Inside Berlin’s Queer Tech Festival

Queer techies gathered for VR, “Mario Kart,” and technical talks.

by Áine Pennello
Apr 18 2016, 5:00pm

David Whiting, a data engineer at SoundCloud, gets his face painted as part of the workshop, ‘Look at You: Divulging in the Queer Archived Self’. Photo: Áine Pennello

In the small upstairs office of a Berlin nightclub, a group of men quietly pass around an orange VR headset that promises to transport us to the world of virtual drag.

I strap on the goggles and find myself in the middle of a snowy mountain range, gliding up an icy staircase where a drag queen poses over and over again: hands on her hips, a pouty face, a jump in mid-air.

As I make my way to the top, I'm greeted by green butterflies and a giant ice sculpture that I initially mistake for a woman but later realize is a drag queen—then again, who am I to define what a 'woman' is anyway?

This isn't some trippy club experience, this is #unit festival, which combines the markings of a tech conference with a focus on queerness, a concept that includes not just LGBT people but also those who don't identify with strict gender binaries of male and female.

The VR experience I had, later explained as a "queering" of virtual reality with references to Judith Butler's gender theory.

Since its Cold War rebirth, contemporary Berlin has gained a reputation as one of the most LGBT-friendly cities in the world. Gay bars, nightclubs and saunas dot the city, which elected its first openly gay mayor in 2001. That mayor, Klaus Wowereit, famously outed himself by saying, "I'm gay and that's a good thing."

But in Berlin's growing tech scene, now vying with London for the title of Europe's tech capital, that culture isn't as open as it is on the streets.

A festival attendee wears the T-shirt for video game, Robot Unicorn Attack. Photo: Áine Pennello

For the programmers, engineers and tech founders here, the festival is an opportunity to network with an openness about gender and sexual identities that's uncommon for Berlin's growing, but often closeted, tech scene.

"This is Berlin, so you would think that most people would be quite open," said Stuart Cameron, the founder of #unit festival. "It must be like San Francisco. No, it's not."

Not all LGBT people feel comfortable being out, he said.

"They're very open with me or going out to parties but when it comes to work, they don't talk about it," he said. "People are afraid that there are consequences: that they don't get promoted, that maybe coworkers will treat them differently when they find out."

Festival participants listen to a speech by the festival's founder, Stuart Cameron. Photo: Áine Pennello

Although not specific to the tech industry, 46 percent of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people in Germany experience harassment at work because of their sexual orientation and 21 percent face discrimination while job hunting, according to a 2014 report by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association.

Even Cameron, who kicks off #unit festival from behind a laptop coated in LGBT-themed stickers—"Gay Porn Star"—and runs seven LGBT-themed initiatives under his company Uhlala (pronounced OohLaLa) is unsure how much to reveal about his personal life at some of Berlin's mainstream tech conferences.

"I would have problems bringing my boyfriend to those kinds of conferences and holding hands," says Cameron, who added that he's currently single but gave permission to mention that he's looking for someone. (You're welcome, Stuart.)

Cameron's laptop used to present slide shows at the Alan Turing Stage. Photo: Áine Pennello

While #Unit bills itself as the "first and only" tech festival dedicated to queerness, there are other LGBT-related tech conferences. For example, Lesbians Who Tech launched in February of 2014.

But #unit clearly stands apart from other events with room names like the 'Alan Turing Stage,' wristbands that say, "I'm a unicorn. What's your superpower?" and one last slide from Cameron of a cat riding a unicorn in front of a rainbow telling festival goers to "ENJOY YOUR DAY."

The one-day festival, now in its second year, drew more than 600 people on a rainy Saturday with talks and workshops on queer feminist leadership, the invisibility of LGBT scientists and the "Queer Histories of Computing beyond Alan Turing."

Festival goers dress up for a series of portraits. Photo: Áine Pennello

Although the festival is borne out of another LGBT tech project called Unicorns in Tech, a community group also run by Cameron, these events are still paving the way in a country where workplace diversity rarely means people of various sexual or gender identities.

"I've never once met a company in all my years here that had [LGBT diversity] as some kind of important part of their recruiting," says Jess Erickson, who spent almost four years in Berlin's tech scene and is now Program Director of 500 Startups, a Silicon Valley-based startup accelerator that invests in business all around the world, including those in Germany.

"The topic of LGBT is still very private," says Erickson, who admitted it was hard to find enough German business founders to fill the LGBT panel of the upcoming Diversity & Entrepreneurship Summit, co-hosted by 500 Startups in Berlin this Friday. "There were not enough people who wanted to openly talk about this in front of an audience."

Participants at #unit sit before the festival's main platform, referred to as the Alan Turning Stage. Photo: Áine Pennello

While these issues are at the fore for the LGBT tech community in Berlin, they're hardly exclusive to this corner of the global tech scene. Even in the US, LGBT people are rarely found in upper management positions within tech companies. Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, is still the only openly gay CEO to grace the Fortune 500 list.

Still, there's hope that events like #unit festival are just the beginning of what will become a larger wave of LGBT inclusion in Berlin's tech scene. "It's just at the beginning here in Berlin," Erickson said.

#Unit festival founder, Stuart Cameron, organizes a 'monster selfie' at the end of the day with the last remaining attendees. Photo: Áine Pennello

By the end of the festival, it's time for a game of Mario Kart. And because it's still a tech festival, there's a VR headset at stake for the winner. Under the club's dimmed blue lights, players frantically spin white steering wheels as they try not to fall off Rainbow Road again.

Everyone is doing fine, except for a tall guy in the front row who still hasn't crossed the finish line. "Get your boyfriend to take over," someone yells. He looks quizzically at the guy sitting next to him, almost as if they've never met, but hands the control over nonetheless.

At the end of the festival, players battle in a Mario Kart tournament for the chance to win a virtual reality headset. Photo: Áine Pennello

Update: This article has been updated to reflect the fact that while #unit bills itself as "the first and only" tech conference dedicated to queerness, there are other festivals that could arguably claim that title.