Saturday, November 5, 2022

Written Saturday, November 5, 2022

Sometimes there's really no point in trying to summarize anything; only the actual story will do.

This is one of those moments in my life.


It's taken a lot of downtime, of explicit rest and recovery, to reach a point where I'm even ready to try to say any of this. There will be more to follow, I'm almost certain, and no matter how long this entry gets, it can't even begin to scratch the surface of the non-stop storm of thoughts, feelings, and realizations that has characterized the past few months of my life.

I've written here before that I don't really think anything as "a beginning" in a strict sense, and I find myself struggling to figure out where to start in retelling the events of the past few months. I suppose the best I can do is to pick up where the prior entry left off: my quest to live a life of joy, in nothing less than open defiance of a world full of oppression and oppressors trying to rob me of it.


That journey has taken some turns I did not foresee. As is often the case in life, hindsight has revealed much that I simply wasn't able to recognize in the midst of things. I'm no longer certain I can recount the events of the past six months without heavily coloring the story with the understanding I have at this moment; but perhaps that is for the best.

It has been hard, most of those six months, to see this twist in my road as truly in pursuit of joy. I've been exhausted. Demoralized. I have hurt and cried and screamed in ways - and to a depth - that I haven't in a few years. Certainly on the surface, from the outside, it can scarcely look like I'm succeeding in this venture.


And yet, for as horrific, painful, and jarring as those months have been, I'm now growing increasingly confident that the strain has followed a particular pattern - one I've become so familiar with, in the years since I started writing these things, that I even have a name for it.

It is the pain of throwing ballast overboard.

To heave aside the things that weigh us down can take monumental efforts. It can hurt. It can - for a time - leave us feeling more injured than when we were simply being locked in a familiar status quo by the stubborn inertia of it all. Most of all, it can take significant amounts of time for the extra buoyancy afforded by such an effort to really begin to manifest. Massive changes require time to adapt to - time to come to terms with, time to grieve what is gone, time to begin to see hope in what is next.

I am far from done grieving what is gone. I know I may well carry the lingering embers of anger from it all for quite some time. But I am beginning to see hope - true, unmistakable hope - blooming on the horizons of my life.


This all probably sounds laboriously poetic without any sort of relevant detail or context. But I wanted to set the scene first; because the context doesn't seem like it'd be leading to a happy ending.


Sometime around 12 years ago, I started experiencing a sort of moment of disillusionment with the job I had at the time. There were a series of issues in that company that I can only describe (from my vantage point today) as increasingly egregious abusiveness, culminating in an outright ableist choice to quit paying me for my work.

In deciding it was time to leave that organization, I realized it was also time to leave the geographical region I was living in. I could barely whisper the notion in my own mind, and I definitely dared not speak it aloud - for years after, even - but part of me knew, with a profoundly unshakeable clarity, that I needed to find queer people to be around.

There was a second half to that thought that took me even longer to be able to say - not just queer people in abstract or in general. Queer people like myself.

And so one day in May of 2011, I got in my car and set out to drive the thousands of miles needed to reach a new city, a new job, and a new life.


I worked at that job for just over 11 years. I am proud of what I did there - not just in terms of the software technology I was instrumental in bringing to life, or the untold millions of hours of joy people have gotten from experiencing the things I helped make there. I also rather quickly found myself getting involved in management; and it didn't take long for me to start challenging the way things were being done.

Without even really understanding the monumental task I was taking on, I instinctively began raising the bar. Pushing for more compassion, more understanding, more empathy, more thoughtfulness, more humanity, more authenticity in everything we did. Questioning things. Offering better alternatives. Calling out the problems I saw - and there were very, very many problems, of many kinds.

Over the years I ended up taking over an entire department, running the software engineering division of the company's flagship product for several years, and essentially the entire engineering culture of the corporation for a while as well.


It was thankless and brutal work, for the most part. There were a very bright, gleaming handful of moments, scattered across those years, when I got to see the rewards of it all - and for all the myriad things that happened there, the rewards always looked the same.

There is a particular way that people's eyes get, when they're deep in particularly powerful emotions... emotions like gratitude, relief, and even inspired but quiet anger. It's funny to me, in hindsight, how those are the memories that have stuck with me. Everything else more or less blurs together; but whenever I'm tempted to look back on it all and think it was worthless, I see someone or other's eyes pop almost unbidden into my mind, giving me that look - the one that says they knew (perhaps better than I did, for a lot of those events) how unusual, how significant, it was for someone to step up for them in the way I'd just done.


