Pride colleagues leaning on and supporting each other
Collaboration

Out at Slack: Embracing every identity to redefine inclusivity

In honor of Pride Month, our LGBTQIA+ community shares their experiences, stories and insights into how we can build a more inclusive world

Author: Jess DawsonJune 1st, 2021Illustration by Francesco Ciccolella

In the early hours of June 28, 1969, the patrons of a popular gay bar in Greenwich Village were violently interrupted by the New York City Public Morals Division, a unit of the police department enforcing laws for “vice and gambling,” including homosexuality. Raids were unfortunately common—but this time, the patrons of the Stonewall Inn fought back, refusing arrest and forcing the police to barricade themselves inside the bar. Their resistance ignited six days of national protests against police oppression.

Activists for the community of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning, intersex, asexual, and all other sexual orientations and gender identities (LGBTQIA+) have been organizing since the 1920s, and likely long before that. But the Stonewall riots ignited a spark that set the movement in motion, giving it a voice that could no longer be ignored. Over the years, annual protests and parades have served as a platform for LGBTQIA+ needs and rights, from protection against harassment to raising awareness of the AIDS epidemic to fighting for marriage equality.

President BIll Clinton was the first chief executive to officially declare June as Pride Month in 1999 and 2000, and from 2009 to 2016, President Obama did the same—but many recognized it long before then, and continuing to create awareness is more important than ever. In an effort to further support each other, we asked the LGBTQIA+ Slack community to share their own experiences, stories and inspiration, including insight into how we can all be better allies.

Brook Shelley, Manager, Software Engineering, Slack

“We need to focus our resources on ensuring the most vulnerable folks in our community have what they need. We are often houseless, ostracized from our birth families or dealing with mental health challenges in a hostile world. Support is so much more than a rainbow flag.”

Brook ShelleyManager, Software Engineering, Slack

Honoring those who fought for liberation, and the work ahead

From millions marching in Chicago to rodeos in Santa Fe and Cajun-style celebrations in New Orleans, Pride Month takes a unique shape in every city and means a little something different to everyone.

“I celebrate and affirm my own queerness during Pride Month,” says Carlos Valdez, an associate software engineer. “It’s a time to pay respect to the people in history who were queer, and a reminder of all the work we still have to do in order to live in a more inclusive world.”

For many like Valdez, Pride Month carves out a dedicated space to pay tribute to those who have long fought for LGBTQIA+ rights, from the Cooper Do-nuts Riot of 1959 to the White Night riots of 1979 to the Dyke March of 1993—and all the untelevised protests, marches and meetups in between. “Pride Month is a celebration of those who fought and sacrificed for LGBTQIA+ equality,” says senior customer success manager Kenny Burns. “Pride is a reminder to be loud and visible, and it rallies us around the work that still needs to be done.”

Infrastructure engineering manager Brook Shelley looks to the past but embraces her present. “Pride is a time to remember those that came before us, and celebrate with my chosen family,” she says.

Trish Ang, the engineering manager for the Slack Systems team, comes from a strict Filipino family that made it challenging for her to feel comfortable with her identity. “Every June is a reminder for myself to reflect back on how far I’ve come and to celebrate the community around me at whatever stage they’re at in their coming-out journey,” she says.

Greg Low, the people program manager for Digital First at Slack, initially only associated Pride with the now-ubiquitous festivities and parades he saw every June. “Early in my career, I hid parts of my identity in the professional working world,” he says. But when he saw companies like Slack, who not only support but drive inclusive employee engagement through LGBTQIA+ events and programming, he felt more comfortable being himself and celebrating his identity. “I’m still learning how to build these levels of trust,” he says, “and share my story with those who are worthy.”

Greg Low, People Program Manager, Slack

“Nadia Rawlinson, our chief people officer at Slack, once said something to the effect of ‘Be your authentic self to those who deserve it,’ and that really resonated with me as I continue to build my identity.”

Greg LowPeople Program Manager, Slack

Embracing your LGBTQIA+ identity as a matter of pride

Historically, staying true to yourself as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community could easily result in police brutality, jail time and even death. Though we’ve come a long way, it can still be daunting to stay honest with those around you, especially at work. At Slack, the LGBTQIA+ community has found that inclusiveness, openness and acceptance often starts with them.

Benji Shine is an organizational effectiveness partner on the engineering team. “When I welcome new engineers on their first day, I describe myself as a trans man and explain exactly what that means,” he says. “It was scary at first, but it makes other people feel safer being themselves.” Shine has now introduced himself this way to hundreds of new hires and has started sharing it more broadly, including when he speaks at technical conferences. “I’m changing the narrative around being transgender. My past isn’t a secret I have to hide; my past makes me stronger and gives me empathy for a wider range of people.”

Brie Murphy, Senior Software Engineer, Slack

“Tech is increasingly diverse and has always skewed toward open-mindedness, and the more you show up as yourself, the easier it is for all of us.”

