Beth 'pidge' Flanagan's blog. Open source queer.

Out of the cage.

“Later, as you get to be my age, you will see your friends begin to die, to lose their memories, to see their skins turned wrinkled and sick. You will see the effects of dark secrets making themselves known. The only payback for all of this – for the conversion of their once-young hearts into tar – will be that you will love your friends more, even though they have made you see the universe as an emptier and scarier place – and they will love you more, too.”

– Douglas Coupland, Shampoo Planet


I think I’ve tried writing this letter about 20 times over the past two months. Every time I’ve attempted it, I’ve never been able to quite say what I wanted to say. It always ends up reading flat, like a technical manual. So, I end up deleting this letter, over and over, and reading the above passage after every failed attempt. I read it and sigh to myself, for this letter is about my once-young heart and how it is now quite dripping with tar for keeping a secret that I honestly believed that I would take to my grave. This, dear friends, is my attempt at trying to scrape some of that tar off my heart.

We all have our secrets. Some more dark than others. One of mine, for I’m sure I have many, is something I have kept to myself and all but a few close and trusted people for almost 20 years. Secrets are powerful things and keeping one is always fraught with danger. It eats at your soul, with a constant low level of stress pounding in your chest, keeping you in a steady state of fear. About someone finding out your most secret of secrets. About someone telling. About it being used against you.

With secrets, you are always doing the math, trying to balance the equation. Is the danger and harm of this secret coming out more than the pain and stress of keeping it? That answer, back in the mid-90s when I started keeping this secret, would have been a resounding yes. Now? While it is still dangerous for me to tell you what I’m about to tell you, the damage I cause my heart and soul daily by keeping this secret is worse than it being out there. Please do understand, though. What I am going to tell you, while it is no longer a secret, is still something I have trouble discussing. Secrets are like that, if you’re not use to talking about it, discussions are hard to have. I’m getting better at it. It is however, not something I particularly want people to focus on when they think about me. It is in fact, the least interesting thing, in my opinion, about me.

So. Let’s cut to the chase. About 20 years ago, I transitioned from male to female after many years of anguish that started around age 6. Some of you know this already. Some of you might have guessed. Some of you have no idea. Well, now you know. I started keeping this a secret after having been forced out of the job I loved because my employer at the time couldn’t deal. I lost my entire family over this and that still hurts my heart. I have had my status as a transsexual woman used in some particularly vile ways against me over the years, but for the most part, that is in the past. So, this is a part of who I am. It influences my views on life. (Example! I have a great insight into the relative cleanliness of gendered bathrooms!) It is the source of my strength, my sense of humor and how I see the world.

Ok. So, I know I may have to do a little bit of education here. In the spirit of good engineering, I’ll just do this in a very limited FAQ form. Anything particularly deep, please ask me personally. These are all questions I’ve gotten from people I’ve told over the past 20 years.

Q: Oh, so, you’re really a man!?!
A: No. Not in the least. I hate discussions about this because people always throw “Well, geneticalllly…” out there, not having any access to my medical records. Or they make disgusting comparisons to race or just really really wrongheaded arguments.

So, let me nip this in the bud right now. Gender is really complicated and not at all as cut and dry as people would like to think. I identify and always have, for as far back as I can remember, as a woman. Over the years, I’ve added on a lot of additional modifiers to “woman”. Like “geek woman”. Or “irish american woman”. Or “trans woman”. If you want to discuss the science behind it, feel free to educate yourself on it first and then, if I’m really insanely bored, I might even take you up on the discussion. However, my gender and my identity is not up for debate. It is something I’ve fought long and hard for and I expect that to be respected and honored.

Q: Uh…. what’s your real name?
A: Shit. You got me. It’s not Beth. It’s actually Elizabeth. Seriously, the evil twin brother died years ago. I’ve yet to hear a good reason to expose this information, so you’ll forgive my snark here. If you must know though, it’s Mxyzptlk.

