Your presence as a political statement: the story of Coraline Ada

30 September 2016

In 2012, Coraline Ada Ehmke was sitting disconsolately and watching the train come into the station. She was not thinking that this is the train that would take her home. Instead she was wondering if she should jump down onto the tracks and end this miserable existence, where she had to live as a man. Or to finally make that choice and become what she had always known she was, a woman.

That year she made the most important decision of her life, to become Coraline Ada. When she finally took the step to start the process, she was working in a startup. She decided that that probably wasn’t the best environment to start her transition. She decided to change her work and went to a big company with a human relations department and a Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) support group. She recalls thinking that it would be safer for her. She worked with her boss on arranging schedules of her transitioning along with work, and after two weeks of presenting herself as Coraline Ada at her workplace, she was fired.

The beginning of transition is a very fragile time for a transgender person.

“The beginning of transition is a very fragile time for a transgender person”, she says. “Because your self-confidence is at its lowest. Everything is scary and very intimidating, and it requires a lot of courage just to leave the house. To have to interview for jobs during that time was extremely difficult, emotionally and psychologically, because I didn’t feel confident in who I was back then. That experience, sadly, is not unique. It happens to way too many of my transgender brothers and sisters”.

Transitioning was a hard choice. Coraline had a long résumé working in the private sector as a man, a job that pretended to be inclusive & respect diversity. While her wife knew quite well about these conflicts with her sexual identity, Coraline still needed to communicate her decision to her daughter.

So Coraline sat with her daughter to watch the movie Ma vie en rose, and after laughing for long with her about the movie, she said to her daughter:

“There’s someone in our lives that is like Ludovic”,

“Really daddy? Who’s that?”

“It’s me, sweetie, I’m transgender”, she said.

Her daughter broke into a laugh, thinking how cool was that. Just like in the movie they had watched together.

But, as it turned out, life is not always like in the movies. “Transitioning is the hardest thing I’ve ever done”, she says. “It’s a very difficult undertaking, and it requires a lot of courage and lot of personal strength, and I think that as a result of that, I’ve learned how strong I am.” And she was going to need that strength several times more, to confront with the community that she had been working with for so long, the Free and Open Source software community.

“I’ve been working professionally in the development of web applications since 1994, and I realized early on that the stack that was running the Internet was all based on open source technology. It seemed to me that the future of the Internet was really built on open source solutions. And therefore it was critical, as a good citizen, and also to move the technology forward, to be involved with Open Source, and to bring my own computer skill set and interest to the pool.

I realized early on that the stack that was running the Internet was all based on open source technology. The future of the Internet was really built on open source solutions.

Coraline has had a long relationship with the FOSS movement, and when asked whether there was any shift in this equation when she decided to go through her transition, her answer was -

“Definitely.”

“While I was still presenting myself as a man and taking advantage of my male privilege, my skills and my contributions were never questioned and people were generally friendly and collaborative. Since my transition, I get a lot of criticism from people. Specially for my advocacy work, where I try to get more marginalized people into open source, for that I get accused of not being a real coder, and my work sometimes comes under additional scrutiny that doesn’t happen to my male peers. So I definitely witnessed that, first hand, that there is either implicit or explicit sexism and transphobia in the open source world.”

While I was still presenting myself as a man and taking advantage of my male privilege, my skills and my contributions were never questioned and people were generally friendly and collaborative. There is either implicit or explicit sexism and transphobia in the open source world.

As part of her efforts to work within that culture, she developed the Contributor Covenant – a code of conduct for open source projects.

“A code of conduct by itself doesn’t do much, but it’s a signal that the project maintainers care about these issues and they will at least try to be welcoming and inclusive. They might make mistakes, but it’s a first step, a baseline, that indicates that the project maintainers are working to involve diverse people in the project, and recognize the value that diverse life experiences can bring to bear in software.

But what happens when this code of conduct is not only disrespected, but when someone is being harassed. Coraline has developed some strategies for herself to deal with harassment.

The most important way that I cope with it is by having a solid support network, through online channels and also through people I know in person, who are experiencing the same things. It makes a a lot of difference to be able to plan strategies together and recognize that you’re not alone, that there are other people who are fighting these things and other people who are trying to make it better. And I also feel part of a turning point in history where this sort of behaviour won’t be tolerated for very much longer.”

Coraline has been working for a lot of projects lately, and she is a spokesperson for LGBT people working in tech. As part of her activism, she has been speaking in several tech-conferences, about the distorted vision of open source communities regarding freedom and meritocracy, exploring the way in which FOSS communities reproduce class and sexual privileges within the “so-called “open” community”:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kKpbejoneFs or about her transition process, to encourage others who are experiencing the same fears. Recently, she was awarded a Ruby Hero Award for her work on promoting diversity.

I also feel part of a turning point in history where this sort of behaviour won’t be tolerated for very much longer.

She is now well-known for promoting a more diverse culture in software development. So, when GitHub called her in order to offer her a position as part of a team called “Community and Safety” she thought twice about the proposal. GitHub had a history of being an unfriendly company for women where there were no policies for including diversity, and the CEO had been accused of sexual harassment.

“I was very skeptical when they called me. I was afraid to be put in a ‘glass ceiling’ situation, where there was actually no way to succeed. I was especially worried of having my name associated with their efforts as a way to say – “Look, we’re taking this seriously”, without any real change taking place. I did a lot of research and came to the conclusion that they’re genuinely committed to changing their culture. Now I’m part of an engineering group, an amazing team of three women of colour and two transgender women, and our mission is to build community management and anti-harassment tools for the GitHub platform. We’re focused on increasing the safety and the diversity of open source through GitHub.”

We’re focused on increasing the safety and the diversity of open source through GitHub.

When asked generally about technology and its value for transgender people, Coraline says emphatically,

“Technology is like a haven for us. If most of your interactions are via slack, email, people aren’t being reminded that you’re transgender. People aren’t seeing you and you can focus on working without all the sort of bullshit that goes along with transphobia. It’s a lot less stressful when you don’t have to deal with an office environment. It’s sad that we have to take refugee there, but I think that it also empowers us to influence the technology culture, just by being ourselves, and just bringing our values there, at the companies we work for, at the organizations we associate with, and with the people that are our friends.

And if someone doesn’t like it and if there are some people who aren’t in line with these values end up leaving, then so be it.”

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