Our guest today is one of the coolest, most totally herself people we know, Ada Powers—a writer, user researcher, community builder, and badass trans woman based in San Diego and currently working at a software company called Tealium. You’ll love her.
> Being able to come to work as myself means that I get to come to work as myself. I get to think about, “What would make me happy in this context? What would make me happy and feel fulfilled doing this work?” Ok well maybe it means suggesting this initiative, maybe it means taking on this project, maybe it means changing my responsibilities a bit. It means I get to show up and be engaged with how I actually feel and how that looks.
> —Ada Powers, writer, researcher, and community builder
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KL That’s a good discount!
[Music fades in, plays alone for 30 seconds, fades out.]
Jenn Lukas Welcome to No, You Go, the show about being ambitious—and sticking together. I’m Jenn Lukas.
Katel LeDû I’m Katel LeDû
Sara Wachter-Boettcher And I’m Sara Wachter-Boettcher. And today we are talking about showing up as your most authentic self; finding space where you feel supported and respected so that you can show up fully; and how we can all do better at that. We are joined in that conversation with one of the coolest, most totally herself people I have ever met, and that is Ada Powers. She is a writer, a user researcher, a community builder, and a badass trans woman based in San Diego. You will love her.
KL Before we do that, I’ve had some self-discovery recently that’s maybe not like always bright and shiny and has a big epiphany at the end, and I kind of wanted to share it with you because, I don’t know, I just wanted to get your thoughts on it. So, we did a live show in Vancouver recently and it was awesome but it was basically the first time I’ve ever done that. Meaning I’ve never gone on stage and been one of the only focuses of entertainment or the sole focus of what was happening up there, and I felt terrified. And before we went on, like that whole day I was just thinking about how—so, ok. Quick sidebar: I used to skydive for a couple of years. Like I did it as a hobby. And we can come back to that if you want [laughter].
JL That’s one exciting hobby!
KL [Laughs] Uh yeah so I used to skydive and that whole day I was thinking, “Oh my gosh, I actually might feel like I would rather jump out of a plane than like go on stage later.” And I couldn’t shake this feeling and I was like, “That sounds bananas. Like, how could I feel that way?” And I think it was just I just wasn’t sure how it was going to go and, you know, I was worried. I wanted to do it right. But of course like we did it [chuckles]. You can hear the show but yeah, I don’t know, I felt like I went through something there and it was great. I had a great time but it just was so uncomfortable the whole time [laughs].
JL You know, I was away one time in San Diego with my best friend, Julia, and she made go tandem paragliding, and [oh gosh] I definitely never would’ve done it had it not been for her little friendly peer pressure but I loved it once I was up there. And like there was something like so comforting and like looking over and like seeing her flying up there too, and there was that safety. So did you feel safety while you were up there with Sara?
KL Oh my gosh. Absolutely and I think that had a huge part in why I actually had so much fun and afterwards I was like thinking I kind of wanted to do it again which I wasn’t expecting to feel and yeah, you know, like looking over and knowing she was there and just knowing that she had my back and sort of that, you know, we had planned this so it was going to well enough and we were going to make it work. It was—it was great.
SWB Did you feel like we were Kate and Leo in Titanic?
KL [Laughs] Absolutely. I definitely did.
SWB I was holding onto you the whole time.
KL You totally were [laughter].
SWB It was really fun. We really missed Jenn doing the live show [yeah]. That was like the biggest bummer about it was that you couldn’t make it out there, Jenn, but it made me so much more confident and I hope, Katel, that you’re feeling confident about it now because I feel like we could do this again and we could do it bigger and badder and better.
KL Definitely. And like I said I think the highlight that I walked away from it with was that I did like it and I was really excited about it.
JL And there were giveaways and like—
KL There were.
JL Not to make light of that but it’s like when you do something that’s fun, right? Like you really like—you brought something that’s you and I think when you’ve got something like that it makes you feel more comfortable in the moment. So I think there’s like a whole lotta things about making something that could feel really uncomfortable more comfortable. And, you know, we’ve talked about this before. I did my first talk was a talk with Mark Huot who I worked with a for a long time and, you know, there’s safety in numbers and we do these things at work, Tech Talks, and lots of people are like, “Well I want to do it but I’m really nervous.” I’m like, “What if you did it with someone?” And all of a sudden it just like feels more light. Or what if you didn’t do an hour? What if you only did fifteen minutes? Like, you know, finding these ways to make it more fitting for you so you don’t have to like go all in to what some people might consider the only way you could do public speaking. There’s definitely ways that you can just be like, “Let me make this what I would want to spend an hour doing.”
KL That makes so much sense and I think you’re totally right because we—basically bringing like our show and as much of it as possible with us, that helped a lot. The only thing I’m sad that we didn’t bring is that eight by ten of you framed [laughter] on set.
SWB The one thing I want to definitely call out though is that yeah, ok, it was our show so that made it a little bit more comfortable and you’re up there with me and that made it a little bit more comfortable but also like that is a pretty baller first thing to do on stage [Katel laughs] like, you know what I mean? Like that wasn’t like a little ten minute talk at a meetup. That was getting onto a big stage at a theater where it feels legit with like spotlights and having you know like, I dunno, over a hundred people there listening and watching you do this live and then recording and like releasing that to the world. Like that is a huge thing to start with. So like props for that.
KL No. I really appreciate that and honestly like I felt all of that coming from you, and I will say that I do want to give a shout out to the audience because they were so fucking rad. Like being able to see them and when I did make [chuckling] eye contact with anyone which I was scared to do at first, people were like into it. And that was very cool. So I think like being able to see that feedback was—was awesome.
JL Yeah that’s always helped me like trying to find—like once you do brave it and look out into the audience you can find the people smiling back at you and you’re like, “Oh. Ok. This is ok.” But I’ll also say like there’s been times where I’ve been more nervous doing like a ten minute small meetup group versus like doing a talk in front of like 600 people because there’ll be so many lights that you really can’t see everyone’s faces at that big one. So it’s sort of like ah. Ok. I’m just here by myself [laughter].
