All of the innovations and social norms of today were once the science fiction of yesterday. We can fly from country to country, we have smartphones in our pockets, and we have queer people loving openly and expansively; all of these are hard-won wonders. It can be easy to forget how many individuals brought us to where we are now by steering with their values and big ideas. And it’s easy to lose sight of the many individuals who are continuing that work today, leading us into a future of technology and social progress that’s still unknown.
Below are the stories of 5 such individuals. They’re each a queer leader in tech, with backgrounds in academia, gaming, activism, and engineering. Each of these individuals leads with their queerness and challenges the dominant conversations around technological innovation. They work to develop equitable AI, research cultures of online communities, and help queer people find love. They’re all making technology more equitable. And all are helping to steer us into a technological future that includes our diverse communities.
1. Battling for better representation online
Tanya DePass, founder of I Need Diverse Games
“If compassion isn’t part of your artistic vision, I don’t know what to tell you. We can’t put games out there and act like they’re just for American white dudes aged 18 to 35 any more.”
“One day, I just tweeted: I need diverse games to see more people like me! It was just pent-up spite.” But what happened after Tanya DePass’s (she/her) viral tweets in 2014 was a testament to how much her words resonated with so many gamers.
The hashtag #INeedDiverseGames became a motto for a community that was ready to push back. A non-profit organization since 2016, I Need Diverse Games has influenced the gaming space by sending marginalized gamers and developers to the Game Developers Conference (an annual event for those working in the industry), launching a podcast, and materially supporting conventions and work from marginalized gamers and game devs. Its work elevates marginalized voices and ensures that everyone can find community in the sometimes alienating gaming world. In many ways, DePass’s tweet was the catalyst for a movement.
As a lifelong gamer who has seen the industry shift over decades, DePass cares immensely about the narratives told through games. She challenges creators who claim it’s too difficult to animate women, to include queer storylines, or to include even just one playable character with melanin. She calls for real representation in storylines, where characters are more than a single trope or stereotype, and where marginalized identities can be flawed and empathized with. DePass also advocates for the inclusion of trigger warnings in games—a controversial topic for gamers who believe that listing a game’s potentially traumatic moments could reveal spoilers.
“I’m just thinking of being compassionate to those that could have this experience, because gaming is global,” DePass says.
DePass’s advice to fellow gamers: DePass recommends finding a community, like the International Game Developers Association, or attending conferences and finding like-minded people on Twitter and Discord. Alternatively, start your own community. She says: “I have a TTRPG [tabletop role-playing game] group that’s just people of color. I’ve got a Twitter friend group that’s entirely made up of Black folks in the creator space. It’s really awesome to know that people can always seek out or create spaces like that.”
2. Helping everyone find meaningful connections
Gabrielle Alexa Noel, developer at #open and polyamory educator
“Tech should be enhancing our connection to one another, not getting in the way of it or distancing us.”
What does dating look like in the tech future? While some worry that technology is driving distance between us, digital dating is bigger than it has ever been. In particular, for LGBTQ+ people and other unconventional sexual or romantic communities, online spaces with explicit self-identification can be safer and easier options than dating offline. We spoke with Gabrielle Alexa Noel (she/her), an author, educator, and software engineer, about her work at dating app #open, which was made for ethically non-monogamous people (those who openly commit to non-exclusive relationships) to connect. Alexa and #open are pioneering a tech future where everyone can find meaningful intimacy and connection.
“There’s just so much overlap between the queer and trans community, neurodivergent people, and polyamorous people,” says Noel. “Inclusivity is at the foundation of the concept, and we moderate our community from a progressive lens.”
Noel and her team use Hive, an AI solution, to support their moderation and safety practices—the app censors potentially harmful user images and disallows nudity. This form of automated censorship is the industry standard across dating apps, as used by Bumble, which released an open-source version of its dating app safety AI. Additionally, Noel and her team moderate content manually, to double-check and confirm the accuracy of the AI in alignment with their community’s standards.
One of #open’s core missions is to provide education about ethical non-monogamy and to create a safe and inclusive community for those traditionally left out of dating app culture. Its website says the team is “committed to making the society in which we all reside a better place by producing research and providing education relating to human relationships, human sexuality, gender identity, and the ways in which we can best protect vulnerable populations both inside and outside of our community.”
What Noel is currently working on: #Open Ed, featuring content created by sex-education professionals and polyamory educators on the app. She’s continuing to advocate for more equitable content-moderation practices across social media and dating platforms.
3. Challenging gender and race dynamics in gaming
Dr Kishonna Gray, professor and author
“I don’t know how we came away from Gamergate thinking that only white heterosexual women were victims of [toxic gaming culture], but Black communities and queer communities have always been here, too.”
Dr Kishonna Gray (she/her) is a scholar at the University of Kentucky, with a focus on systems of oppression, power, and inequality in video-gaming spaces. Her most recent book, Intersectional Tech: Black Users in Digital Gaming, expanded the academic framework for examining gender and race in gaming communities.
Dr Gray defines the gaming space as everything that impacts the ecosystem of modern video games—from the narratives and characters we absorb and the interactions in online gamer communities to the biases in game-development workplaces.
