Last year, two organizers from Hacking//Hustling were rejected from speaking at last year’s Lesbians Who Tech convening in San Francisco, which took place shortly after SESTA-FOSTA was signed into law. Hacking//Hustling provided a partial scholarship to Baby Fat (@babyfat.jpeg) to attend and make sure that there would be sex worker representation at the conference. Baby Fat’s reflections on her experience at Lesbians Who Tech as a sex working Femme are below.
A few months ago, I was able to attend my first Lesbians Who Tech summit thanks largely to the support of my community. At the time of attending I was working as a digital media associate at a Queer healthcare nonprofit. Most of my 9-5 background has come from my work in Queer nonprofits, working mostly in direct outreach. For the last three years I have worked in tech specific positions within nonprofits, skills which I was able to acquire because of my hustling. I’m from a nontraditional background, but hustling has taught me everything I know about tech, marketing, and community management.
It’s worth mentioning I was able to attend the conference because I was awarded a partial scholarship for them. I attended the summit because I have always had a passion for social media and believe in its ability to connect community and provide accessible education, especially as it relates to Queer sexuality and wellness. From a hustling perspective, it’s the best way for me to engage and advertise to those who utilize the multitude of my services. Post FOSTA/SESTA I have had to rely even more heavily on social media and have since began operating more discreetly.
While the conference was exciting and I was able to connect with some great folks I often felt that some overall nuance was missing. There was a lack of intentional conversations around gentrification, sex work, and the Queer complacency. Navigating the space as a fat femme sex worker was complex and exhausting at times, between being unable to fit in certain seating, being talked down to by masc attendees, or feeling uncomfortable disclosing the extent of my work. Because a bulk of my 9-5 career has been in nonprofits a majority of the conferences I have attended have been specifically dedicated to Queer theory, resistance, and community building. However, these spaces often lack on seeing the importance of tech within these movements and have been slow to adapt to the changes tech have created in communities. I think LWT is doing better work than most other tech specific conferences, but I do think they could benefit from adapting some of the approaches and topics Queer nonprofit conferences have.
Throughout the summit, I heard no mentions of gentrification from LWT leadership, which felt especially out of place considering that LWT seeks to empower the very people gentrification disproportionately effects. While gentrification has been a popular conversation in tech spaces, having been discussed in length, I can understand how it feels like it might not need as much attention. But I still feel it’s incredibly important to have some intentional dialogue and education around it. I’m from Chicago and the city’s recent tech expansion and attempt at being a global city has reinvigorated the conversation of gentrification and tech. If LWT truly aims to create a more intersectional and diverse tech workforce than they need to fully engage the communities that are being displaced by tech gentrification. LWT leadership needs to recognize they have a platform to educate and incite change. Choosing not to talk about gentrification is choosing to be complicit in it.
At the root of complicity are respectability politics, something LWT engages heavily in, in order to maintain funding, connections, and a respectable reputation. But with these politics comes the erasure of some folks who rely on tech for their safety and economic stability. Sex workers have always been at the forefront of using and building the popularity of tech platforms and services. Between navigating digital banking, advertising online, and censorship on social media sex workers utilize tech at significant rates. Sex workers made Cashapp and Venmo mainstream, and continue to be a driving force between both banking systems growth. But both systems, as well as most social media platforms, have made it increasingly difficult for sex workers to continue using them.
I went to LWT knowing that there were no formal mentions of sex work in the programming, an oversight considering the historical connections between sex work and Queer folks. After all, pride was started by Marsha P. Johnson, a Black Trans woman, and a sex worker. Countless other Queer revolutionaries like Sylvia Rivera, Amber L. Hollibaugh, and Miss Major among numerous others have been on the front lines of Queer liberation. But as Queer folks have become more assimilated into mainstream culture, Queer sex workers have been pushed farther to the fringes by their own communities.
Whenever in casual conversation with other attendees, the mention of sex work would make them uncomfortable. When I disclosed my experiences in navigating social media as a sex worker, I could feel them try to calculate what type of work I did. It felt like I had to prove my credentials and cleanliness to them. I had a few people implore what type of sex work I did, and I generally got the feeling from them that some forms were more acceptable than others. Often times folks would withdraw from the conversation or worse, explain to me how they knew things were “difficult” because they read a Vice article once. When I pressed them for ways that they were working to make their companies and products better for sex workers since they read a Vice article, they often said there wasn’t much they could do because they weren’t a decision-maker or programmer. But I think that’s just coded language for “I don’t want to do anything.”
I don’t think it’s a matter of people not understanding the difficulties sex workers face while trying to navigate tech. I think it’s an issue of respectability politics; additionally, those that are willing to make change are unsure where to start. Sex work, despite what sex positivity would have you think, is still incredibly stigmatized, especially within educated Queer spaces, like LWT. Leadership at LWT has the power to educate attendees on the nuances of tech and sex work and can impact attendees to do more within their positions, but once again, they choose not to.
The highpoint of the conference for me was being able to see Angelica Ross speak, Ross has been incredibly vocal about the importance of sex workers in tech and has provided visibility to the larger movement. I want to see more more dialogue around sex work and sex workers speaking and facilitating conversations specifically at LWT in the future. Additionally, I would like to see LWT engaging more with sex-workers by partnering with sex worker specific organizations and speaking about sex work more vocally on their digital platforms. I think engaging more sex worker based organizations would encourage more sex workers to attend, and if anyone needs better tech, it’s sex workers.
Publicly talking about sex work not only educates civilians on the nuances of tech and sex work but also actively destigmatizes sex work in tech spaces, making it easier for folks to openly (and comfortably) talk about their narratives as sex workers. I’m critical of LWT because I want it to succeed, I want people to feel comfortable and for tech to be reclaimed.