Checking the Diversity Checkbox

I’m going to start with a story that I don’t think I’ve shared with anyone before. When I got hired on at my current company, they gave me a form to fill out. The HR representative explained to me that they get a tax credit for diversity in hiring practices. I didn’t have to out myself as anything. All I had to do was check a box. I hesitated for longer than I care to admit. My brain swirling with indecision and fear and doubt as I read through the list what the state considered diverse. I hesitated because it listed being transgender. Noticing my hesitation, the HR representative started clarifying the form more, also mentioning that depression and anxiety count.

I checked the box.

I’ve thought a lot about that decision over the past two years. It’s stuck with me.

I’ve briefly mentioned it before in various other blog posts, but it’s very strange being on the opposite side of the diversity fence. I spent most of my life outwardly being the straight, white, cisgendered, able-bodied nerd. There was nothing diverse about me, at least as far as anyone knew. I didn’t stand out. No one went out of their way to ask me my opinion on anything, but being a straight white guy, I often gave it anyways.

Now, I’m a gay transgender woman, and the differences are hard to get used to. I’m not talking about the physical changes or how everyday people treat you differently, but instead how different it is to be, for the lack of a better term, the token transgender person.

My first experience with being the token transgender person was when I came out at work. I struggled a lot with it, because my boss and HR would ask various questions about how policies should be handled, or what they expected of me, or what I expected of them. They were quick to inform me that they haven’t had to deal with something like this before. While the questions were focused on me, specifically, it felt like I was talking for all transgender people that might eventually come out at the company. I knew that logically I could only advocate for myself, but in the back of my mind I was worried my being so new to transgender issues in the workplace would mean I’d be advocating wrong.

Next, came Code4Lib, and their diversity scholarship. I think that was truly the first point where I really had the realization that I could be benefiting from my newfound diversity. It felt wrong, in a way. I still had that feeling of being a straight white man, and the knowledge that women often get pushed out of technology from a young age. Despite knowing that, logically, the scholarship was made exactly for people like myself, it was hard to separate that from my past, and that feeling of taking advantage of my transness.

That was six months ago. I’ve changed a lot in six months. I’ve changed a lot in the year and a half that I’ve been out as transgender. I’m more comfortable in my own skin. I’m more sure of myself. I’m more willing to make fun of and point out who I am as a person, and with that comes complication.

Just recently I took on a position as a board member of Geekway to the West. They were looking for a webmaster type member. Someone to take over responsibility for their website and hosting. I am extremely qualified for such a position. I’ve been putting together websites for a long time, and for the past few years even doing my own hosting. What is interesting about this position, is that it was the first position I’ve applied for that I was openly transgender.

Geekway to the West’s board member position was something I qualified for on many levels, the least of which being that I checked a diversity checkbox, but that didn’t stop me from semi-jokingly “flexing my trans-girl diversity muscles” when the person doing the decision making said they are actively trying to make the board more diverse. It’s easy for me to point to my credentials as the reason why I got selected, but with any job you’re applying for, checking as many of the boxes that the company is looking for in an employee is important. It felt almost necessary to flex my trans-girl muscles a bit.

For some reason, I felt way fewer qualms about my gender identity being used as a benefit when it came to Geekway’s board member position, than Code4Lib’s scholarship. I feel like a lot of that is because I have credentials that I can prove, and upon getting the position, can further prove by using my talents. At Code4Lib I didn’t really have to do anything to prove I was deserving. I simply had to show up. In addition I wasn’t even out for a year at the time, so it felt like I didn’t earn my transness in a way. Which means it really all comes back to not feeling trans enough.

The most unique part about getting the board member position is that one of the first things brought up to me was a “badge name policy” that was being worked on. Geekway has a real name policy for badges at the convention. Obviously, there is some concern to be had there, because what does “real name” even mean? From someone on the outside, that may not identify with the name they would normally consider their “real name” that can be very problematic. The goal of the badge name policy was to clarify that the convention didn’t require deadnaming yourself.