But as I reach the past year and a half or so, the final chapter of that career, I'm also flooded with memories of other expressions - other telltale indicators of why that job wound up taking such a horrific toll on me. I see the confusion, the disdain, the exasperated frustration of cishet, white men in comfortable positions of authority and power - the not-even-concealed disgusted eye rolls and quiet sighs of "ugh, there she goes again."

And I've come to recognize how much of what I fought for at that company - for the people of that company - I did in the face of harsh opposition. How much of what I accomplished came down to the annoyed relenting of men who simply wanted me to shut up and go away, and if changing policies to protect people would make me leave them alone, then fine. To them it was never about learning to do the right thing, or growing, or actually making anything better.


It was always about finding an expedient way to get a moment of quiet from the people with grievances - people I often found myself giving a voice to, who otherwise were never being heard.


Sure, they all loved to preen about their "awareness" and "sensitivity." They made a huge deal about how much "better" their culture was than any number of rivals and competitors in the business. They took an almost comical amount of pride in the "quality of life" they purported to provide - quality that, from my position on the inside of the entire mess, I knew was secretly clawed away from those same controlling men one tiny scrap at a time, largely by people like myself who knew where to apply pressure to get even the most modest of results.

It burned me out, severely, although it's only been in the past few weeks that I've truly begun to understand why. So around two years ago, I started making arrangements to step back from my director position, and join a small research and development project as an "individual contributor." I thought it would be a nice break, and maybe after a bit, I told myself, I'd get back into the management side of things and keep working on making shit better around there.


Things did not go according to plan.


Shortly before my career collapsed in on itself, I remember being in a semi-casual conversation about a rival business that was in the news yet again, getting sued over sexism and other forms of pervasive discriminatory and abusive behavior. I remember hearing several of my former colleagues practically congratulating themselves on being "so much better" than the poor souls over in that company.

I look back on that conversation, now, and see it morph somewhat; not, perhaps, through a distorted lens of unhappy memory, but perhaps in a clarity I simply could not have possessed in that moment.

And I hear the smug, self-satisfied preening of a set of people, proudly and naively boasting about how "our dumpster fire has a whole ten percent less fecal matter than the dumpster fire down the street!"

If only they could have any idea exactly how much that moment really failed to be the ringing endorsement they thought it was.


It wasn't long after that when things really began to unravel. I'd been having friction with my direct manager almost since the beginning of my time on the project, and it had finally reached a point where it was undeniably about him being problematic and not simply an issue of miscommunication or unfamiliarity. I'd started trying to draw increasingly desperate boundaries with him, while he lied to me (and others) about the situation, and tried to cover up any evidence of problems.

His horrific, abusive behavior - hidden behind a frighteningly skillful facade of calm, sensitive approachability and thoughtfulness - only got worse. I began to deteriorate - mentally, physically, emotionally.

At long last, in August, the mistreatment and denial reached a point where I couldn't maintain my own outward projection of calm or professionalism anymore. I knew I needed to get away from him, and I started by reaching out to senior management - people I'd worked with quite closely, as a former director - looking for support.

I was soundly and decisively redirected to HR; not an auspicious response, given the company's HR department had a... let's say well-known track record of being incredibly toxic, ignorant, and abusive themselves. Sure enough, HR handled the situation in a predictable - but no less astonishing and contemptible - fashion.

They scrambled to silence me, began a campaign to isolate me from anyone in the company's leadership cohort who might have listened to me at all, and moved to punish me in a number of ways (some of which included contravening documented company policy) for speaking out and asking for help.

I'm not sure I'll ever forget the horror of the experience of talking to a woman of color in the HR department - who on our first encounter effused nothing but warmth, sympathy, and support - as she looked me dead in the eye and told me that if I "wasn't going to choose to get past my problems with [the manager in question], we should talk about severance options."


This, in case any of my occasional readers are not aware, is a code phrase.

"Severance" is an HR euphemism for we are going to try to buy your silence. In exchange for a lump sum of money, I would have been asked to waive my right to ever speak of the situation again. I'd seen it done - by that very HR department, albeit with different people on staff - many times before.

Thankfully, I knew enough to refuse to ever speak to that HR representative again, and I started working my way down the list of my final remaining options.