JL So I think whichever one like people get started with or do I think that you could make it and you could do it.
KL I did.
SWB I mean one of the things that I think was so great about it was how you were like, “I’m terrified of this; I’m terrified of this,” and now looking back you’re like, “Oh I actually liked that.” And you wouldn’t have gotten to realize that joy that you can get from it if you hadn’t given it a shot.
KL I think that’s exactly it. I went into this whole thing maybe just focusing on the fact that I was nervous and anxious and uncomfortable but I came out the other end actually being excited about it and feeling like I wanted to try it again. And I wasn’t expecting that. So I think that was just the coolest thing that came out of it. It was just totally different realization than—than I thought I would’ve had. So, I don’t know, I—you know, we’re talking a lot about, you know, coming through this stuff and being uncomfortable and sort of finding out a little bit more about yourself and it really makes me want to get to our interview with Ada [music fades in, plays alone for eight seconds, fades back out].
KL [Ad spot] I’ve been in the market for a really good carry-on suitcase for awhile. As an adult human woman who travels a decent amount, kind of late to the game, to be honest. So I’m real excited about the new Away suitcase I just got and particularly pumped because I get to actually carry it onto a plane very soon.
SWB Ugh! I’m so jealous of this. Me and Katel are actually travelling together and she gets to have this new Away suitcase with her and I will be there just with my normal ol’ bag.
KL Ah! So when I opened the box, I gotta tell ya, I could tell I was going to love it. It has this TSA-approved combination lock and a built-in charger for my phone. Oh! And even a removable and washable built-in laundry bag.
SWB Wait! A laundry bag?! I have heard of phone chargers being built into suitcases but I’ve never heard of a laundry bag. That’s rad!
KL Yeah. I cannot wait to try it out. I’ll definitely be testing it’s over-packer proof compression system. If you want to try for yourself and you do, Away is sharing a special promo with our listeners. Visit awaytravel.com/nyg to get $20 off any suitcase. With a 100 day trial and free shipping on any order within the lower 48 states, you can’t go wrong. Go to awaytravel.com/nyg and get $20 off your next favorite suitcase [music fades in, plays alone for four seconds, fades out].
SWB Today’s guest is someone I had the pleasure of meeting a few months ago at a conference. Her name is Ada Powers and she’s a writer and researcher based in San Diego, working at a software company called Tealium. She’s also trans, poly, and really good at talking about what both of those things mean to her. So we’re going to talk to her about all of those things and a lot more. Ada, welcome to No, You Go.
Ada Powers Hi! Thanks. Thanks for having me.
SWB So first up: can you tell us a little bit about what your work looks like? So you’re a writer and a researcher at a software company, what does that look like day to day?
AP My official title when I got hired—and to this day is, information developer. I work on the information architecture team which handles both our documentation portal, our knowledge base, and our community our community forums, our community manager is on our team. A lot of my work is technical writing, is technical editing, and then from there seemed kind of a natural drift to look more at product writing and UX writing, realizing that I love writing, I love tech, I love software, I love combining those things. So I’ve been going in that direction, and very fortunately my company is the kind of company where lateral moves are encouraged, where people—and this kind of plays into a larger part of why I like working where I work: it was really great to get there and realize they had a culture of trying as hard as they can to let people come to work as themselves, and that means both bringing in the skills that you have, not just the ones you’re getting hired for. I have a background in human-centred design and design thinking, and a little bit in qualitative research and so with one of my co-workers who works on the UX team, we looked around at the company and said, “Well, there could be a little more qualitative research here. There could be a little bit more of a usability testing culture.” So we kind of started that party, building processes between each other and changing my day to day responsibilities accordingly because this was an important thing and the company seems to value and it’s a thing that I can provide and it’s also been nice because it’s also the first full-time job that I started since I started transitioning. I was pretty open in my interview at really it was important to be really up-front with my employers or with people that I’m working with about who I am. So I told them, you know, “I’m transgender. I need to start under these pronouns. I need to start under these names. I need to know that you’ll have my back if some discrimination comes my way and I know that I’m not going to be the one being pressured to leave. That people recognize that I do belong here and that if people have problems, they’re the ones with the problem,” and I’ve been decently assured of that by legal and by my managers, and minus a couple bumps in the beginning, it’s been pretty smooth.
SWB Was it hard for you to say that while you were interviewing and to sort of like set that expectation on the table when you’re in, I don’t know, interviewing can be kind of a vulnerable spot where it’s like, “I want them to like me.”
AP It is a hard thing. To go into an interview and have to decide between financial stability and authenticity. That’s a choice that a lot of people unfortunately have to make on an ongoing basis and I know more people than I’d like to know who are close to me who have to make that choice in favor of stability and they do not get that authenticity. So it is absolutely a fraught thing that any trans person and honestly any person of any sort of marginalized identity that can reasonably be not disclosed to your employer has to struggle with, whether it’s disability or religion or other proclivities one has which might not be viewed favorably by normative society. For me, I am very privileged. I don’t have money but I also am very comfortable being uncomfortable. I’ve had experiences, too many experiences actually, where I’ve chosen to just be employed because it seemed like the default, right thing to do, and then I would slowly waste away at a desk over a number of years until I finally reached a breaking point and I would quit and do something drastic like travel around and then come back and start that process over again. And so I knew that there was not necessarily a connection between full-time employment and happiness for me. There was some piece of, “Are you feeling professionally fulfilled? Are you feeling mentally fulfilled? Are you feeling challenged?” And then also, as I’m learning recently, there’s also a piece, “Are you showing up to work as yourself?” And so I knew that I did not want to work at a full-time company. I didn’t want to work a full-time job unless I had those things taken care of because I knew I could make it work with part-time work and side work and so I was able to come in and be a little bolder with saying, “Hey, this is who I am. You can take it or leave it. I don’t want to show up at a building everyday and not be able to be myself because that just erodes your soul.” It erodes my soul, at least. I can’t do it for very long. So it really is a matter of being able to make this experience worthwhile for everyone and it turned out to be the case. I find that almost strange because it’s so simple but it really is profound is being able to come to work as myself means that I get to come to work as myself. I get to think about, “What would make me happy in this context? What would make me happy and feel fulfilled doing this work?” Ok well maybe it means suggesting this initiative, maybe it means taking on this project, maybe it means changing my responsibilities a bit. It means I get to show up and be engaged with how I actually feel and how that looks. I think a lot of trans people pretransition have feelings and have desires and have body experiences that they are sort of trying hard without realizing it but trying hard not to pay attention to those things and so it just looks like ignoring your body. It looks like ignoring your needs, ignoring your desires, and kind of doing whatever society thinks you should be doing by default, certainly in terms of gender but my experience is that bleeds in other things as well. So my professional experience has largely been, throughout my life, showing up to work and kind of just figuring out what the bare minimum is and doing that until I get laid off or some other thing happens and I have to leave. So this is not just the first time in my life I’ve been able to show up and feel like I’m able to bring my cutting-edge self to work, but also the first time that I’m feeling engaged and fulfilled enough to really start to make a difference in my professional life and really start to drive my career forward.