The policy was great, and didn’t require any real feedback from me, but having it brought to me in such an early stage, so early in my being made a board member felt special. It really alleviated one of the fears of becoming a board member. It was welcoming, and inclusive, and gave me this euphoric feeling of actually being able to do some good beyond simply throwing together a WordPress website.

My joining the Geekway board was received wonderfully. I got congratulations from various members of the community’s slack channel. The board welcomed me with open arms. Most of my first board meeting I just listened, except when it came to bring up the website and hosting of course, but another quick anecdote is that they had a vote on whether or not to include pronouns on convention badges. Once again, no real discussion was needed. As far as I remember the vote was unanimous.

But not all checking of the diversity checkbox goes so smoothly. Last week I was asked to become a mod of r/boardgames’ Discord server. One of the mods sent me a direct message out of the blue, and said that they’re looking to add gender diversity to the discord’s mod team, and wondered if I was interested. “Sure,” I replied, expecting an interview process of some sort. The next thing I knew I was being pinged with a message about welcoming me as a new mod.

The initial reaction was anger about tagging everyone for an announcement, and following that a request for my qualifications because of confusion about my being picked. I made a poor decision, and replied with “i have boobs.”

I should have read the room better. There’s a culture in that particular discord of back and forth trolling and joking about the hobby, and in my unprepared surprise of being made a mod without further discussion, I fell back to joking. I wrongfully assumed that my credentials spoke for themselves.

Apparently, the room thought I wasn’t active enough, and when I was active I argued with everyone. That probably doesn’t surprise anyone that I know. I tend to have a bad habit of wading neck deep in discourse, and being very vocal about my opinions, especially when they might clash. I like debate, even if it’s more fierce than many would be comfortable with.

After the dust settled, I apologized for my poor choice of a joke, and voiced my credentials for the chat. Overall, the community has been supportive and welcoming, but there was at least one member who felt my being made a mod wasn’t worth being a part of the community anymore. I largely blame myself for that happening, and clearly should have handled myself better.

Like my experience with the Discord, the reactions to checking a diversity checkbox are rarely seen as a positive in groups where such diversity is necessary. Board games just happen to be a hobby that leans heavily male. Geekway, as diverse and wonderful of a convention as it is, still sits at only 30% women. According to Women at Warp last year, “Of the 19 designers that won or were nominated for the coveted Spiel des Jahres (Game of the Year award) in the last two years, none identified as a woman, and of the bestselling 25 board games of 2016, none were designed by a woman.”

To combat this, companies such as Alderac Entertainment Group (AEG), are making diversity a goal. Unfortunately, the usual response tends to be “why do we need this?” or in the case of AEG’s call for women game designers, “wouldn’t it be better to publish the best games by the best designers?” I made the mistake of posting that particular link on the r/boardgames subreddit. What remains is a thread of me talking to deleted comments.

Regardless of the poor reactions to the posting, I still submitted the game I am designing to AEG. It scares me though, because if the best case scenario happens and my game gets published I could very well become the target of the very people who took offense to the idea in the first place. It would also be hard to ignore those voices that say the only reason my game got published is because of diversity. I’ve been shopping it around to publishers for about a year now, with little success. I certainly want my game to be published for its own credentials, and because I truly believe that it is a good game worthy of being published. Does winning a women’s only game design contest dilute that worthiness?

Of course, logically, I know that it doesn’t work that way. I know there are hurdles to women becoming game designers, and women getting promotions, and women getting the pay and compensation that they deserve compared to their male counterparts. I know that my being a woman, and a transgender woman at that, is only one aspect of what makes me a marketable person. It is something that you have to continue to remind yourself.

Getting a job, publishing a board game, taking on a new client, or any number of similar goals you might have all require something in common: marketing yourself as a person. In the end, I would rather work for a company, or work with an organization, or publish my game with a company that supports who I am as a person. I don’t want to hide who I am, or pretend that I am something I am not. I want to be able to say that I am a transgender woman, and that I did something awesome.

This is why I started checking that diversity checkbox. This is why the checkbox is important in the first place. If my being out, and blogging helps one person, then I’ve done my job. If my being out and getting a game published convinces one other woman that they can do the same, then I’ve done my job.

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