I've been programming computers for the past 17 years. I got interested in programming for what I take to be a fairly unusual reason. I wasn't one of those kids who had a computer from the age of two and was writing operating systems when they were six -- my family couldn't afford that. But when I was 14, I started taking classes at a local state university and I got access to the Internet. This was 1995, when the Web was still a new technology and sometimes it was more reliable to look up information using gopher. The first Web browser I used was Lynx running on a VAX/VMS system that I accessed by typing on a VT-220 terminal in a library basement.

At that age, I hated math and I thought science was for cold-hearted types who wanted to destroy the environment and hurt animals. I still thought I wanted to be a political cartoonist (though I couldn't draw), and wanted to major in sociology or journalism. That changed when I started surfing the 'net, as people still said at the time. Reading bits and pieces of hacker ephemera like the Geek Code and the Nerdity Test, I sensed that there was a culture out there where I might fit, even though I had no idea what any of the technical terms meant. Still, I sensed an irreverence towards authority and a certain disregard for petty everyday details of identity. I turned out to be wrong about that, but my initial impression served me for a while. In fact, geek culture and programming turned out to be lifelines for me. The latter was an intellectual passion that turned out to be engaging enough to spend the next 17 years on (and that has been my livelihood for my entire adult life), and the former has been the only place I've ever felt I fit, no matter how contingent that feeling of "fit" has been at times. It's almost impossible for me to imagine who I'd be today if I hadn't found the power switch on that VT-220 terminal, if I hadn't learned Pascal in 1995. I am who I am because of hackers and computer scientists.

In retrospect, that was kind of strange, because at the time, most people thought I was a girl (except online, where no one had to know!), and I thought so, too. Maybe I had some internal sense that I really was one of the boys, before I knew consciously. I was blissfully near-unaware of the entrenched misogyny of hacker culture. Or maybe I just had a different angle on it back then; it's hard to say.

To figure out what the geeks were talking about, I took a computer science class, and I was immediately hooked. From then on, the culture was no longer the driving force -- it was the sheer beauty of making a machine do something complicated by writing a simple program that I loved, the layers of abstraction that build ever-more dazzling arrays of functionality on top of a collection of logic gates. For the next six years, I breezed through undergrad high on the joy of computer science (really, mostly the joy of programming). Did I mention that I was at a (historically) women's college? Well, I was... and while the profound alienation I experienced from most of my peers eventually was part of realizing that I wasn't female, I have to give the environment that I was in credit for not implanting too much doubt or impostor syndrome in me. When almost everyone in the room is a woman, worrying that making a mistake will just count towards the list of stupid stuff that girls do stops mattering. For a while, anyway.

That changed when I graduated and went to grad school in computer science at Berkeley, and plunged head-first into a sexist and male-dominated environment without warning, for the first time in my life. Prior to that, I had some sort of belief that computer science people were rational and therefore couldn't really be all that sexist; that sexism was a thing of the past and these days, everyone was eager to include women. I was wrong. I flunked out, and I got a job.

Geek culture has been a double-edged sword for me. It's been a culture that has been welcoming to me, but with limits. When I voiced myself as a transsexual man and started being perceived as male, that removed some of the barriers that had existed before, so that I could feel even more comfortable. But as I moved from being perceived as a woman who was heterosexual-with-exceptions to being perceived as a man who was gay-with-exceptions, I found that new barriers sprang up. I also began to be in situations where I could observe that the culture was much, much less welcoming to trans women than to guys like me.

Nonetheless, software is my vocation and the loose network of people who work on it -- especially open-source people, whose devotion and passion to making software better are impressive and inspiring while also often being the product of much unexamined privilege -- are the home and family I never really had. "Family" means that for better or for worse, my fate will be tied to the fate of this community, even if I leave. For all of its faults, those faults are reflected in me. And because of that, as long as I keep working in this field, I will try to make it better.

So far, working at Mozilla has been the best experience of my career, and yes, that's true even taking into account the damage from the Planet Mozilla incident and its fall-out. I have never worked with a more committed, hardworking, inspiring group of people; every day, my colleagues make me want to work harder and be awesomer. That's why it hurts so much to see some of them fall so short when it comes to inclusion. And that's why I care about this community enough to not want to see it turn into an exclusionary treehouse -- something that would go against the spirit of openness and liberation on which free and open-source software are genuinely based.

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Last modified: Mon Sep 3 23:40:53 PDT 2012