KL I love that you were really looking for, you know, this company or this new experience and that organization to have your back. I think that says so much about them and it illuminates what’s that going to be like working there. So I think that that’s so smart.
AP Yeah I agree. I have been very pleasantly surprised by how happy I’ve been here and how well I’ve been treated.
SWB I think it’s so fucking great that you were able to go into that experience with that attitude and with that expectation and also I love that you were able to say, you know, not everybody gets to do that, right? And to be able to acknowledge like look, if somebody’s out there listening who can’t show up as themselves at work and does not feel like they’ll be supported or as choosing financial stability over, you know, being able to express their identity fully. That’s ok. Like that’s real. But because you were able to do that and have that work for you—the results sound like they’re both good for you but also like what you’re describing is results that are good for the work that you’re able to do because you are more engaged in it and because you’re able to see things from perspectives that they were missing and feel comfortable speaking up about it.
AP Absolutely. Definitely speaks to the business case for inclusion which, you know, it’s easy to feel complicated about. I don’t want a company to be not shitty because you’re dangling dollar signs in front of them but it really, again, it sounds weird but only because it’s so simple and it’s that if you allow your employees to feel like they have agency and respect, then they’re willing to do work for you that is good. That’s [laughter] it’s so damn simple but it really is what it comes down to. If I had to hide large parts of who I am here, I would be in a repressed state, and if I’m in a repressed state, I don’t want to take chances, I don’t want to honestly do anything but the bare minimum. So it turns out that being good to people helps them be good to you as employees.
SWB So you mentioned earlier that when you laid it all out on the table in your interview process, that you were trans and you basically expected to be treated well and supported and they agreed to that. That sounds like they at least on paper at least they were like, “Yes, we’re on board for this.” What has your experience been like now that you’ve been there for awhile. Like is there anything that colleagues, bosses, et cetera have done that have sort of made you feel welcome or included. For example, I’m thinking about listeners out there who work on teams or run teams that may have trans people on them or trans people on them that who they don’t even know are trans yet. What kind of stuff should they be paying attention to?
AP When I talked to my boss, we had a phone interview before I did an on-site and we had a conversation where I told him what I was telling you—that I have these attributes, I have these intersections that I need respected, and he told me pretty honestly, “I want to respect you. I don’t know what that looks like and so if you can tell me what you need, I can make sure you get it as best I can.” And honestly it doesn’t have to be more complicated than that. If he thought that he could know what my experience was like, if he thought that he could give me what I needed without me asking, there’s a great chance he’d be wrong, just because anyone would wrong but that seems like a fair division of labor to me. I’m not expecting to him be a mindreader. I will tell him what I need if I need anything. And if he isn’t certain, he’ll ask me. And I think the most—the thing that’s contributed the most to me feeling good here is consistent pronoun usage is [sighs] honestly that comes down to it. It’s kind of funny to see the discourse around special snowflakes, and being treated specially and it’s so very opposite from how every single one of us feels. I don’t want to be treated special, I just want to be treated the way anyone would be treated just by being a person. This is my name. Can you use my name? These are my pronouns. I have to inform you of those because you would guess wrong. But that’s no different than other person where you would look at them and you might guess wrong and they’ll correct you and then you use the right pronouns. It’s that simple. It’s just easier to guess wrong for me. So, it’s very, very little that is needed to make a trans person feel welcome. Besides that: knowledge of ignorance and that willingness to collaborate. And then the rest is culture, right? If people are telling really nasty jokes, sexist or misogynist or transphobic jokes, then I’m not going to feel comfortable being there but that is, again, not really a thing that is unique to trans people. It’s a thing that is endemic to the experience of women and people of color and pretty much any marginalized identity who has to be in a workplace. If the people there say that they’re welcoming but they show that they’re not welcoming through their actions, through the ways that they participate and co-create culture, then they’re not walking the walk.
SWB You mentioned pronouns and I’m glad that you did because I would love to ask a little bit more about that and the reason being that ok, it’s 2018 and I think that if you’ve been listening to our show like we’ve touched on trans issues and pronouns more than once like most of the people listening to the show probably I’m guessing understand that like calling people by the pronouns that they want to be called by is generally good, and things like the singular they are ok but I think that there’s been some conversation I’ve heard recently and I’m curious your take on it. I have heard from trans folks who have really think it’s helpful when cis people share their profiles or like put it in their Twitter bio because it kind of normalizes the idea that we shouldn’t be assuming people’s gender which is something that you just touched on. But then I’ve also heard sort of the opposite that it could be problematic because it can be like performative allyship or because it can kind of like feel like it erases the struggle that trans folks have had to have their gender be taken seriously. And I don’t think all trans folks agree or need to agree. Probably that’s unrealistic in any community or any people whatsoever but I’m curious if you have any thoughts on how we talk about pronouns and how those of us who aren’t trans specifically talk about pronouns. Like what makes you feel good?
