Tuesday 4 November 2014

Interview with Naomi Ceder

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honour to interview Naomi Ceder, an American Python language programmer, blogger, transgender activist, lead software architect and developer at Razor Occam, former IT Director and Python developer at Zoro Tools, Fellow of the Python Software Foundation, and the author of The Quick Python Book. Hello Naomi!
Naomi: Hi Monika! Thanks for interviewing me!
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Naomi: As my intro says, I’m a Python developer and systems architect. I’m currently working in London and Düsseldorf, which has been a lot of fun. 
Monika: Being a Python guru, how would you explain the importance of this programming language to persons that are not IT experts?
Naomi: I doubt I’m a guru, although most people who know me would probably say I’ve always been a teacher. Python is a very powerful and readable language that is also fairly easy to learn. It’s also a high level language, meaning you can get more done with less code. All of that makes it enormously useful in all sorts of areas – web applications, big data, scientific computing, day-to-day administration, etc. It continues to grow in popularity; for example, it’s one of the top languages at Google.
Monika: The IT business used to be dominated by men. You are one of the few ladies that are doing well in this business…
Naomi: The IT business is still dominated by men! But yes, I am one of the women doing well. I think part of that was that I was somewhat successful before I transitioned, and I’m fortunate to have knowledge, skills, and experience that are very much in demand right now. Even so, I found that the playing field was rather different as a woman after I transitioned.

At the first Trans*H4CK with Monica Roberts,
the Transgriot.

Monika: On the other hand, many transgender ladies can boast the immense contribution to the IT progress: Lynn Conway, Rebecca Heineman, Kristin Paget, Jamie Faye Fenton, Mara Drummond, Kate Craig-Wood, and yourself, just to name a few…
Naomi: And of course one could go on and on! I’m not sure I even belong in such company –what Lynn Conway did was so amazing, she’s literally the mother of the PC revolution… and Kristen Paget is a friend of mine so I know first hand how amazing she is.
I’ve often told (cisgender) people in tech, that if I could put together my “dream team” of trans women in tech, we’d rule the world! I think part of the reason that there are so many of us in tech is that being geeky offered some of us a tiny bit of relief from gender policing as we were growing up. At least that was my case. And the tech world is a bit more accepting of LGBT people in general than a lot of other fields.
Monika: How has the Internet contributed to the success of the transgender cause? 
Naomi: I’m actually old enough to remember the days before the Internet. In that world it was much harder for trans people to find information and connect – you had to find what resources you could in libraries, or adult stores, or whatever. It was both very isolating and misleading. Technology changed that.
The Internet made it possible to connect and share information with everyone, anywhere. Suddenly we were not quite as alone. I think that continues to build in importance today – like many others, I’m in touch with trans people from around the world, via email, Twitter, and social media, but also via Skype and hangouts.
The days of trans people being stuck in isolation, believing they are the only ones like this in the world, are mostly over. And this ability to connect with each other also brings strength and power.
Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in the contemporary society?
Naomi: On the one hand, things continue to improve, and if you compare it to even 10 years ago, things are so much better. On the other hand, we trans women face the intersection of transphobia and misogyny at the very minimum, and are still targets of discrimination, unemployment, harassment, and violence, so we have much work to do. And of course trans women of color have it much worse still.
Monika: At what age did you transition into woman yourself? Was it a difficult process?
Naomi: I started the process over 5 years ago, and fully transitioned 2 years ago, in my 50’s. Actually in my case, transition was not so difficult. What was much more difficult was admitting it to myself and coming to terms with being a trans woman. Once I did that, the rest went amazingly well.
I was very fortunate in having good medical care and support from friends, from the tech world, and at work. The only place where I didn’t get much support was from some of my family. Still it was a very frightening time – worrying about what would happen, which people I would lose, if I would be accepted, all of that was hard.