Q: So, erhm… have you had “THE SURGERY!!!” ™(c)(R)
A: The only time I discuss this generally includes dinner and a movie or theater tickets and as much as I love you all, none of you are my type. You would be flabbergasted about the number of people who think this is somehow their business.

Q: She-male, tranny! I can call you that, right! My other tranny friends…. Pronouns… I’m confused about what I should call you. Help me!
A: First, “tranny” etc… No. Don’t. Unless you really want to see my rage face. Those are generally considered offensive terms. If you must refer to me as something other than “Beth” or “pidge” or god forbid “Elizabeth” and it has to be about my trans-status, please utilize “transwoman”. I’ll also accept “transchick” and “bad ass”. Please utilize the same old boring pronouns (she/her/royal “We”) as you’ve always used for me.

Q: HEEYYYY GIRLFRIEND!!! SO, like, we can TOTALLY talk about this at the bar….
A: No. We can’t. Just because I’m being more open about this doesn’t mean I’m still not being “private” about this. The world is still a dangerous place for me. I’ve personally known too many women like me who have lost their lives to murder that I don’t like discussing this in places I don’t feel safe. If you for some reason wish to discuss this with me, pull me off to the side and ask me if you can do so, privately. If I say “Not now”, please respect that.

Q: So, does this like, mean that you’re going to start taking testosterone? I’m confused. Why do you want to be a boy?
A: I swear, someone I love asked me this. I had to blink a few times to grok what she was asking. So, no, wrong direction, dearies.

Q: OMG. You. Are. Like. SOOO. Brave/Strong/Courageous! (alternatively..) Oh, yeah, like, totally knew/didn’t know that!
A: This one is a tough one. I realize folks want to say something and try to be supportive. I really do appreciate that. But this is kind of a minefield for a LOT of reasons best gotten into outside of this letter (for instance, the “Oh, I totally guessed!”. Think about how you’d feel if folks were to tell you that they always kinda suspected you were born in the opposite gender… now turn the volume up to about 100 on that).

It’s best just to sidestep all this and if you want to be supportive ask me “Awesome. Glad for you. What can I do to help?” To which I’ll probably respond with something silly like “Give me all the money in your wallet…” or “Can you juggle these staplers for me?” Or, I’ll actually ask you for help with something.

Q: Bathrooms, locker rooms, etc…
A: Really? The same ones I’ve been utilizing over the past two decades, silly.

Q: Why now? Like… I would NEVER come out like this. You’re done, run away and be done with it. Why do you have to talk about this?
A: See the rest of this letter…..

People call this whole thing I’m doing coming out of the closet, but the fact is, it’s coming out of a cage. If you’ve ever been to a very nice zoo, cages can be comfortable places, full of balls, food, toys and good hay to sleep in. But cages end up resulting with you imprisoned, the rest of the world free to go about their daily business. Every now and then one of the visitors to the zoo will notice you sitting in the cage and start poking you with a stick out of cruelty. It may even be a relatively comfortable imprisonment, but you’re still imprisoned. You’re still not free. But, you’re at least safe-ish with the exception of a few pokes now and then.

If you’ve ever seen animals kept in long term captivity, you’ll notice that they pace their cage and are generally not happy. Cages are incredibly stressful places. You are always trying to balance the safety the cage affords verses the danger beyond those bars. The world is still a dangerous place for transwomen but I live in a relatively safe city, have privileges that protect me to some degree, work with great folks, have an excellent boss and have people who love me. But… cages also get comfortable if you spend too long in them. You get so use to living in them that the very thought of leaving them causes you to feel physically sick. You realize that once you are out of the cage, there is no going back, that the door will slam shut forever. So you convince yourself to leave the cage next year, when things are better. And you just wish that all the other people who exist in cages in the zoo would step out with you. Doing that would make things seem less scary, less lonely, because there exists safety in numbers. But… someone has to make for the door first.

I’m going to be a bit of a downer here, because I think it’s important for cispeople (not-trans for those not familiar with the prefix ‘cis’) to understand the reality of what it means to walk this world as a transwoman and why that cage is so damn attractive.