AP You’re definitely right that there are disagreements within the trans community. I think there might be less disagreement on this issue than one might think and I say this knowing full well that there could be someone out there listening, “I disagree.” That’s fine. Everyone has pronouns. I think that’s a thing that everyone can agree on. I have pronouns. They’re different than the ones I was assigned based on my physiology at birth. You have pronouns. Presumably people use certain words when they refer to you. Those are properties that we have. They may change the same way that you may change your name. Everyone has the chance of changing their name at some point in their life. That name is still a part of you. It is a thing about you which can shift but after it is done shifting it then remains static. So there are experiences people have where their pronouns shift over time. There are experiences people have where their pronouns might be variable, there might be multiple words which would suffice for someone’s gender pronouns. But those are still their pronouns. And so I don’t really think it’s controversial to suggest that people normalize the experience of giving pronouns, even people who aren’t trans. In my experience, that is an excellent way for cis people to use their privilege because I’ll tell you the other side of it, too, but here’s the thing: when I was first coming out and I had not had much experience with estrogen at the time, so I still presented fairly masculine, and even when I was presenting feminine still looked fairly masculine to most people. There were times when I would not give people my pronouns because I knew they would probably get it wrong. And it was more emotionally difficult for me to tell someone who I was and have them ignore it whether through malice or through simple ignorance than to simply bear being referred to in a way that hurt me but knowing that they didn’t know because I didn’t tell them. And sure there’s an angry part of me that is yelling, “Can’t you see?” But no, they can’t see. People can’t see that sort of thing, even when you really want them to. So I think the more experience we have asking people their pronouns and having experience respecting them can only be a net benefit. I think that there’s this culture around inclusion where we assume that it only really helps marginalized people but time and time again I think we see that when we see start respecting the people who are the edge cases, who are on the fringes of what’s normative, we wind up helping more than just those people by trying to be inclusive.
So when bathroom bill stuff starting hitting in the US, and people started freaking out about the idea that trans people might be using their restrooms, you started seeing masculine looking cis women and feminine looking cis men getting attacked and getting policed on their way into the bathroom and it— I think building competence and understanding that bodies can differ from gender identity and your assumptions might not be correct is something that helps absolutely everyone and it just happens to help trans people a whole lot more. So I personally think that cis people putting pronouns in their bios, building a habit of asking people what their pronouns are and of offering their own pronouns as if it was there—just part of their identity like their name. Which it is. “Hi, I’m Ada. My pronouns are she/her.” “Hi, I’m Sara. My pronouns are she/her.” That is super easy to do and it goes a really long way. I think the things that people object to is when it goes a bit too far and I think that’s where the performative aspect goes in where people say, “You have to give your pronouns. You have to—we’re going to go around and you’re going to have to give your pronouns. You’re going to have to put your pronouns down on this badge or whatever and we’re going to create an environment where we talk about pronouns.” Well, not all trans people are comfortable giving their pronouns anyway. Like I just mentioned a situation where for reasons that were very personal to me, I did not feel comfortable giving my pronoun in every situation.
AP [Continued] Some people are closeted for whatever reason and so they don’t feel comfortable—you know then they’re put in the position of having to give fake pronouns which feels weird or being outed as trans which can be dangerous. So I think a lot of the work is towards recognizing context and towards finding balance where you create space for people to give their pronouns and you normalize it by giving it yourself but you’re not actually forcing anyone else to participate in that system. You’re just communicating that it is acceptable, and that it’s possible, and then of course addressing bad actors who give the whole attack helicopter. “My gender is attack helicopter.” “My gender is racecar.” Those kinds of answers. Those are the people that you definitely want to talk to a little bit more but I don’t think that you need to go the point of enforcing and giving pronouns with everyone. Just normalizing it. Just normalizing it by doing it yourself.
SWB I love just having this conversation about how do we do a better job of retraining ourselves around like who and what is normal and sort of like what should be assumed and I think that that’s tough. I feel like that’s like a lifelong thing I’m working on. And so it’s like, you know, just trying to think through well what are all of those things that I think of as being perfectly normal? What are all of those things all of us, you know, were taught to think of as perfectly normal that if we stop and question them a little bit and scratch a little deeper, we realize we just have tons to unpack.
AP Oh absolutely and I think that it’s way more important to realize that you have tons to unpack than it is to get to the bottom of unpacking all of it. I think that is very literally impossible. It’s a lifelong thing. I personally believe that there is no one more dangerous than someone who is convinced that they are safe [pause] when they think that they have finished that process. “I got woke. It was a Tuesday. I remember it clearly [Sara laughs]. Check it off the calendar. I’m done now.” I’m terrified of that person. I am way more terrified of that person than I am the race car driver gender person because that person can make their way into spaces where some level of acknowledgement of different realities of human beings is required because they can fake it well enough. They can talk it well enough and then they can get in my proximity and then I can discover just how much well meaning ignorance they have, and then I have to make a judgement call about whether or not I want to expend resources on that interaction. It’s actually the people who are benignly center that—like I’m pretty good at avoiding Trump supporters. Great at it, actually. I don’t think I regularly interact with anyone who admits to me that they are a Trump supporter or talks about far right politics in that way. But I know plenty of people who take just a little bit more energy than they give to interactions with me. In fact, this morning I met with my doctor and that’s a whole fraught relationship but I was giving him some pointers on notes he was taking and talking to him about the societal requirements that we feel pressured to perform gender under for doctors so that we can get access to the medicine we need and how there’s an element of performativity there and how there’s a whole system at play that most people who aren’t trans don’t see that affects how we interact with the medical institution.