As an academic, Dr Gray has learned the practical matters of pushing for real change in the gaming industry—by doing what researchers do and following the data. “When gaming companies see the number of people that download Black skins, they realize [they can make money this way]. While I hate that that always has to be the motivation, I think that the sooner we understand that, the sooner we can protect our energy in those spaces and really give them a reason to change.”
Dr Gray is an advocate for and expert on the power of collecting data for her communities and using it to incentivize cultural change. Despite some frustration at having to repeat her points for years, Dr Gray has seen her advocacy strategies work. She points to the public waves of corporate solidarity with marginalized communities in moments like Gamergate—a right-wing movement that began in 2014 and fought against feminism and diversity within gaming culture. Gaming industry leaders, like Electronic Arts’ former chief operating officer Peter Moore, said the controversy made companies “think twice at times” about issues of diversity and inclusion.
Dr Gray is currently working on her next book, Black Game Studies, where she explores the joy and power reclaimed by Black communities through traditions of gameplay.
Moments that matter: Advocates like Dr Gray use these moments to create practical change for the workers and users of today’s technologies. Yesterday’s new ideas become today’s norms, as communities adopt new standards. By bringing player communities into a data-driven conversation, Dr Gray creates a conversation between game players and game makers, where no one is left out.
4. Empowering queer professionals in AI
Arjun Subramonian, core organizer at Queer in AI
“The way that AI is currently designed and developed and deployed is extremely neocolonial. That in and of itself is a big reason that so many queer people in the field are so terrified.”
Arjun Subramonian (they/them) is a queer PhD student at UCLA and one of the core organizers at Queer in AI, a non-profit dedicated to uplifting the voices of LGBTQIA+ academics and working professionals in the AI industry. Queer in AI addresses inequities in the field by responding to the immediate needs of queer students and workers through scholarships and conference speaking opportunities, as well as by advocating for long-term change in the academic and professional world.
“There are very few queer people working in this space, and so often our views and concerns are left out of the development process,” says Subramonian. "There’s no concept of participatory design*. For example, we see things like machine-learning systems, which are dependent on rigid classification of gender—it encodes the erasure of non-binary and transgender people. The researchers are unaware of their own bias, because there were no queer people in the room to consult before building their model.”
Subramonian and their co-organizers are fighting to make sure that queer communities aren’t left out of the AI future. They attend AI conferences around the world and make sure that the needs and safety of queer people aren’t forgotten in any space where AI is discussed. And they’re doing it using the language of academics and in the academic space.
In its latest paper, Queer in AI analyzes how the concepts of intersectionality and fairness can be meaningfully applied to AI scholarly work. It advises its fellow academics on new and expansive ways to consider systemic bias and provides tools to enhance existing frameworks for helping to remove that bias.
Why this work is so important: Queer in AI organizers are on the cutting edge of an already cutting-edge field. Subramonian and the rest of the team challenge the power structures and make sure that academia isn’t disconnected from the lived realities of marginalized people. They’re protecting queer people of today and every day in the future of an increasingly AI world.
* The process by which research subjects are involved in the development of studies and data collection on themselves.
5. Advocating for a more equitable future
Dylan Baker, research engineer at the Distributed AI Research Institute
“As someone who feels deeply rooted in the politics of my queerness, it was hard to be on the inside of big tech organizations, see the kinds of harms that are happening, and not want to work in the ethics space.”
When Dr Timnit Gebru was fired by Google in 2020 for publishing research exposing discriminatory bias in Google’s AI, Dylan Baker (they/he) followed her from Google to the Distributed AI Research Institute (DAIR). At DAIR, the former Google AI ethicists have created a space where the team can speak and publish more freely about equity in AI, a relative rarity in the AI professional world, which is largely dominated by corporate interests.
One of Baker’s current projects measures the harms of social media in under resourced, less-spoken languages. While social media moderation and censorship are hot-button topics across the internet, the online experiences for Twitter and Facebook users in languages with less data are vastly different from those languages with larger data repositories. These biases in data leave out the experiences of many user groups—ones that are currently overlooked in most funded AI research.
The work that DAIR puts out isn’t exclusively for academic audiences. While plenty of its work is for the inner sphere of AI professionals, DAIR also prioritizes publishing writing for non-technical audiences.
“I think the main direction that I want to move in is making research more accessible and finding audiences that need to hear and can leverage the research that's being done,” says Baker. “I want to learn if there are ways that we can [take] some of this cutting-edge ethics research and bring it into community groups, libraries, circles of artists and activists, and worker-organizing groups.”
What’s next: The DAIR team is currently working on a piece called “Nobody Owns The Techno Future,” about why the narrative of technology’s future can easily be co-opted if marginalized people and general audiences outside of big tech don’t have an opportunity to weigh in.
Diversity leads to innovation. And the work of these 5 people goes to show what’s possible when under-represented groups and communities have a say in how our future is being shaped—even if they have to make the space themselves. There are issues still to be solved in even some of the most technologically advanced industries so, for products and services to be truly inclusive, people from all walks of life must be involved in the making and shaping of them from the very beginning.