I live in a world where this is what being a transwoman means in very real terms:

  • 41% attempting suicide as opposed to 1.6% of the general population
  • 55% of trans people are living with severe social anxiety, compared with 6.8% of the general population, and 8.2% of military personnel.
  • 26% have been fired from a job due to their trans status
  • Double the rate of unemployment. If you are a transwoman of color, you have five times the rate of unemployment.
  • 64% have been sexually assaulted
  • 90% have experienced harassment on the job
  • 16% work in the underground economy (drugs/sex work)
  • 20% have been homeless
  • about 1/3 live below poverty level

I’ve yet to meet a transwoman who hasn’t had at least one of the above effect her. This is the bargain you make with the cage. Don’t be out about it and you can keep your job. your home. your life. Maybe you can limit some of the hostility and micro-aggressions you experience daily. It’s a bargain made out of fear, a deal I personally made after I had literally done the most terrifying thing I ever had to do in my life, transition, only to face horrible consequences.

My time in this cage has without a doubt turned parts of my heart into sludge. I’m very vague about life before a certain age, prior to my transition. Vague about my family situation. Vague about my social life. Many of you only get about 50% access to my life with me holding onto and protecting the other 50% with Gollum like obsession. And that’s not fair, to you or me. We all deserve a better world than that.

I’m coming out of this cage, in part, because I’m doing more work around transwomen’s issues, specifically, utilizing open source to get more transwomen into economically sustainable fields. I will be doing this work, in my spare time, under my own name, working with other transwomen in the tech sector to provide training and mentorship programs to this community in order to improve employment opportunities. The majority of transwomen I know make less than 18k a year, an absolutely deplorable number. I will of course still be doing my regular work for the various open source projects I’m a part of, still be working on women’s issues within FLOSS, still pulling all night hack sessions. I’ll just be adding this to the list as well (which means I’m just giving up on sleep!) And yes, when I have more to share with folks on this project, I will, but, if you want to help out, please, contact me!

What does this mean for you? Probably not much other than you know a bit more about me than you did before. It means that you’ll see me talk about being trans in social media from time to time, whereas before I had a very firm wall in my social media life that I refused to break. You’ll probably notice that I’m stressed a lot less. It means that some folks outside of my immediate circle of friends may ask you questions. Feel free to send them my way. I would prefer if people, obviously, didn’t introduce me as “Beth, the transchick” although “Beth, the bad ass build engineer” is still appropriate. I’m sure there will be talk in the communities I’m involved in, some of it not particularly flattering. Let me know if there is, please, so it can be dealt with appropriately. I obviously expect folks to call out bad behavior when they see it. There are a lot of mean folks out there and I’m sure this letter will expose some of them.

And lastly, I expect that if you have respectful questions, you’ll want to get answers from the source. That’s fine. We’ll do lunch and you can ask away. Or you can ping me on IRC at ‘pidge’. Or email of course.

But mostly, I just expect people to treat me the same as they always have.

Yours truly,

Beth ‘pidge’ Flanagan

June 2013

1) I know I focus a bit on the horrible awful things people say about transwomen in my FAQ and I know some folks may think this is me being overly concerned and blowing things out of proportion. My concerns are not unfounded. See: http://lwn.net/Articles/252073/ and read the comments to understand why I am concerned about some of the particularly vile individuals out there, especially in geekdom.


57 responses to “Out of the cage.

  1. Tom Nixon June 26, 2013 at 1:28 AM

    Hey Beth, badass build engineer! I know you don’t care much what I think, but I think you’ve hit the notes quite well here (guess I don’t care that you don’t care). Very well written, touching, and it doesn’t read at all like a technical manual. I think it’s a great sign that the world is in a place where you feel comfortable enough to come out of your cage. There are a lot of us wandering around in the world who are not waiting to do something cruel for no good reason – who want to support and protect. I hope that this results in you noting more of us than of them.

    All the best,

  2. Ross Eliot June 26, 2013 at 4:04 AM

    I’m pretty sure the only gender you’ve ever had was AWESOME!

