For trans people in tech, it’s complicated when the industry suddenly cares

When Yelp added a way for its trans and gender non-conforming users to find safe restrooms, it felt like a mixed blessing for a community that’s used to being ignored. Over time, Yelp’s feature will provide a robust database of public bathrooms — the kind the transgender community has been building for itself for years.

While just about everyone can agree that having restroom info right on Yelp’s massive legacy local business platform is a good thing, it does bring some tensions to the surface for the transgender tech community. From North Carolina’s HB2 to the upcoming Gavin Grimm case, the issue of transgender rights does appear to be reaching a tipping point in the tech community. The big question: What took so long?

In an atmosphere of intense political polarization around the issue, figuring out a low-stress restroom contingency plan in public places can be a total nightmare for trans people. Naturally, most people outside of the trans community have no idea how much fear and stress can go into something as simple as meeting a friend for a beer or two after work. Now, that conversation — and the larger accompanying question of equal access — comes up on the national stage in the way that marriage equality did a few years prior.

Yelp makes a statement

For a company like Yelp, building bathroom data into a platform that already tracks things like Wi-Fi, bike parking and kid-friendliness wasn’t that difficult. Still, it did require dedicated resources, pulling as many as a dozen people off of their existing tasks, ratcheting up the priority level and getting it done.

Last week, news of the upcoming Supreme Court case of transgender student Gavin Grimm set Yelp’s wheels in motion. It set out to demonstrate its commitment to transgender rights beyond just signing onto tech’s “friend of the court” brief with 53 other companies. Yelp’s new restroom tool announcement was originally timed for the same day as the brief, but after the brief was released a day early, the restroom feature news stood alone a bit more than intended.

“Given the attention this issue is receiving on a legislative level, the choice to build this resource into the fabric of our platform really does — and has — opened up Yelp to a lot of criticism from those on the other side of the transgender rights issue,” a Yelp spokesperson told TechCrunch.

“We made a lot of conscious choices along the way that others would view as incredibly risky, and they may well be, but from our perspective, accepting those risks to get this done actually defines how genuine this effort is.”

Trans rights in tech’s rocky landscape

Talking to trans people who’ve waited for this day to come, it’s clear that casting aside skepticism can be a challenge.

For Teagan, a software developer who founded Refuge Restrooms, a crowdsourced database of safe bathroom info, it mostly boils down to one question. “How committed are they actually to this stuff?”

She cites a litany of diversity and inclusion controversies in tech as the foundation for that cynicism, including Github’s Julie Ann Horvath and Yelp’s own Talia Jane.

“I mean honestly… I want the information to exist. I’m glad they are doing it. I don’t think it was done to specifically target Refuge [Restrooms]. But yeah, they feel like a mainstream tech corp took a feature worked on by and for trans folks. A feature and app that was made specifically because Yelp & Foursquare didn’t have anything like this.”

Teagan described how members of the Refuge team were caught off guard by the wave of mainstream publicity around Yelp’s news. As a trans person in tech, seeing major companies take up the banner of transgender rights can feel bittersweet if not downright disorienting. As Teagan observes, “Yelp had a PokeStop filter before they had a gender neutral bathroom filter. So you know?”

One former Intel software engineer who spoke with TechCrunch is heartened by trans issues coming to the fore in tech, but he has plenty of reservations. As a trans guy, he stays in the loop about the experience of other transgender employees at Intel, where things are still hit or miss.

“A [trans woman] that came out while on the job has been gushing about how great her experience is, meanwhile a trans friend of mine who was stealth at Intel is afraid to come out because of his transphobic team members.”

For long-time industry workers like him, tech’s sudden interest seems a bit out of left field.

“The amicus brief feels like ‘huh?’ to me… Like, I didn’t know these companies cared? Which does make me wonder. It’s easy to sign onto a thing, less easy to do things like provide training to teams to help gender transition, provide insurance that covers trans healthcare and allowing trans folks to take leave to deal with surgery.”

Show them the money

In talking to advocates for the transgender community, one piece of advice comes up again and again: Pay trans people.

“Partner with them, or support them financially, or work out a licensing deal,” suggests Brook Shelley, Senior Developer Relations Engineer at Turbine Labs and co-chair for Basic Rights Oregon. “Marginalized folks are doing this work, and they need the financial and personal support that a company can bring, because ‘thanks!’ doesn’t pay the rent.”

At the very least, for companies willing to listen, growing pains around how to best serve the trans community will make for a rich learning opportunity.

For its part, Yelp seemed to be open to hearing criticism around implementing the trans-friendly feature. The company consulted with its LGBTQ group OUTburst — “The gravity that centers [Yelp’s] efforts and priorities on any LGBTQ-related initiative” — and transgender engineers and other trans team members during the process, as well as coordinating with the Human Rights Campaign for how to contextualize the new feature.

Reaching the inflection point

In response to the Yelp news, Kristin Russo, the co-founder of OUR Restroom, looks forward to leveraging the platform’s new feature to put the heat on business owners who don’t see her mission to “[help] businesses understand the importance of unisex single-stall restrooms” as a priority.

“A company like Yelp holds a giant sway for so many businesses,” Russo explained to TechCrunch. “I think it will help us enormously to be able to say things like ‘Hey, we do this work and can help you change your signs, and did you also know that gender neutral restrooms is now a search filter on Yelp?'”

As a cisgender ally who works on many LGBTQ projects, Russo doesn’t believe that it’s too little too late, but she understands why many trans people are frustrated with the pace of progress. “Would it have been great to have more companies fighting for this years ago? Sure. However I think that it does often take a certain kind of critical mass to get these kinds of decisions on the desks of the people who make big changes in the ways their business operates, so I’m just happy that we are reaching that place.”

If mainstream support will actually move the needle remains to be seen, but with 2017 shaping up to be a landmark year for trans rights, tech companies wishing to champion them will have plenty of chances.