On a sweltering July Monday at Google’s New York headquarters, in a conference room four floors above Chelsea Market, a dozen queer teenagers were introducing themselves to one another. “Danny, he/him pronouns,” said a seventeen-year-old from Queens with long hair and fingerless gloves. He’d been writing video game storylines since he was eight; this was his second time at Maven, a week-long free summer camp held in San Francisco, Boulder, Austin, and New York for LGBTQ teenagers and young adults interested in tech. As an icebreaker, the teens had been told to name a genderless green fuzzball with eyes — and to give it a backstory. The fuzzball had to have a weakness, and Danny decided that it was compulsive reblogging. The team named it “dat boi” after a viral image of a cartoon frog riding a unicycle; it was their homage to a “dank meme.” The rest of the room fluttered in approval.
These are kids of the internet: They grew up on YouTube and Wi-Fi-connected multiplayer games and most of them have Tumblrs and think Facebook is for old people. In other words, your average crew of teens in 2016. But in the offices of the tech elite where the campers would spend the next week learning how to build a video game, they were not exactly the typical constituency. Both Silicons — Valley and Alley — are notorious for hiring a miniscule number of people of color or from low-income backgrounds, let alone gender-nonconforming and queer people; each young person selected for Maven is a member of at least one of those communities. Most are all three.
At the front of the conference room, a camp leader was going over a poster of camp rules; “check your privilege” was near the top. In red lipstick and a backwards baseball cap, Je’Jae Cleopatra Daniels, a twenty-year-old Hunter College student who hopes for a career in media and marketing and uses they/them pronouns, smoothed their dashiki and began to describe the term: “There’s cis privilege, male privilege, white privilege,” they explained. “The list goes on and on.”
Having a bunch of queer teens talking about privilege in the middle of Google’s offices — blocks from the piers where queer people of color used to gather and socialize before the average neighborhood rent was $3,800 — is exactly the kind of incursion activist Monica Ann Arrambide had in mind when she started Maven four years ago. She’d worked for years in LGBT youth centers; over time she grew frustrated as the centers, which are often the only places queer kids can access healthcare or social services in their communities, botched their attempts to reach kids online. “This is what young people live and breathe,” she said, and the centers just weren’t getting it. “At the end of the day, youth need to be served. They’re committing suicide.”
Despite having no background in tech herself, Arrambide started Maven not only to teach the kind of basic digital literacy those youth centers sorely lacked, but also to show kids who go through the program just what it would be like to become tech workers themselves. Throughout the week, different tech companies host participants at their offices: Besides Google, the New York campers had stops at Pandora and Tumblr before spending the last two days at Microsoft. At each office, employees mingled with the campers, offering technical instruction and career advice. By the end of the week, campers learn how to build video games on open-source software they can use at home.
Participants have to apply for the limited number of slots, which Arrambide prefers to fill with applicants who would likely never have otherwise gotten close to tech’s centers of power. You can tell when a kid has practice filing applications, she said. (“They write a lot; they say all the right things.”) Arrambide sifts the applicant pool for students like Je’Jae, who had been thrown out of their home the month before, during NYC Pride. Their mother, a Yemenite Orthodox Jewish wigmaker living in a predominantly white, Ashkenazi-Jewish community on the Lower East Side, had previously been supportive of Je’Jae’s incremental steps in recent years to live as a gender-nonconforming person — even tolerating Je’Jae’s break from the tight-knit, religious community. But one night, Je’Jae said, “She made a U-turn” and kicked them out. They applied for and got into a “transitional housing” shelter program at the Hetrick-Martin Institute, a center for at-risk LGBT youth in Astor Place. If all goes well, Je’Jae will graduate in the fall into a public housing program that’ll only cost $200 or $300, which they’ll scrape together somehow.
Je’Jae was the oldest person at camp; they didn’t get in on the first try. Once accepted, the program tries to eliminate as many of the burdens of participating as possible. In addition to declining to charge the kids a fee, Arrambide asks tech companies for their old laptops, to give to those she figures probably don’t have one at home. “I’m sure if there were costs to Maven, the demographic would be totally different,” Je’Jae explained. “It’d be all cis white gay boys, like everywhere else in tech.”
No good industry-wide data exist that count LGBTQ people in the tech workforce, but the indications aren’t promising: Apple CEO Tim Cook and PayPal founder and Silicon Valley shogun Peter Thiel, both only recently openly gay (and both cis and white), are virtually alone in the highest tiers of the industry. Maven hopes to see that number grow: The organization is just one of a expanding cohort of programs that have decided that increasing diversity in the tech sector can only happen if typically excluded young people are granted the means to break into it. Similar programs like Black Girls Code, Girls Who Code, and Code2040, named for the year minorities will overtake whites as America’s majority demographic, have risen up to puncture the rhetoric of meritocracy that dominates what is a starkly homogeneous profession: Black people and Latinos make up fully 28 percent of the American workforce but just 6 percent of Twitter’s U.S.-based employees, for example; that share diminishes to just 5 percent at Google, where 70 percent of workers are men. The Obama administration has even identified lack of diversity in tech as a problem robbing the U.S. of potential innovation, which translates to a significant chunk of missed economic growth: In June, the White House announced it would back new initiatives to promote tech diversity, citing a report released that month by Intel Corporation and Dalberg Global Development Advisors that estimated “an additional $470 to $570 billion in new value for the U.S. technology industry” if it diversified its workforce.