Brie MurphySenior Data Engineer, Slack

Although Burns’s colleagues now appreciate his candor and point of view, it wasn’t always so easy. “There was a time in my life when I would downplay my gayness in an effort to make myself more relatable to my straight colleagues,” he says. Now he participates in conversations with his straight colleagues and shares information about his relationships, family and lifestyle, something he was hesitant to do before. A lot of this change has to do with an inclusive atmosphere. “Slack hires curious people,” Burns says. “My colleagues like to see the world through eyes different than their own.”

Shelley feels equally grateful that she can show up to work as her full self. “I’m lucky that I’m at a company where I don’t need to pretend I’m not a lesbian, or fit into a particular box of what a ‘professional woman’ looks like,” she says.

Benji Shine, Organizational Effectiveness Partner, Slack

“People usually don’t know that I’m trans just by looking at me, so I don’t have to ‘out’ myself. I do it to demonstrate pride in who I am.”

Benji ShineOrganizational Effectiveness Partner, Slack

The power of education, support and showing up

Many don’t know where to start when it comes to supporting those who are different from them, but it’s often as simple as treating everyone equally, educating yourself and staying curious (but not invasive).

“I might be the most astonishing creature you’ve ever met, but remember: To me, being transgender is natural and normal,” says Brie Murphy, a senior data engineer on the data tool team. “It’s not a costume or an illusion; I pretty much roll out of bed and go to work like most moms working in engineering. It’s as difficult for me to understand what it would be like to be a cisgender person as it is for cis people to understand me.”

More specifically, Shine says, don’t assume that everyone has a heterosexual partner, husband, wife, boyfriend or girlfriend. “And please don’t ask a trans person about surgery or when they ‘switched,’ ” he says. “Things like ‘You look great [for a trans person]’ or ‘Wow, I never would have known’ might be a compliment for some of us; for others, it’s not great.”

Of course, Shine says, once you’ve known someone long enough, there’s a time and place for personal questions. “Wait until you’ve met up outside of work several times,” he suggests. “Tell us something about your own past, and see if we want to reciprocate. If you’re interested in us as a person, asking about our trans history probably shouldn’t be your first question. Maybe start with ‘Where did you grow up?’ ”

Burns says taking action by participating in Pride events and wearing Pride swag shows visible support. “It makes me feel like I’m in a safe space to be myself,” he says. “Allies can go a step further by getting smart about the LGBTQIA+ journey over the past century, from the Stonewall riots to the AIDS epidemic.” He also suggests getting familiar with LGBTQIA+ pop culture by watching It’s a Sin or Pose, two popular TV series. “I talked about RuPaul’s Drag Race with my straight, white, male friend a few weeks ago and it brought us closer than ever!”

Ang reiterates that education is a powerful way to show you care. “Allies can support us by educating themselves on prevalent issues and advocating for LGBTQIA+ folks, particularly in circles where they’re not present,” she says.

Trish Ang, Engineering Manager, Slack

“It’s important to take intersectionality into account and not assume that there is one singular queer experience that everyone goes through.”

Trish AngEngineering Manager, Slack

Normalizing the act of sharing the correct pronouns

The LGBTQIA+ community is hyperaware of pronouns, a simple but important part of one’s identity that many hardly think twice about. “If you think you got someone’s pronoun wrong, just apologize and move on,” Shine says. “If you make a big deal out of it, it becomes a big deal, but everyone does it. I even sometimes get pronouns wrong for my trans and nonbinary friends.”

With Slack increasingly operating as the digital office for so many, it was important to add pronoun support to people’s user profiles. It started in March 2019 as a hackathon project organized by several members of Slack’s Out employee resource group (ERG), in which those who identify as members of the LGBTQIA+ community can connect with and celebrate one another.

Slack colleagues who helped bring pronoun support to people’s Slack user profiles.
Slack colleagues who helped bring pronoun support to people’s Slack user profiles.

Within days, a working prototype was approved by Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield. Ang says, “There was a lot of iteration on product decisions and security measures to ensure we launched with a solution that provided everyone with the opportunity to self-identify their pronouns but also prevent ways people might abuse that information. This was truly a labor of love, and over the course of the project we’ve had dozens of allies—engineers, designers, product folks and more—volunteer their time to see it through.”

Slack channel where the team added the pronoun feature

“Normalizing pronoun sharing and ensuring our users are able to be identified in the way that affirms their gender, and reducing any friction around that experience, is an important step to encouraging inclusivity in workplaces.”

Trish AngEngineering Manager, Slack

So far, the feature has been a success. “It’s a great way to affirm a person’s gender identity and remove ambiguity, while serving as a reminder for the viewer,” Valdez says. “I want everyone to feel seen and respected in our interactions,” Shelley says, “and knowing who they are and how they are referred to is a key part of that.”

Part of the team that brought the pronoun support feature to life.
Part of the team that brought the pronoun support feature to life.

This kind of support isn’t always the norm. “I once worked for a company that retracted their support of the LGBTQIA+ community due to a customer complaint,” Low says. “That was eye-opening in terms of the leadership and decision-making process, and I’m glad to be working for a company that has such a definitive stance on so many topics that matter to me.”