  3. redlami June 26, 2013 at 6:25 AM

    Brava. I look forward to the same cogency on social issues you’ve always demonstrated on the technical.

  4. David Stewart June 26, 2013 at 7:59 AM

    I appreciate your integrity. I hope you feel like your friends and co-workers have your back.

    • pidge June 26, 2013 at 2:25 PM

      You’ll excuse me for gushing for a moment.

      Last night I sat there, with my finger poised over the mouse button, having a mild freakout (because I’m neurotic like that). If it wasn’t for the fact that I have amazing friends and co-workers (and that line between friend and co-worker is really murky for me at the best of times) I can’t honestly say that I would have hit “Post”. Hands down, I work with some amazing individuals. I’m really lucky and I know it.

      • Tracy Graydon June 30, 2013 at 9:51 AM

        Your brother has your back. 😉 I have an inkling of how difficult this has been for you to do. I have always appreciated your integrity and ethics, and they way you walk your talk. I am so glad we became friends all those years ago. And I am honored to stand with you.

  5. Shannon June 26, 2013 at 8:00 AM

    Beth, thanks for doing this. And what a great day to do it with the Supreme Court finally moving in a civil rights direction again. In my book this is about the biggest kind of contribution someone could make to humanity, the culture they live in, better. Kind of scares the shizzbot out of me you are doing this but the next generation of people in similar shoes (and those surrounding them) are going to benefit hugely. To be able to live both genders, what a great treasure trove of understanding about a very mysterious thing.

  6. Allen June 26, 2013 at 8:20 AM

    Beth, you are awesome.
    I’m so happy you’re setting yourself free.
    I’d love to have you do another talk at the University again, the students and professors loved you!
    I’d also love to have you talk to the LGBT group as well, they could really use the support.
    Also, you should see our new industrial 3D printer and GTAW welder!
    Congrats! See ya soon!

  7. Carrie June 26, 2013 at 10:31 AM

    Right on, Beth!

  8. Bryan Jacobs June 26, 2013 at 4:36 PM

    This still means we can drink beer and shoot guns….right?

  9. cavok June 27, 2013 at 1:42 AM

    I hate cages and I’m glad to see people getting rid of them. Always. Especially these.
    Thank you for showing how is inside, it helps to understand.

    Whish you all the best,

  10. jefro June 27, 2013 at 9:14 AM

    I’m proud to call you my friend. I don’t care if you were born with the DNA of a giraffe – it is actions that matter, and I see you act to make a difference in the world. Actions like working with the girl scouts to educate girls in electronics, like the dedication you show to your work and your friends, and the personal bravery you show in writing this post. I see you take actions to improve diversity and compassion in our crazy world. That’s the opposite of narcissism.

    Also, your name at conferences shall henceforth be Mxyzptlk.

  11. Dave June 27, 2013 at 6:20 PM

    Beth, congratulations on a very, very well written and thoughtful post. You’re an amazing person and a badass build engineer. Glad you’re doing so well.

  12. Behan Webster June 27, 2013 at 8:58 PM

    Great. Now I need to go find some staplers to juggle. 🙂 I’m glad the cage is behind you.

  13. balazs June 27, 2013 at 10:32 PM

    🙂 + respect!

  14. Victoria Mixon June 28, 2013 at 3:24 PM

    Beth, if this is the least interesting thing about you, what’s the most?

  15. Sumana Harihareswara June 28, 2013 at 4:10 PM

    Beth, I am super happy for you that you’re able to post this and that you will experience less stress in your life. I am looking forward to continuing to work in the same circles as you in improving women’s lives, especially transwomen’s lives, via careers in open source!

  16. allthoughtswork July 1, 2013 at 12:50 PM

    That’s some damned good writing. Apparently, 20 drafts, worrying, stress, and soul-eating are workin’ for ya–Ha, ha! Just kidding. Been there. Good for you. Just keep letting the crap fall away like you’re doing and the world will become enormous and sparkly in a relatively short period of time. No, really. Badassery is not something learned, it’s something revealed.

