If you are involved in the running of a community group it’s possible that at some time you’ll have addressed the topic of diversity among your membership. Perhaps you are applying for a grant, you wish to reflect the makeup of your local population, or you’re simply anxious to extend your appeal to all possible members.
You’ll probably have arrived at a set of figures showing the makeup of your organisation, and will thus have an idea of where your diversity strengths and weaknesses lie. In many cases this will focus on gender balance and ethnic diversity, but there may be a nod towards other groups such as the LGBT community. A transgender member of the organisation will probably be used to being the only one, a box ticked in the statistics. Given that this is so often true, it would come as a great surprise for a trans person to discover a new community group where this isn’t the case.
The Impossible Community Group, Made Possible
If such a thing sounds to you like an impossibility, then hold on for a minute. There is one type of community group that bucks this trend: hackspaces. If you are a trans member of a hackspace then it’s probable you won’t find yourself alone. If you’ve not heard of the hackspace movement, it provides shared access to tools and workshop space for makers of all varieties. You can find a hackspace in most major cities, and it will contain people interested in everything from electronics and computers through costume, woodwork, weaving, laser cutting, 3D printing, and textile arts. They are typically vibrant and creative places, and together they form a global movement that has spawned its own culture and festivals.
It’s pleasing for a hackspace director interested in increasing the diversity of their membership to see their trans members thrive, and especially so for a director who happens to be trans themselves. But the happy existence of this subgroup in hackspaces raises a few questions about the nature of diversity: how a hackspace can replicate that success with other under-represented groups such as cis women? And how can other community groups learn from this to make themselves more accessible to trans people?
For all this positivity on the trans front, however, hackspaces do still often often have a diversity issue. At this point in their evolution, their users are often predominantly male, and this can lead to a first encounter with a hackspace being rather intimidating for cis women on top of any issues the women may have with confidence in their own abilities. Thus for many hackspaces it has proved difficult to retain those cis women that do venture in, even when their interests seem so in tune with the facilities they offer.
Looking at our questions about hackspace diversity and acknowledging an MtF viewpoint as a writer, in the first instance it’s worth examining how trans women manage to bridge the intimidation gap mentioned above. And to do that it’s first extremely important to forget any ideas about certain interests being linked to gendered upbringing. A trans woman may have gained an interest in making things while growing up in the male role, but it is self-evident that growing up in the female role does not stop many cis women following the same path. For anyone to walk through the doors of a hackspace they will have pre-qualified themselves as being interested in its offerings, however they grew up.
It Still Seems Like A Man’s World
One answer comes from conversations with fellow female hackspace members. A cis woman prospective member will come to a hackspace to use the facilities. Cis women prospective members also have not come along to be mansplained to or spoken over the top of, so the first visit during which she has any of the above experiences is likely to be her last. It’s a fascinating lesson on unconscious reactions to trans people among what is otherwise an extremely liberal and accepting peer group to see that as a trans woman in a hackspace you are not hit on by your fellow members and are rarely mansplained to. Hence trans women make it past their first visit to a hackspace, while cis women often don’t.
In our hackspace this is an issue we are trying to tackle, and since it would be extremely difficult to change behaviour that is unconscious we are opting for an alternative approach. If a cis woman enters our space and finds a vibrant community of other women there, she’ll stick around even if she’s not there to do the same things. To that end we’ve expanded our textile room and instituted a regular textile open day in the hope of attracting sewing and knitting circles, and more costume enthusiasts. Thus a cis woman in search of our laser cutter will find people like her in the space, even if she won’t be using it alongside them. There should also be the side effect of altering the gender balance to the point at which the unconscious intimidating behaviours become less prevalent.
Making It Happen In Other Groups
It’s pleasing then that the trans people in the hackspace world are normalising the experience of knowing a trans person for the thousands of cis people they encounter in that community. But how can this success be replicated in other groups, and how can trans people who aren’t in the hackspace movement cease to be that single box-ticking statistic? Some people would find it tempting at this point to try to find traits common among trans people to suggest that they are more likely to be the kind of people who would be a better fit for a hackspace, but that is probably a red herring. Instead it’s worth looking at why other organisations may be intimidating to a trans person in a way that a hackspace isn’t.
Since hackspace members are still overwhelmingly cis and male the reason they manage to provide such a fertile environment for trans people must go deeper than simply the composition of the group. Instead perhaps it touches upon how a member gains respect or value within it. Hacker culture has traditionally been very egalitarian; you are known for the areas you are interested in and gain respect for your projects, so whatever you have made it is those things and the skills behind them that matter more to your peers than who you are or where you have come from. Meanwhile in other groups whose structure is more hierarchical or social there is a greater emphasis on conformity, and sadly for many trans people they are less likely to be seen as such by their peers in those environments.
It’s difficult to imagine for instance a traditional sports club or other hierarchical organisation making this change of its own accord, but it is not beyond the bounds of imagination to see that it could be done. Other minority groups have broken the barriers that kept them out of so many community activities, though in some cases it took them many decades. Will we have to wait for the glacial pace of social change to deem us palatable enough, or can we change hearts and minds ourselves? Only time will provide the answer.