Ang says there are countless more ways companies can allow people to bring their whole selves to the office. “It’s really an easy thing to ask and respect someone’s pronouns,” she says, “but it’s a whole additional step to, for example, ensure people managers are trained on how to support employees who may be transitioning, or to improve benefits around family forming for adoption or IUI/IVF.”

Valdez says products that are about people should account for and accommodate all kinds of people. “Whether it’s for [computer system accessibility] or centered around gender identity, corporations should add options for users to express exactly what defines them,” he says. Murphy would love it if she could open a program and, when faced with options, not have to debate which inaccurate choice will cause the fewest problems. “I just want to be myself, and engage with a program that gives me a welcoming, holistic experience,” she says.

At the core of equality is decency, Shelley says: “We’re all humans on the same planet, so understanding and caring for our fellow people is important, regardless of structure.”

Kenny Burns, Senior Customer Success Manager, Slack

“Gender pronouns in Slack are a simple, effective way for us to be transparent about how we identify, and remove the assumption that we all fall into a box. They’re an example of the tangible impact that a company like Slack can have on fostering diversity, inclusion and belonging in the workplace.”

Kenny BurnsSenior Customer Success Manager, Slack

Prioritizing a nonjudgmental and welcoming place

At Slack, a range of ERGs aim to drive belonging by providing support, professional development and inclusion across Slack’s global offices. Ang is a proud member of four ERGs: Out, Women, Earthtones and Abilities. “Being able to lean on these communities for support through difficult times has been essential,” she says. “For example, I was recently diagnosed as bipolar and was able to reach out within the Abilities ERG to find folks who share that identity and learn from them.”

For many in the LGBTQIA+ community, the process of finding an inclusive place to work started before they signed any contracts. “When I interviewed with Slack, part of my due diligence revealed Slack’s strong, outward and definitive stances on so many topics that mattered to me,” Low says, including support for the Black Lives Matter movement, helping underrepresented minorities (URMs) in the tech space, and providing support through family-forming benefits. On his first day, Low reached out about Slack’s domestic partner benefits. “A complete (then) stranger met me with such support and warmth, and even offered their services to officiate a wedding if need be! I would not have gotten that anywhere else.”

Burns’s appreciation for Slack also began before onboarding. “Halfway through my interview, I paused mid-sentence because I felt like I was being too raw about my journey and I could feel myself getting emotional,” he says. Rather than changing the topic, the interviewers leaned into the conversation and reassured him that Slack sought out authenticity. “From that point on, I knew Slack saw me not as a cog or headcount, but as a human being with a unique and valued background.”

Enamel pins to designate the wearer's correct pronoun and support the feature

For a long time prior to Slack, Valdez dealt with imposter syndrome in the field of technology, which can be intimidating for a URM. “In the back of my mind, I questioned whether I really belonged in this space,” he says. When he found Slack, he realized that his team actually wanted him to succeed, and he now encourages others looking to break into the field to trust in their own worth. “There are so many people in the company and through the recruitment process who are convinced you will add value to the table. Get comfortable, ask questions and know that you’re here for a reason.”

“I’ve never felt such a sense of community and belonging so early in my tenure, at a company where I’ve never met anyone in person! The investment, programming and energy around maintaining a safe space to talk about things has been incredible.”

Greg LowPeople Program Manager, Slack

Valdez is grateful to be part of the Out ERG at Slack, participating in everything from book clubs to ice-breakers to Pride events. “I feel more connected with my peers at work and learn new things in the process,” he says. “We recently had an Out lunch where people in the ERG shared their experiences with surrogacy and adoption, and I really loved being able to listen into that conversation and learn.”

Carlos Valdez, Associate Software Engineer, Slack

“I appreciate that Slack’s values promote inclusivity, kindness and humbleness. Although we still have work to do in terms of diversity and inclusion, I feel lucky and blessed to be at a company that values me as a member of the queer community.”

Carlos ValdezAssociate Software Engineer, Slack

 

Lifting each other up and seeking authenticity

Aside from one other, the LGBTQIA+ Slack community finds inspiration in their work. “We don’t get everything right, but we try to listen and learn both as individuals and as a company,” Shelley says. “Our work with queer and trans groups around the world, as well as the support we have internally, is heartwarming.”

For Murphy, the basic purpose of Slack as a product is a testament to its impact. “By fostering direct and empathetic communication, we help people from different backgrounds build mutual respect,” she says. She also finds inspiration at home. “My two sons, ages 4 and 7, are the most understanding and unconditionally loving people I know. They inspire me to keep thriving.”

Low finds himself striving to embody the bold and unencumbered individuality of drag culture. “I’m really inspired by that level of authenticity, self-awareness and identity,” he says.

“I’d say my biggest queer icon is probably Frida Kahlo,” says Valdez. “She faced so much adversity, including becoming disabled early in her life, but kept pushing for herself. She was not afraid to speak out and was also not afraid to show her true colors.”

Burns recognizes that hiding your true identity in fear of rejection is a common defense mechanism, but that most everyone else is also going through their own struggles. “What you need to realize is that fear will hurt you more than being honest about who you are. Your uniqueness and the pain you’ve already overcome will become the source of your power,” he says. “Don’t wait to embrace it.”

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