I wound up seeking help from three different members of senior company leadership - all people I'd had close working relationships in the past. Notably, all three are also cishet white men. One declined to even talk to me, clearly having been spooked by some bullshit or other from HR before I'd had the chance to reach out to him; unsurprising, as he'd taken a similar "non-intervention" stance on a few other cases of women being mistreated in the company before, preferring to "trust HR to deal with it" or some such cowardice. A second - the man who'd hired me into the company in the first place, back in 2011 - chose to side with HR. The third, who was in charge of the R&D team I was on (which had since become a full-fledged product development team), flat out victim-blamed me to my face and told me in no uncertain terms he would take no action that "might" reflect poorly on the image of the manager in question.

I specifically quote the word "might" there to highlight that he didn't even have a cogent argument suggesting that there would be a problem if he'd helped me transfer away from the manager's abusive oversight; he made a decision to protect another cishet, white man at the expense of one of the most marginalized employees ever to walk through the company's doors, all because it might have made someone look bad for a while.

I gave the traditional two weeks of notice on September 12, 2022 - mere minutes after hanging up on that man in disgust and anguish. I formally ended my employment on September 23; and several weeks later, much of the company still didn't know I was gone - what should have been major news of a very disruptive and unexpected departure remains, as far as I can tell, actively suppressed and silenced by some combination of the leaders with dirt on their hands, and their footsoldiers in HR.


I wish this had all been shocking to me. I wish I could say it was rare, or unusual, or even that I wasn't expecting it to happen to me. The sad truth is, the moment I chose to try to put an end to my own mistreatment, I knew it was likely the end of my career - at least in that particular field.

It's not like I couldn't get another job, doing similar things; I could have walked onto any number of very high-paying gigs within hours of signing my termination paperwork, if I'd so chosen. I have two decades of extremely hard-to-find experience, across a number of rare specialized skill sets, and I am very, very fucking good at what I do.

But I chose instead to take some time to truly try and recover and think clearly about what I wanted to do next with my life; and I couldn't be more grateful that I have the luxury of genuinely taking some time.


As it stands, I'm no longer left with any room to deny something I've known about that industry since the day I joined it, back in 2002. It is a business pervasively overtaken by greed, callousness, exploitation, abuse, bigotry, misogyny, racism, and apathy. At some point in history, I honestly can't really say when, those things stopped being a problematic portion of the business and started being its very infrastructure and lifeblood.

To me, now, it is no longer possible to unsee what I have seen - not just from the experience of yet another abused, burned out, exploited worker, but through the eyes of a manager who spent over a decade hell-bent on trying to fight to change the industry from the inside.


I will never work in that industry again - not because I couldn't be employed, but because my conscience has had enough.



I struggle, even tonight, to decide how much else to say. Whether to name names. Whether to identify the company, the industry, the problematic people in question. How much to say - for fear of reprisal, fear of consequences I can't quite name, or just fear of shocking and alienating the few people who know me but don't know the full story of what happened or where it is I worked.

For now, this is where I will start. Perhaps there will be more another day. I don't know yet.



So that's it - the context. The details.

Doesn't exactly feel like a high note, does it?



And yet, tired and drained and emotionally raw as I've been, as uncomfortable and unpleasant as it's been to write all this out in full... even though it's hard to remember...

I know this is a good thing.


Once I've had time to heal, to recover, to rest... I am free, now, to go do something much, much more important with my life than I ever could have in that horrible place.

I've realized, in the last few days, exactly how astounding the past four years of my life have been. Four years ago, I was just on the cusp of beginning to actively explore the question of my own gender - to begin, in earnest, my search for myself.

I found her, of course; a process of discovery that has had many of its most intense moments chronicled here, both for my own later edification, and for general sharing with a world that desperately needs to hear more stories like my own.

Those four years have been marked by so much pain, so much grief, so much loss, and so much upheaval that I could spend a thousand hours trying write it all down and never even remotely come close to capturing what it's all been like.

But for all of that struggle... it isn't the panicked, directionless, wild thrashing of trying desperately not to drown.

It's the repeated, deliberate, and - albeit unspeakably draining - ultimately liberating pain of throwing ballast overboard.


The quest for joy rarely follows a straight line. Sometimes, to get to a higher peak, we have to cross some darkly fucked up valleys indeed.


I will rest. I will heal. I will recover. And when it is done, I will fly more free than I ever dared to dream could be possible before.