could improve on?
SF: What they do well is a philosophical emphasis on a meritocracy. There's this idea that anybody can make their way. And that you know, it doesn't matter what your background is. There is the trope of like, you know, the weird queer who's doing great, or like, the dyed hair lady, or like, you know, just anyone who is perceived by the outside world of being something of a freak. Like, they can come here and just operate ostensibly.
But what they do poorly is actually introspect on how well that's operating in practice. And the values are great, the execution needs some looking inward.