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MyTransHealth’s Robyn Kanner On Trans Women’s Marginalization In Design

XX+UX is a support network for women who work in UX, or user experience design. Its intended goal is to build community among female designers, and it aims to do this through mentorship programs and happy hour events. The group boasts over 3,000 women in its network, with seven chapters scattered around the world from Bangalore to the Bay Area. XX+UX describes itself as “a community of women” and is careful to note that by “women” they mean both “cis & trans” women along with “non-binary individuals.”

But according to Robyn Kanner, a designer and co-founder of MyTransHealth, that’s not the case. Kanner (who, full disclosure, is a friend of mine) has been trying to get XX+UX to change its name for the better part of a year, as it reflects a trans-exclusionary understanding of womanhood; the “XX” shorthand for “women” is a reference to the chromosomal pairing most cis women have, and trans women all have at least one Y chromosome.

Kanner began sending XX+UX’s leadership private emails in July explaining why the name was problematic and why they should change it. She never heard back, even after following up, so she took to Twitter, a move that finally prompted the email response she wanted in the first place. After a lengthy back and forth with Steering Committee members Brynn Evans and Fiona Yeung, Yeung promised Kanner that XX+UX will be “rebranded by the end of the summer.” It’s now Oct. 5, and no such rebranding has occurred.

“We acknowledge that our name does not imply we are inclusive, which has never been our intention, and we are very sorry for the lack of consideration and the hurt this has caused people,” Yeung said in an email. “We are in the process of rebranding, and hope that our new name will truly reflect an inclusive and supportive community.” But the thing is, this criticism of XX+UX is not new. In fact, a software developer named Jessica, who requested that I not use her last name in this article, asked that the network reconsider their name all the way back in September 2015. “I’m exhausted by purported allies saying they care, then proceeding to make excuses about how hard it is to make a change,” Jessica told me over email. “This inaction tacitly approves of an exclusionary concept of what it means to be a woman, and will continue to discourage [the] trans and non-binary individuals they claim to want to include from attending.”

I called up Robyn Thursday afternoon to learn more about XX+UX should change its name, not only for inclusivity’s sake but from a design standpoint as well. We also talked about trans women in tech, trans women’s marginalization in the workplace more broadly, and the difference between branding and praxis. Check it out below.

HARRON WALKER: Hi, Robyn. Can you give a brief overview of what’s going on between you and XX+UX?

ROBYN KANNER: Sure. So, what they are is a global community that connects women who want to get involved in UX [i.e., user experience design]. I sent them a note a few months ago, saying: “Hey! What’s up? This is a cool thing you’re doing, but this name kind of excludes trans women. Have you thought about shifting that?” I didn’t hear anything for a long time, so I sent another follow-up, like: “Just want to see if you’ve seen any of my stuff coming through!” They blew it off again. At that point, I made it a thing on Twitter.

In the @xxux_bayarea Twitter bio, XX+UX says that they’re “a place for women (cis, nb, trans, queer) in UX design.” Was that parenthetical always there?

That is new. They put that in their bio in July after I called out their name for being problematic. The thing about it is that it doesn’t solve the root problem. Just because you put a disclaimer explaining your name between parentheses doesn’t solve the fact of the name itself.

I saw this tweet, I think it was on Twitter, a few months back about how there are only three career options available for us: sex work, coding and design, or writing about being trans. I’d also add acting slash modeling and then like a “pick three.” I don’t have any kind of coding or design backgroundI literally edit photos on Instagram and then take a screenshot instead of postingso I’m kinda new to this stereotype. Anecdotally, is that true? Are there a lot of trans women in design?

There are a lot of trans women in tech. Not just design, but definitely in tech.

So, it’s a big deal for a tech group to have a trans-exclusionary name.

Yes. Events like the ones XX+UX hosts are designed to help people build careers in tech, network with their peers, and get involved in their communities. Trans women should be involved in all of those conversations since we’re disproportionately discriminated against in the job market. But they won’t be, because a name like “XX+UX” will make trans women feel unwelcome, if not outright excluded. That’s a problem.

Especially with the Department of Justice stripping trans people of their civil rights protections in the workplace.

For a group that promotes diversity and inclusion as its biggest selling points, it’s remarkable just how hard they’ll work to not be inclusive of trans people, especially given how much support we typically need in a world that doesn’t want us to exist and doesn’t want us to make work. It’s a little shocking with today’s news that they would continue to actively work against us, saying they need more time while putting Band-Aids on the problem. Branding and rebranding isn’t that difficult a thing to do. Designers do it all the time. It’s remarkable how flimsy they’ve been, given their skill set.

Anything else you’d like to add?

They’ve sent me so many emails talking about how they’ve updated mission over and over. Their mission isn’t the problem. It’s never been the problem. It’s the name. Some men have two X chromosomes. So, men are able to come to an XX+UX meet-up, but trans women can’t? Are non-binary femmes allowed in these spaces? What about non-binary mascs? Calling themselves something with “XX” in the title and then saying they support all women is just flimsy design. It’s not well thought through, and the inability to face that fact head on month after month doesn’t support the idea that they support minorities in tech. That’s the shit that really bothers me the most. They’ve heard the problem, they’ve said they understand it’s a problem, but they won’t work towards fixing it. They promised they would deliver by the end of summer, and now we’re in October and nothing has changed. I’m just over that shit. You want to be inclusive, you want to make money out of branding yourself, and you want to get sponsorsthat’s great! But you can’t drag trans women in the process.

This interview has been condensed and edited.