When Naoufel Testaouni moved to Montréal more than a decade ago, immersing himself in the city’s tech community, he noticed that there seemed to be very few people who identified as 2SLGBTQIA+.
Testaouni would speak at events and ask the room to put their hand up if they are 2SLGBTQIA+. “I would see either no hands up or very little hands,” he said. “So I was always wondering where is the community and why it’s not there.”
Testaouni decided to take matters into his own hands, organizing a meetup for 2SLGBTQ+ individuals in tech in September of 2016. It started with a small group, but within a couple of weeks, Testaouni said hundreds of people were showing interest and asking for more meetups.
Queer people reported experiencing more harassment and workplace discrimination than non-Queer workers.
“I said, ‘this is more [2SLGBTQ+ people] than I’ve met in the last eight years I’ve been here in tech,’” he told BetaKit. “So it showed me that there was a huge need for community, especially for Queer people in the tech community.”
Since 2016, QueerTech has grown to a community of more than 7,000 individuals. This year the organization began expanding its reach beyond Montréal.
As Pride Month kicked off in June, QueerTech debuted in Toronto with a hackathon. QueerTech will also host a series of meetups and socials for Toronto-based members, and plans to host its annual QT Qonference in the city later this year.
The expansion marked the first step in what Testaouni explained as plans to bring the non-profit organization to the entire country.
BetaKit recently spoke with Testaouni about QueerTech’s roots and its plans for creating a national 2SLGBTQ+ organization, as well as the barriers that 2SLGBTQ+ people face in the Canadian tech community and how the non-profit is looking to address those challenges.
Testaouni founded QueerTech alongside Eustacio Andy Saldaña, who was running his own QueerTech meetups in New York. It was Saldaña, Testaouni said, that came up with the original blueprint for QueerTech. While the American tech scene has a variety of groups focused on 2SLGBTQ+ individuals, Canada’s tech scene has historically been lacking in that space, and QueerTech took off in Montréal. This led to the duo deciding to incorporate QueerTech as a non-profit and Saldaña moved to Canada to grow the organization here.
While QueerTech started with events that created a safe space to bring together 2SLGBTQ+ individuals, it has since grown into an organization that also works with corporate partners to advocate for diversity, inclusion, and belonging.
In addition to events, QueerTech offers educational training, runs job fairs, and, this year, teamed up with researchers from Montréal’s post-secondary institutions to better understand the experiences of 2SLGBTQ+ individuals in Canadian tech.
The group is set to publish a detailed report later this year, but an initial literature review gave a peek into the state of Queer workers in tech. The review found that Queer people reported experiencing more harassment and workplace discrimination than non-Queer workers.
It found that gay men experience “wage penalties” and work fewer hours than heterosexual men and women; bisexual individuals work the least hours and also earn less than their homosexual and straight counterparts; and that Two-Spirit and transgender individuals are most likely to have been denied employment and to have experienced harassment based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Queer individuals also reported lower levels of general and mental health, and are more likely than non-Queer individuals to live with chronic health conditions or a physical disability that may affect their employment.
“I realized that we need a community in Canada, not just in Montréal, but across the country.”
On an organizational level, 38 percent of those surveyed did not have explicit gender identity and gender expression policies, or supports and adequate health coverage to help transgender workers with their transition journey.
QueerTech undertook the study, in part, because of a lack of research on this issue, noting that existing work has been “sparse and incomplete.” The literature review pointed to one study from 2016 that was commissioned by Telus that found 33 percent of 2SLGBTQIA+ Canadians reported having experienced or witnessed harassment or discrimination in the workplace that was based on sexual orientation; and more than 57 percent of respondents reported that they are not “fully out” at work, citing concerns around career opportunities and safety.
“Although efforts are being made to foster an all-embracing culture by many tech companies, the experiences of Queer people working in tech and the specific barriers to long-term success need to be better understood,” the QueerTech report reads.
“I was really surprised how bad it is,” said Testaouni, specifically pointing to the experiences of, and a lack of data surrounding transgender individuals, people of colour, and people with disabilities.
“If we start to focus more and more on these communities, there is a lot that we can uncover that no one wants to hear about,” he added. “It’s going to paint another different picture and I think it’s going to showcase how much work that needs to happen for the tech community.”
QueerTech’s entrance into Toronto puts it alongside fellow 2SLGBTQIA+ support organization Gradient Spaces. The latter was created after the implosion of Venture Out left a space and need for these types of groups. Gradient hosts events as well as an incubator program for 2SLGBTQIA+ individuals.
“When Venture Out dissolved, all that community was looking to connect with someone,” said Testaouni, claiming that QueerTech became the number one option for those individuals, which helped the organization increase its presence in Toronto.
QueerTech also saw its community more than triple in size amid COVID-19, which sounds counterintuitive for an event-based organization. But Testaouni explained that more people started to find QueerTech as it hosted virtual events.
“It was the second time where I realized that we need a community in Canada, not just in Montréal, but across the country,” said Testaouni.
The majority of QueerTech’s 7,600 members are from outside Montréal, with 30 percent from Toronto, 28 percent from Montréal, and 42 percent from the rest of Canada.
Toronto marked QueerTech’s first expansion outside of Montréal, and Testaouni noted that the organization is already eyeing its next city. He indicated interest from the Vancouver and Calgary tech ecosystems and hinted at the potential for a spring 2023 launch of QueerTech in Vancouver.
Feature image courtesy QueerTech