Not all of Arrambide’s fellow activists understand why she works with tech companies. “In my personal circle,” she said, “there’s a judgment of it.” To some, tech companies’ drastic diversity problems suggest the issue may be long past fixing: As Mitch Kapor, a startup investor, put it in a post on Medium last year, in a lineup of startups worth more than $1 billion, “you won’t see any African American or Latino/a faces, and you will see hardly any women.” Some feel the tech industry, as it eats up whole cities and spits out the queer and low-income people who can no longer afford to live there, must be overtly opposed. As Isa Noyola, a transgender Latina activist in San Francisco, told the Guardian earlier this summer about why she wouldn’t walk in the city’s Pride parade, which was filled with floats from Google and Facebook: “It’s ironic to walk alongside tech companies that have displaced us.”
But Arrambide is more optimistic. Maven operates on the belief that it’s possible to transform tech from within, placing the onus of change on the companies themselves instead of forcing the kids to adapt to business as usual. The camp is entirely funded by gifts from the tech companies, and during the tours of various headquarters, employee volunteers teach computer science skills. Before any of them interact with campers, Arrambide sends out a sheet with best practices that’s similar to the information she gives all the kids at the start of camp: For example, pronouns are important and misgendering hurts, so if you don’t know a person’s preferred gender pronouns, default to their name, or just use the neutral “they.”
Some companies rise to the challenge — Tumblr, for instance, volunteered its space for one day of the camp and bought rainbow bagels for the kids for breakfast. But others, predictably, flounder: One of the tech companies Arrambide had scheduled for the camp one year (she won’t say which) got cold feet after reading the sheet, worried that its employees might “mess up.” “If they mess up, they’ll get called out on it,” Arrambide said. “That’s good for them — it’s how growth happens.” From what she can tell, Maven has forced at least a few places to acknowledge and fix the problems that create obstacles for LGBTQ workers. One tech company, which she also declined to name, eliminated gender from its job application forms after Maven’s office visit. Another, indeed.com, said it would add a gender-neutral bathroom to its offices in Austin after holding camp there.
But the program works just as hard to get these kids into tech careers as it does to remind them that they form a community of their own. In a post-Orlando world, more people are beginning to realize that being queer means you aren’t really safe anywhere — but being visibly genderqueer or trans every day as a teenager is an especially courageous shade of lipstick to wear. Just being in a room together is like breathing fresh air. “Everyone came here with their own emotional package,” Je’Jae said. “But people really help each other here. There’s a feeling that we should be here. How often does someone my age get to hear that from the world?”
On the last day of camp, the campers were sprawled out in a conference room at Microsoft’s Times Square offices, on the same floor as a gender-neutral restroom. As the clock wound down to demo time, the soundtrack to the video game Undertail was piped in through the room’s speakers and, at each crescendo, the whole room would start humming along. Arrambide had ordered extra pizza for lunch, anticipating that it might be the only food some of the attendees would have access to that day. “Some of these kids might take a whole pie when they leave,” she explained. Je’Jae came in late: They’d had an appointment that morning they had to attend in order to get public assistance. They’d wanted to make a Sims-like game where people could play as gender-nonconforming characters and be faced with situations like the ones they face every day — finding a gender-neutral bathroom, being misgendered — but there hadn’t been time. They finally rushed in and grabbed a few slices.
By the afternoon, most of the other students were finishing up. Across the room, three teens were hunched over laptops. “I made my character trans, because I’m trans,” Sam Gonzalez, a high school junior from Brooklyn, said giddily, pulling up a rendering of the character he’d drawn on his laptop. Sam likes anime best — he’s been drawing in the style since he was eight — and, after five days at Maven, he now knows how to use an illustration pad and to use a program called FireAlpaca to integrate his creations into a game. Sam did all the drawing; Kyle Figueroa, fourteen, did the coding; and Danny Geraldi, seventeen, wrote the dialogue and storyline.
Final Night features six gender-ambiguous anime figures in futuristic clothing. Each character is accused of a crime they didn’t commit — so while they try to stop villains, they must also avoid being detained. Players trying to save the world must contemplate whether that world is really worth saving after all.
“The characters don’t have any gender,” Kyle, who is also trans, said. The team wanted to make them relatable, so that people like them could see themselves reflected in the game’s heroes: the main character dressed in knee-high white boots, a magenta-and-white cloak; the tuft of magenta in his hair a perfect match for Sam’s.