June 6, 2023

Pride & Visibility: What it’s like to be a gay woman in cyber

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Lorna and Andrea are two of CAPSLOCK’s Co-founders. They have been in a relationship for 15 years, and married for nearly 3.

Since launching CAPSLOCK, we’ve frequently mentioned the struggles they’ve both faced as women and female co-founders in the cyber industry, but we haven’t often spoken about their experiences as gay women specifically.

So, for Pride Month 2023, we sat down with Lorna and Andrea to talk about their experiences of being openly gay women in cyber, what Pride means to them, and how visibility of the LGBTQIA+ community is vital in the fight for equality.

1. Hi to you both! To kick things off, now that June has arrived and Pride Month along with it, what does Pride mean to you?

A: "For me, it’s all about visibility. It’s about raising awareness and centering LGBTQ+ people in discussions about our struggles and our successes. I think, especially for people who might be questioning their sexuality or identity, having something [Pride] really visible that positively represents our community is super important, because they might not be in such a supportive environment at home, school or work for example."

L: "Visibility, definitely. It helps people feel supported, feel seen, and feel part of a bigger community. But mostly, for me Pride is still a protest. It’s acknowledging there’s still a lot of work to be done globally in order for gay people, nonbinary people, trans people and many others to feel safe.

Some people experience extreme violence, legal persecution and the death penalty because of their sexuality or gender identity, so Pride isn’t just a big party and a good time, it’s a time to highlight the battle we still face. If me and Andrea lived in a different country, we might not be able to be married or openly participate in Pride.

And the only reason we can do that in the UK is because people before us fought for those rights. Sex between men was only decriminalised here in the 60s and even today, the rights of trans people in the UK are being chipped away at, so it’s not like we’re perfect either."

2. You’ve both mentioned ‘visibility’ quite a lot. Why do you think visibility is so important?

L: "For me, it’s because someone somewhere is going to be struggling. It can feel lonely if you haven’t got support around you. Not understanding who you are, not feeling like you belong, it can be scary.

So, if anyone in that situation can see people who are openly and happily living their lives and not having to hide their identity, that might give them some hope that it is possible."

A: "I agree with that, and it’s also about continuing to disrupt what society considers ‘normal’. There’s still an expectation that you’re straight and cisgendered unless you say otherwise. It would be great to be in a society where that wasn’t the case, and the more of us that visibly embrace our differences, the more people will see that identity and gender and sexuality aren’t necessarily black and white things.

We often say to people who are trying to break into the cyber industry that “you can’t be what you can’t see” when talking about the importance of diversity and representation in the workforce. This is a bit like that. I’m not saying I’m a role model for being an openly gay woman in cyber but it might help people see that it’s possible."

Lorna and Andrea on their wedding day in 2020

3. What have been some of the challenges you’ve faced as openly gay women?

A: "It’s an interesting one because despite being openly gay, it can still feel like it surprises people, and you’re in this constant state of coming out. It’s not like you say it once and that’s that.

I find myself constantly correcting people who assume my partner is a “he”, or having to confirm to hotel staff that Lorna and I are happy with a double bed rather than two twin beds.

How many times do you correct people? Do you just let it go? No, it becomes a lifelong thing of challenging people’s assumptions that you’re a heterosexual person, and that’s quite exhausting."

L: "When we used to work in academia, there was a situation where a senior member of staff at the university where we both worked publicly outed us and our relationship. Still to this day I don’t know why they had an issue with us because we didn’t have much contact with them.

At that time, our relationship wasn’t common knowledge and we weren’t openly gay in that environment. They found out and told people at the university about our relationship, so by proxy also outed us as gay women. We reported it and they were dismissed."

A: "That was a really tough time, it made me very ill to be honest. And it’s the flip side of this visibility conversation. If you’re choosing to make yourself visible it can be very empowering, but if that visibility is forced upon you it takes that power away from you. It was horrible."

4. What have been your experiences in the cyber industry? Do you think it’s a welcoming place for the LGBTQIA+ community?

L: "I’ve worked in cyber for over 10 years and overall I’d say it’s been really positive. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced discrimination for being gay in the cyber industry. I’d say I’ve faced more for being a woman actually, especially in the early days.

Sexism is an issue in cyber which we’ve spoken about a lot, but that said I feel like it’s a supportive place for the LGBTQ+ community and perhaps that’s because it’s a relatively new industry. And obviously I can only speak from the ‘L’ perspective, I can’t speak for everyone. But yes, I feel it’s a welcoming place for the community."

A: "I’d agree with that, and I’ve been in cyber closer to 20 years. I’ve found it easier being openly gay in cyber than I did as an academic. I think there’s a lot more discrimination around sexuality in academia, particularly in traditionally male-dominated areas like computer science, and particularly when you’re a gay, autistic woman like me.

I personally feel very welcome in the cyber industry. Of course, individual organisations can have microcultures that might be problematic or not welcoming. But at large, whether it’s the online cyber community or at conferences and events, I’ve found it to be a welcoming place."

Andrea and Lorna at DTX Manchester

5. When creating CAPSLOCK, what measures were important to consider that would make LGBTQIA+ people feel welcome?

L: "From the start, developing a great culture was right at the top of our list. And culture has got to be set from the top. You’ve got to be actively conscious of it at every level, from your hires and external companies you work with to the language you use in advertising and how you talk in meetings.

You've got to keep asking yourself “Is this supplier a good cultural fit for CAPSLOCK? Is this wording inclusive? Does this person reflect our values?”. If the answer is no, you’ve got to move on."

A: "Mostly, we want to create a space where everybody, including LGBTQIA+ staff and learners, can feel comfortable being themselves. We've made sure our application process is explicitly inclusive of trans and nonbinary people, and we encourage our learners and staff to share their pronouns and preferred names.

We’re always encouraging gender neutral and inclusive language inside and outside the classroom. Obviously a big one is our zero-tolerance policy for things like sexism, racism, homophobia and transphobia."

L: "When we’re hiring staff for CAPSLOCK, there’s a question we always ask at the interview stage, which is: “Are you racist, homophobic, transphobic, sexist...?” basically any of the –ists or –isms.

It's a little tongue-in-cheek and of course we’re not expecting anyone to say yes (and no-one ever has), but for us it draws a line in the sand and makes it immediately, explicitly clear that our commitment to diversity and inclusion isn’t just a box-ticking exercise, and that discriminatory attitudes aren’t welcome here."

Andrea and Lorna with a CAPSLOCK alum at the Women in Business & Tech Expo

6. What advice would you give to anyone from underrepresented groups who'd like to start a cyber career?

A: "Find your allies, find your tribe. You’ll always be able to find people you can relate to and you can connect with them in so many different ways now. LinkedIn is a great tool for networking like that. If you start talking to people who are already moving in the kind of circles you want to be a part of, you often find doors opening for you."

L: "Be unapologetically you, and I know that’s not always easy but it’s the best way I think. Sometimes people are so desperate to get into a new industry that they’ll be anything to get through the door. But if you do that, you’re in danger of not being able to bring your whole self to work. Like we’ve said, cyber is a pretty open place and you will find a space that’s right for you... we both did."

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