AP [Continued] And I could tell he was a little bit hurt and I felt like it was sort of my responsibility in that moment to hold space for that hurt and we didn’t really have the relationship or the time to unpack that but I left feeling a little icky because I felt like I don’t know my guard was down. It shouldn’t have been. But my guard was down, I have had a good relationship with the doctor up to this point, and he’s been pretty good about empowering me to make a lot of my own medical decisions which is honestly great for trans people and so, yeah, it’s those kinds of people that cost me the most energy in a given day are the people who are almost there and think they’re there and then I have to work not just with them not being there but them being so sure that they were there. I think you have to approach life with this knowledge that you are inevitably going to fuck up. And the question is not if but how and when and be very prepared to deal maturely and responsibly with that. So that when someone does have the courage or fortitude or desire to, you know, love for you to tell you how to do better, that you don’t cost them more than it took them to start that interaction in the first place.
SWB Yes, we had this conversation with a guest in last season, Saron Yitbarek, where we talked about getting that kind of feedback for the community that she was producing or ways, you know, she’d meant to make it an inclusive community and ways that she might have missed the, you know, missed the boat a little bit on this or that, and we kind of talked about how that kind of feedback is in a lot of ways a gift and it doesn’t feel like it in the moment that you’re getting it but it is because it’s somebody taking the time and like using their energy who is feeling marginalized or alienated by something you’re doing and actually telling you so that you have an opportunity to learn something and like their choice to give you that gift of education is really, really, really great and like if you’re not willing to open yourself up to it like you’re the one who’s losing out.
AP Absolutely! I hosted a friend of mine over this past weeked which was San Diego pride and he uses a wheelchair and he was telling me about the ways in which my house—the ways that my house was not ideally wheelchair accessible and not just, you know, what I could do to fix it but what I should tell people when I make Facebook events. Letting people know about the things that are structural and can’t be fixed and laid out how I could frame it in ways that folks who are regularly in those situations would understand. And I was honestly so thankful that he was willing to do that labor, that he was already at a disadvantage being in that space and not having the access to it that he wanted but he was also willing to give that feedback to me not knowing if I was in a place to receive it or receive it well or not. And I’m certainly not trying to pat myself on the back because I was only able to receive it well because there were a bunch of other times I’ve been butt hurt [laughter] and probably cost someone way more effort than they should’ve—so, again, it’s a process. I was able to do ok by that interaction but I’m sure some other interaction in the future I’m going to have to work a little bit harder to maintain my calm under and I guess the most I can hope for is that we just keep that chain going of, like anything, working at it, getting better. It’s a practice like anything else.
SWB Totally. And recognizing that like it’s ok to have a feeling of defensiveness but you have to decide like, “Oh I don’t have to express my defensiveness at this person. Like I can have a reaction that’s like, ‘Ugh! How dare they?! How dare they critique me! I’m trying to do the right thing here.’” Like you can have that in your head. You can have a little quiet moment with yourself where you feel that feeling and then you have to look at the situation and be like, “Ok. I need to approach this in a way that is fair to this other person and that is going to actually help me grow.” Like it’s ok to have like whatever shitty feelings we have because c’mon. We all have some shitty, petty feelings sometimes [laughs] it’s like figuring out, you know, what are you going to do with that and like whose responsibility are those feelings. Well it turns out their yours. Right? Like they’re not other people’s problem.
AP Right. I’m so glad to hear you say that. I can even go a little further: I think it’s important, it is not just ok to have those feelings, it is so important to recognize those feelings and to figure out a process that works for you for dealing with them. I have seen especially since the most recent election so much burnout from activist friends, mostly white and relatively privileged activist friends, who are working really hard to hold space for all the people who were hurt, for all the people who are angry, they’re past not all men. They’re past not all white people. They recognize that every person who fits certain intersections is passively benefitting or in some ways complicit in certain oppressions. And they realize that they don’t have to feel personally responsible for people’s anger and rage but they do want to hold a space for it. And I see so many people trying to actively decenter themselves all the time but that’s not a way for a person to live. Like you can’t live never, ever, ever thinking about your own needs and, yeah, some of your reactions might be problematic but you are no help to whatever causes we’re trying to accomplish if you collapse under the weight of your own guilt and pain and struggle.
SWB Ugh. I love that so much. It reminds me of the conversations we’ve also had on the how about things like therapy and like I mean not everybody has amazing therapy experiences and not everybody has the easiest access to therapy but one of the things that I know Katel’s talked about this a lot like you know having that space with a therapist you really trust is also a space to process all of those feelings and that are unresolved and to like recognize that that is valuable and important.
AP Absolutely. It doesn’t have to be in therapy but therapy’s a great place. I have gotten very lucky and again have been very privileged with therapists. My therapists have overall been pretty great and I should probably go back to one soon. There’s more stuff that’s coming up but they were absolutely critical in getting me to a place of stability and if I were actively in therapy now I would definitely be talking about some of the challenges I’m experiencing in that area of I don’t know I think that comes up in tech a lot too or just really any work that we for some reason call white collar where—and this is getting into the—a little bit into the balance that I try to walk here in the tech world where if I was all activist, all anger, all the time, I probably wouldn’t advance much in my career which is fine like who cares about me? But it also means that I would lose out on opportunities to affect change within a system to whichever extent that that is desirable which opinions certainly vary on. But it’s a thing that I’m interested in is trying to engage— using my privilege to engage with systems that other people don’t have access to and seeing if I can use that access to make them a little bit less shitty and so there is a pragmatic tightrope you have to walk of alright what are the right changes to make right now? When is the right environment to bring those up? How can I acquire more social capital and more education and knowledge about the problem space I’m working in and execute on some ideas I have in the future? If not exactly right now. It’s very hard when you’re invested in that process. To stay connected to people’s hurt and pain and suffering. And to say connected to people who are more radical than you because you’re surrounding yourself quite intentionally with people who are quite possibly less radical than you and I think that has an erosion effect as well. So I think it’s challenging for any of us when we’re trying to affect change in an environment that is more normative or oppressive or regressive than we would like it to be to play that game and to do well at it. To succeed in that environment possibly for our own goals but also certainly to do some positive things with the privileges that we get or the opportunities that we acquire but without losing a connection to the people that ultimately you want to try to help.