  17. segmation July 1, 2013 at 12:54 PM

    Hi Beth, Was this hard to post? Bravo too you for opening up to the world and hopefully making others more aware!

    • pidge July 1, 2013 at 2:26 PM

      It all kind of depends on your definition of “hard”. I talk about in my worry post from this weekend that I had to have someone go through all the reasons why I was doing this until she hit a few of the more gut wrenching ones. After that, it was a breeze. Telling people I’m close to was actually harder, not because they made it hard, but because I had worked myself up over the years over keeping it secret. I don’t think I can really explain how terrifyingly paranoid one gets when they’re trying to hide this really core part of their being and how much that really impacts the relationships you have with people.

  18. themodernidiot July 1, 2013 at 1:48 PM

    Would love to help with the project. What do you need done?
    Ps. It’s not on my CV, but I can juggle staplers

    • pidge July 1, 2013 at 2:30 PM

      Oh, I have to get together with the other person I’m working with and sort through what needs doing. One of the things we’re looking for is other transwomen in tech, especially in open source, who can teach/mentor/code review, etc. One of the *other* things we’re going to be looking for is funding for stipends because the simple fact is, for a lot of transwomen who are in economically disadvantaged situations, spending 10 hours a week in school is just not an option without additional help.

      • themodernidiot July 1, 2013 at 5:16 PM

        well crap. i got no tech skills and no cash. i’m in the same edu-economic state!

        if you ever need a cynical idealist that knows how to use a semi-colon, hit me up.

        i wish for y’all the best of everything you tackle.

        thank you for the education and the laughs 🙂

  19. trailertrashdeluxe July 1, 2013 at 5:24 PM

    I have just one question that is pertinent to this blogpost about serious topics: WTF is a “build engineer?” Explain it to me like you’re talking to someone who hates computers and doesn’t understand much about them, and then I’ll know, thanks.
    Life is tough for all of us, even the bland, like me, so good luck with your struggles at acceptance. It’s all worth it if you can be who you want to be and still be accepted by those you respect, isn’t it?

    • pidge July 1, 2013 at 5:48 PM

      So, a build engineer is someone who is responsible for “the software release”. This can be a lot of things, from the person who packages up and ships, say World of Warcraft, or me, who generates about 0.5 TB of build artifa… oh… someone who hates computers… got it…

      I’m not the saw mill. I’m the woman who takes all the lumber and builds a house with it.

  20. photographybooklover July 1, 2013 at 8:21 PM

    Hello Beth, the bad ass build engineer.

    I dint know you before, but I do now. I’ll keep an eye out for you, this day forth.

    Sending you loads of love and good wishes. From India 🙂

    May the forces be with you and the odds always in your favor.

    Harsha 🙂

  21. Pingback: Out of the cage. | photographybooklover

  22. micey July 2, 2013 at 2:05 AM

    Those statistics are staggeringly heartbreaking. I’m glad you’re finding freedom from the cage. 🙂

  23. broadsideblog July 2, 2013 at 5:27 AM

    Congrats. Cages are nasty. Being rejected by your family is the shits. You sound like a passionate, smart, caring person. They’re valuable, regardless of gender, original or current.

  24. Amber July 2, 2013 at 8:21 AM

    I’m glad you shared this letter. Those statistics were mind-blowing, though sadly unsurprising. But I somewhat wish I hadn’t spent 30 minutes reading the dribble at the comments section you linked at the end there… haha

  25. tamberrinoartstudio July 2, 2013 at 9:12 AM

    Glad you’re out of your cage. Stay strong, and congratulations on being Freshly Pressed! 🙂

  26. kevinkidder July 2, 2013 at 11:16 AM

    Beth, I saw this blog post on my Freshly Pressed Feed here on WP. Besides the fact that we don’t know each other, if there is anything I can do to help your happiness, drop me a line.