KL I agree. I think it’s, you know, that’s something for people to strive towards. I wanted to switch gears just like a little bit. I’m really curious about your writing about being polyamorous which you’ve said before is something that you figured out and started practicing around the same time you were figuring out gender. Can you tell our listeners a little about what that means to you?
AP Yeah, polyamory is important to me for a variety of reasons. I have been actively practicing as polyamorous for about three and a half years now. As you mentioned, around the same time I discovered I was transgender, a little bit before. Which is kind of funny. I had gone the vast majority of my life having certain preconceptions about myself: that I was monogamous, that I was cisgender, that I was a boy, and that I was straight. And those all changed at once. It was very interesting to experience. I had been living I think this speaks to both gender and polyamory. I had been doing serial monogamy for about fourteen years, from my teenage years until about the time I was twenty-eight. Getting in one relationship after another, kind of jumping ship as soon as it started to go down but not really unpacking my baggage just loading it onto another plane and taking off again and it wasn’t until I noticed that pattern over the course of several years because my thing was falling into codependent relationships and seeing them through or rather falling asleep in these codependent relationships and in the same way that working at a desk job eroded my soul sort of merging soul with another person and not really thinking about what you wanted also erodes your soul. So I would, you know, pop up and do something about it and eventually I saw that pattern and decided I needed to stay out of relationships for awhile, or at least exclusive relationships.
AP [Continued] So when I was twenty-eight, I started a period of about a year of singleness where I continued to date, go on Okcupid, Tinder, what have you but I was very clear that I was not interested in exclusive relationships. I was very invested in maintaining my independence and figuring out what worked for me and I think it was giving myself that space, of refusing to get into exclusive relationships that allowed me to get close enough to myself and be tolerant enough of my own company and to like my own company enough. And give myself space to speak to myself where I could start to ask some of those difficult questions and start to chip away that some repression without knowing it that eventually led to me discovering that I was trans. So think it was late 2014 when I both discovered that I was probably not a boy and also that me doing monogamy poorly my entire life was not the entire part of the story. It was actually very huge for me to flip that script, recognize that there were other ways of living and loving because my entire life I had been bad at monogamy which I interpreted as being bad at only loving one person. Some people seem to be able to get into a relationship and then their hearts and their minds and their bodies all align towards only wanting that person and that seems very strange to me. I can love a person very deeply, I can appreciate so many things about them and yet still be fascinated and curious and interested about other people and their experiences and their lives and their hearts and their bodies. And so getting a framework where I was able to flip that from being bad at only loving one person to being good at loving more than one person definitely was a game-changer for me. And I’ve been doing that for about three years now, and it’s been hugely, hugely transformative and great for me —not just because I am living more in line with how I feel like I’m wired, but because the kinds of communities that spring up around polyamory and people who practice polyamory, but especially those partnership networks, have been really, really crucial in giving me a stable, emotional experience through life, especially with all the other changes I’m going through. So being able to give and receive support in what feels like a very stable, healthy, loving ecology has been fantastic for me. And again I have the privilege where I can be out about that. A lot of people can’t because I’m also willing to take the risk of discrimination and possibly not being able to have access to certain opportunities in work because of that. So as long as I can be out and proud about it, I definitely want to be.
SWB Ugh. I love this story a lot because I was thinking as you were talking about this, I was thinking back to when we first met at this conference, we were sitting at this lunch table together and you were talking about being poly and with some other conference attendees and what I recall from that conversation was just that it was a really open and honest conversation that also felt very normal and I think that for some people they you know they might be like, “Oh my gosh how would you even end up talking about that at a conference?” But it felt like such a normal part of who you are and such a normal part of what you bring to wherever you go. And so I love that you kind of brought this back around to some of the same stuff we talked about earlier with regard to gender around like being able to bring your whole self to work, being able to tell people who are, show people who you are, and use that as part of your tools in the actual job that you do, and I think that all of that tying together is like so valuable.
AP I appreciate that a lot. Yeah I will take a little bit of credit for fortunately being ok in those kinds of situations and being fluent in social situations but a lot of it is very intentional. I definitely benefit from normalizing the ways that I’m different from others and other people certainly benefit from the effort I’m willing to expend at normalizing those things for others so I find ways to not force it but if I could say partner. I might say, “One of my partners,” instead and that provides a small little opportunity for someone to either follow up on that or they just heard it and it went in one ear and out the other or I just managed to casually disclose that I’m polyamorous but not in a way that turned the conversation towards that and then that’s one more data point a person has about polyamory. Or mention something very casual about my transition and that’s one more data point about how a trans person lives. So some of it is calculated and quite often it leads to these wonderful interactions where we can talk openly about it because I’ve successfully found my way into a group of open minded people.
SWB Well I appreciate you figuring out how to be able to do that and taking risks to be able to do that because I also know that is really important for the people who aren’t feeling safe enough to take those risks. And you know with that in mind, I do have one last question for you so ok, you sit at least a few intersections that I know about, right? So you’re a trans woman, you know, you’re queer, you’re poly—maybe more that we haven’t even discussed, and you think about this stuff a lot. So I’m really curious for folks who are listening who want to be more in tune with issues around inclusivity, trans issues maybe specifically, do you have any last advice that you would give to those folks about how they can do a better job being open to people that they haven’t met before or to new ways of thinking about things and making spaces more welcoming?
AP Honestly, make friends with the people that you want to understand better. Like, again, it sounds weird, but it’s only weird because it’s so simple. We are given an abundance of information about how to be certain things and how to live certain ways and we are given an extreme deficit of information about how certain other people live or other possible ways that we could be living, and I think the only way if you had to give one thing to change that it would simply be to start the process of opening channels to different information, to more information. If you’re listening to this podcast and you don’t know any trans people, great. You know at least one. You are very welcome to reach out to me and ask questions and I can introduce you to more.
KL Thank you so much for being here. I know that I would love for more people to read what you write and hear what you say, so where can people find you?
AP Yeah the handle that I’ve been using more places lately is “mspowahs.” You can put that into Twitter and you can put that into Medium and you can get a hold of me. Any channel that you’re comfortable with, feel free to reach out. I write about polyamory and queerness and transness on Medium and I talk about tech inclusivity and I just shitpost about being queer all the time on Twitter.
KL Awesome. Well, thank you so much. That’s amazing.
AP Thank you! [music fades in, plays alone for four seconds, fades out]
SWB So one of the things I really loved about Ada’s interview was that it got me thinking about our vocab swap segment that we do from time to time, and we haven’t done in a little while. And I was hoping we could dig into something Ada talked about, which was pronouns. I mean she talked about it a lot. So obviously pronouns are really important to a lot of people especially to people who aren’t always called by the pronouns that they want to be called by and it made me think about how we can all do a better job of kind of shifting our thinking and kind of breaking some of those immediate assumptions we make when we see somebody out in the world that we don’t know and we assume that they are one gender or another and instead try to like hold back on that and, you know, get used to thinking about gender a little differently. So I was thinking about that in terms of vocab swap and something I saw recently on Twitter was a thread and I have no recollection of who it was from where the— the person was talking about how, you know, if you see somebody in public and you know let’s say you are in line and there’s somebody in front of you in line and you see somebody cut, you could say something along the lines of, “Oh. I think this person was first.” Instead of saying, “Oh I think she was first.” Because if you don’t know how somebody prefers to be referred to you don’t have to actually make an assumption, right? You can just say they or that person and it’s totally normal and once you get used to doing that then it can really extend to I think all of your interactions and like you can— you can do a much better job of asking people about what they want to be called and just making sure that you’re not misgendering people by making assumptions up front.
JL I got a lot of practice of this actually in my mom’s group, you know, with other people’s babies and, you know, instead of being like, “Oh, your son’s so cute,” or “Your daughter’s so cute.” I really just go in and be like, “Your baby’s so adorable.” And you know I’ve had people be like, talk about my son, and being like, “Look at your cute, adorable daughter!” And I’m like, “Mm.” Which is fine. Like it doesn’t offend me but it’s just one of those things that I’m now more cognizant of it and so I try not to make those same assumptions on other people.
KL I think yeah I think that makes so much sense. I mean you know thinking back to what Sara was just saying about looking for opportunities or just making it a little bit more of your practice in day to day life and not necessarily waiting for specific instances where you feel like you need to pay attention to it. I mean I think it’s just something that if we thought about a little bit more on an ongoing basis it would help make it not feel like a—a thing.
SWB Have either of you ever called somebody you know by the wrong gender?
KL Oh yeah absolutely. I feel like recently I did that and where I think you know before we really started I think generally talking about, you know, the three of us and I think I’m doing it more in my relationships with other friend groups, which I’m really appreciative of. I would have really like felt bad about it or like made a big deal and I don’t know maybe put my foot in mouth even more. And it recently happened where I was introducing someone and I said “she” and I said, “Oh, excuse me, they.” And I just tried to like make it a thing like oh I fucked up but I’m, you know, I obviously knew the right thing but I didn’t say it and I—without stopping the conversation, I was trying to do that and I think like there are instances where you want to you know maybe take that person and like say, “Oh my bad, I’m sorry.” But I don’t know just in an effort to kind of like make it a little bit more normal.
SWB And like not to make it all about, you know, me and my feelings. “Oh my gosh. I screwed up. I can’t believe that. I’m bad [exactly]. I’m awful. I’m terrified.” Which I think is really easy to do but then it ends up making it all about you [totally]. I mean, I remember I did this to a friend who I met when they were presenting as one gender and who came out and publicly transitioned later and, you know, I felt really bad about it because it was like something—I hadn’t seen them since then and it was something that was very stuck in my memory and I was like, you know, this is something I have to unlearn and like that’s on me. I think about as being part of the work that we all have to do to change habits and to take that on as like—it is a practice. Like you said, Katel, it’s like you have to practice it and I don’t think any of us can like fix that overnight necessarily, but I mean you’re trained to talk about people’s genders since people are babies like Jenn just said! Right? Like it’s so deep and so building that into a habit I think is so worthwhile and it’s something that I certainly haven’t like finished doing but it’s something I’m working on.
KL Yeah. Definitely. And we need to talk about it more like we’re doing and I think like that is the only way we get there.
SWB Totally [music fades in, plays alone for three seconds, fades out].
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KL So we are at one of my favorite parts of the show which is the Fuck Yeah of the Week and I have one to share. So when I got back from Vancouver I had a friend of mine—like one of my besties from when I lived D.C., she came to stay with me for the weekend and it was so awesome. We hadn’t seen each other in like six months—which is a really long time for us and it was just a) it was amazing to see her and spend some time with her, but b) I took her to get her very first tattoo, which was so cool. So it was great that she came and even greater that like the minute she stepped off the plane, we like picked up like we had not skipped a beat. And that was so awesome. Do you both have folks in your life like that?
JL Totally! Julia who made me paraglide [laughter].
KL Oh gosh!
JL Yeah but I mean I’ve known her since I was five and like we’ve gone in and out of each other’s lives but like it’s one of those things where there’s not any hesitation to picking back up, whether we find ourselves in the same place or having to text each other about something, or ask for advice, or jump on a phone call. There’s no hesitation of being like, “Ok. Let’s spend twenty minutes with the obligatory I’m sorries, my apologies,” you know talking about before like how do we just keep the flow going and I think that’s what we do. We just embrace the fact that this is what this friendship is.
SWB Could she still get you to go paragliding? [Laughter]
JL Oh gosh. She totally could! Which is like ridiculous [Katel laughs] because like I—she probably could now and I’m sick and like nauseous and pregnant and she could probably show up and be like, “But I’m here from Boston. Let’s go jump off a cliff.” [Laughter]
KL “Ok we’re going tomorrow.”
SWB Ok we’re going to recommend that you don’t paraglide while pregnant though probably. I’m not a doctor but I think that you shouldn’t do that.