    • pidge July 2, 2013 at 12:07 PM

      Staplers. Red Swinglines. Juggling! Youtube! (Ok, I just want to see if I can get one person to do this because it would be awesome in so many ways)

      I’ll be writing a post about how folks can help because hey, I really do appreciate help for my community. I’m less concerned with my personal happiness though as I’m already fairly happy. I’m more concerned with systemic happiness. How can we make this world an easier place for transfolks, especially transwomen, and especially transwomen who come from less advantaged communities? I have some suggestions on that….

  27. Caitlin @ The Siren's Tale July 2, 2013 at 11:24 AM

    I really like this piece, and it’s important that it was FP’ed. While reading your FAQ section of this post, many of the questions you’ve been posed are ridiculous, offensive, and sadly, common. Back in the early 2000’s I took a course on gender studies, and this was the first time many students in the classroom heard about transgender. A woman came in to speak to us about her transition and the challenges she has faced after transitioning as a teenager. It was heartbreaking, but eye-opening. Like many things, so much backlash results from ignorance and fear. The more information that’s out there, the better – maybe it will knock a few assholes off their high horses.

  28. APLSmama July 2, 2013 at 11:34 AM

    bravo and kudos! with so much aloha and respect …

  29. Clara July 2, 2013 at 9:53 PM

    You’re a smart lady and it’s an honor to know you. Also, I really will get my ass up to your place again soon–it’s been over a year now; shame on me!

  30. mybeautfulthings July 3, 2013 at 4:29 AM

    Beth, I send you such admiration and respect. We have a transgendered daughter whom we love very much (at the same time feeling the loss of the son we once had) She is happier than she has ever been and we are happy that at last we know what was troubling her and that her life is now on the right track. I am so sorry you lost your family. Our daughter tells us many of her friends have had the same experience.
    Al the very best to you

  31. DynamicKitty July 3, 2013 at 9:52 AM

    Hi there Beth,

    Just wanted to say I appreciate you sharing this post with all of us, thanks! 🙂

  32. Madhurima July 4, 2013 at 5:28 AM

    kudos to your attitude, Beth!!

  33. unpackedwriter July 4, 2013 at 8:40 AM

    You and your brilliance are a gift to this world. I have a dear childhood friend lost to the streets bc she was not accepted and could not transition. Thank you for shedding light on what life is like from the inside out when you are not accepted for who you are. You keep on! Hugs, Renee

  34. Pingback: Out of the cage. | mariacelestegarcia

  35. Pingback: The decline and fall of the Linkspam Empire (16 July 2013) | Geek Feminism Blog

  36. Taryn Fox July 16, 2013 at 8:16 AM

    I am a trans woman who previously had a GNOME outreach program internship. I do not have stable income of my own and do not know any way to translate what I learned to gainful employment. I was homeschooled in an ultraconservative military family and am autistic, and have next to no useful contacts or resources except a handful of people I love (not my birth family) who are supporting me. If I can help or be helped by your project, please tell me, preferably by email.

  37. daniburgess July 16, 2013 at 10:36 AM

    OMG How can I help!? Also: thank you, thank you, thank you. Being “out” is freaking scary sometimes, and it’s so nice to have friends.

  38. Rachel Blum July 16, 2013 at 2:18 PM

    Awesome – congratulations to you on breaking out of the cage! And if I can help in _any_ way, let me know.

  39. wren ng thornton July 16, 2013 at 7:40 PM

    > And yes, when I have more to share with folks on this project, I will, but, if you want to help out, please, contact me!

    I was hoping to get in touch about this, but I can’t seem to find your email. Mine’s in the lower corner of my website.

  40. Alok chandna July 17, 2013 at 9:37 PM

    These issues are new for people living in India, and I hope people back are reading this.This might be of great help to a lot of folks who are living a life of shame.They are made to feel that way.Anyways if I can be of any help please count me in

  41. Emily July 23, 2013 at 8:51 AM

    I wanted to offer my support. I’m so glad you’ve been able to step “out of the cage.” I’m happy to help in any way possible.

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