JL The No, You Go show is not advocating for this.
KL Yeah [laughs] please don’t.
SWB I totally have a friend like this. I recently saw her. You know I was back in Oregon which is where I grew up and I met her back in college when we worked together. We were in the same training class at credit union customer service. Very exciting. And so her name is Katie. Shout out to Katie. Katie and I don’t know. The second we’re in the same room I just feel like I’m at home and I’m like, “I know this person and she knows me,” and I feel like I can just open right up to her. And the way that we catch up, I mean, we definitely want to catch up on the new things going on in each other’s lives, but it doesn’t feel like you’re just like running through a history of like a list of the things you did over the last period of time. It feels so much more natural. And there’s something about it that is just so wonderful. And I feel like I’m lucky enough that I have had a handful of friends of like that over the years from different moments of my life, you know, I have one who I’m still close to from when I was a kid and, you know, I have another from the time that I was in Arizona or whatever like I have a few of those and it’s so freaking great to be able to kind of sustain that and to have intimacy even though our lives look totally different now. Like me and Katie, we live on opposite sides of the country. She has a six-year-old, I definitely don’t have kids. You know like I’m like extremely driven like push, push, push all the time, doing ten thousand things. She’s very good at relaxing, it’s one of the things that she always tries to teach me and I still suck at. You know it’s like on paper our lives are so different from one another but you get us in the same place and we just gel and I fucking love that so much.
JL And I think that’s so important to know, you know? There’s like there’s people that like your lives can take different turns but you’ll still like just really get along great and then sometimes your lives will take turns from other people and, you know, you don’t have that much in common and that’s ok too. But I think it’s really important to just be like here are friendships I want to sustain and here’s friendships that were definitely important to me but maybe not as much anymore.
KL Yeah, totally. For the relationships that you have with folks that, you know, are the kind of you see each other and you pick right back up like what do you think has been a part of making that happen? Like what’s—sort of like what’s the glue there?
SWB Gosh. Ok. So I think—this is the foundation of it that is the hardest to explain but I think is the most crucial for me has been it’s almost like I guess a radical acceptance of the other person’s life. Like you have to come at it where you just sort of like you can look at them and you can be like, “I see them and I want them to have the life that they have,” and instead of sort of like getting to a place where you’re almost seeing as like highlighting all the ways it’s different, you’re, you know know what I mean? [Mm hmm] You’re sort of coming at it like you’re embracing that life that they’ve built for themselves and you can see them in it and they—and you can feel like the same is happening for you. And I don’t think you can make that happen with everybody, I think that it’s something that you can certainly foster by trying to bring that to your relationships and then finding the people that it sort of clicks with.
KL I totally agree and I think that, you know, if you do have someone in your life like that and maybe you’re kind of like heading in that direction, just knowing that like, it takes both people doing that, you know? It’s not just necessarily like oh ok I want to try to make this work but I think if you—if you see that there’s something there like that, you know, go towards it, I think. If you want to—if you want to nurture it.
JL Yeah I think that’s so important too like something that like you touched on, Sara, was just like you can control you, right? Like you can’t control other people. So I think the more accepting you are of like everyone coming to things with their own stuff, and you know embracing that, I think the better luck you have of not trying to like force something. And just being like, “No, like this either like works or if it doesn’t but I know what I can control and that’s me.”
SWB Yeah. You know I also think that the people where I have that feeling with are people where we both can see that the other person has evolved. It’s like [hmm] I can see—Katie, for example. I can see Katie as she was when I first met her but like when I meet her now I’m like, you know, I can still see that but I also can see all of the ways that she has totally changed. Of course—I mean like, one hopes, right? And I think sometimes if you don’t see somebody that often it’s easy to want to like put them back in the same role that you had them in five years ago, ten years ago, whatever, and like not allow them to be the person that they actually are now. And I think that when you can make sense of that and can be like, “Ok. I fell in love with this person as a friend. Like and I love that version of them but I also love this version of them and I recognize that they’ve grown in ways that I wasn’t present for,” I think that that’s sort of an important thing to keep in mind and sort of recognize. I don’t know I guess I thought that like this conversation would be about like, “Oh just make sure you text them more! And don’t just text, set aside time for calls.” But actually I don’t think that’s what it is. You know I’ve had [yeah] moments in my life when I talk to these people a lot more and a lot less and that wasn’t the frequency or the type of contact was not what really did it, it was I think sort of like the mental and emotional space.
JL You know we’ve talked about this with our friendship too, you know, it’s not necessarily like just because someone doesn’t text you every five minutes or just because you don’t—like plans don’t work out that first time. It’s not about that. Right? It’s the, “I’m just going to check in when we’re going to check in. We’re going to see each other when we do. And when we do, it’s going to be awesome.”
KL Yeah. And I feel like there needs to be, you know, some kind of, I think, I’ll just call it cosmic energy that, you know, brings you two together but it’s also trusting that that is like that that is going to work. That being open and being a true friend and being your true self and seeing that in each other. That, you know, that’s a big part of it.
SWB Can we just say like fuck yeah to the besties of yesterday, the besties of today, the besties of tomorrow? All of the besties that we have all around us?
KL Fuck yeah, besties!
JL Fuck yeah!
JL Well that’s it for this week’s episode of No, You Go, the show about being ambitious — and sticking together. NYG is recorded in our home city of Philadelphia and produced by Steph Colbourn. Our theme music is by The Diaphone. Thanks to Ada Powers for being our guest today.
KL And hey, do you like our show? Take a quick minute to rate and review us. It helps other folks find us and we’d really appreciate it. We’ll be back next week [music fades in, plays alone for 28 seconds, fades out to end].
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Hey look, it’s a bonus-ode! We sent our demo to a bunch of friends, and they sent us back, like, a zillion questions. So we thought we’d answer a few on air—and then ask you a question of our own.
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It’s the very first episode of No, You Go! Jenn, Katel, and Sara get together to talk about the itch to get out of a professional rut and start something new—whether that’s changing jobs, launching a company, building a …