Mentoring with a team at the Chicago

Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Naomi: Not so many as there are now, actually. Jenny Boylan, of course. There was also Kristen Paget, and a few others that I sought out in the tech world.
I was also quite influenced by Helen Boyd’s writing about her relationship with her spouse during transition and Julia Serrano’s writings on transmisogyny. But overall, it’s rather surprising much less visibility trans people had when I started just a few years ago.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Naomi: I actually have thought about this quite a lot. For me, I felt that every time I hit send (I did most of my coming out online) that I was saying good-bye forever to a friend. I never got over that feeling, even though it very rarely turned out to be a good-bye.
Monika: Could transgenderism be the new frontier for human rights?
Naomi: I think it is becoming a new frontier for human rights, yes. However, I would hope that we take it even further, and make that new frontier be human rights and acceptance for all people who are marginalized, no matter what the cause. For my part, being active with various trans causes and meeting the people has helped me appreciate the additional problems that come with being trans and female and a person of color, disabled, poor, etc.
Monika: What do you think about transgender stories or characters which have been featured in films, newspapers or books so far?
Naomi: Until recently, the picture was pretty bleak and negative. Now a few positive, or at least realistic, things are showing up, and that’s hugely important – I agree with the notion that it’s impossible to hate anyone whose story you know. Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness was awesome, Laverne Cox is telling a powerful story, and Transparent is a good effort. Getting these stories into the main stream is huge. I think some things are still missing, and so many stories are yet to be told, but the current round of trans stories and characters is helping all of us.
Monika: The transgender cause is usually manifested together with the other LGBT communities. Being the last letter in this abbreviation, is the transgender community able to promote its own cause within the LGBT group?
Naomi: This is a mixed bag so far. I know that we have been sold out and left behind before. But I think this is changing. At my parent company one of the strongest and most successful advocates for trans inclusive policies and healthcare has been a cisgender gay man. And I’ve found other gay and lesbian folks who have become strong allies. We do have to keep in mind that being gay or lesbian doesn’t automatically give someone an understanding of being trans, so we need to be willing to help them to that understanding.
Monika: Is there anyone in the US transgender society whose actions could be compared to what Harvey Milk was doing in the 60s and 70s for the gay activism?
Naomi: In terms of political function I don’t think there is anyone in exactly that position. But we do have a groundswell of people working at the grassroots level. And those people are connected by the Internet and inspired by some great people. Kylar Broadus, Monica Roberts, and Mara Keisling are some that come to mind as making a difference politically, though at different levels and in different ways. And there are many others.
Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Naomi: I’m not involved in any lobbying, no. I do respect and admire those who do that, and I think they can absolutely make a difference. My political activity is mostly voting for candidates who support trans inclusion. When a candidate for our village council asked for my support, I asked for her stance on trans inclusion, and her positive answer influenced my vote. We all need to do that, wherever we are.

Giving her talk 'Farewell and Welcome Home' about
transitioning in tech at Chicago Software Freedom Day 2013.

Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colours or trends?
Naomi: A fashion question! I love it! While I don’t obsess about it, I do like fashion in a low key way. When I transitioned in the US, I was working with a company where T-shirts and jeans were the unofficial uniform, and I went along with that. It made life easier, particularly as I was starting out, but it was also rather boring.
Now that I’m in London, I feel more free to mix it up. So I’m still finding my style, but some of the things I like are: big tunic sweaters with leggings, boots, cute dresses with black tights and ballet flats, and scarves. Scarves aren’t worn that much in the Midwest US, which is a shame, since they can add so much to an outfit.
When I put together an outfit I try to have things work together to create an understated look with just one thing that stands out a bit – a bright colored or patterned tee under a sweater, a piece of jewelry, or (of course) a scarf. Colorwise, I’m most attracted to the range of blues, from aqua to deep indigo, such a range of possibilities!
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Naomi: I have been in love with the same woman for 30 years and married to her for 28. That love couldn’t cure me of being trans, but we have survived my transition still wanting to be together, so that has been a wonderful source of strength as I’ve moved forward.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Naomi: I don’t think that most memoirs like that are very interesting, to be honest. The details of a trans person’s life, at least my life, tend to be pretty ordinary, with the one exception of being trans. However, I did write a blog as I transitioned to let friends know how I was doing and to help keep my sanity. In a sense that is my biography, it just focuses on what was going on in my head and in my life as I transitioned.
Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Naomi: In fact, I am! I’m in the early planning stages for Trans*Code, a trans and allies hack day in the UK, something along the model of Kortney Ziegler’s Trans*H4CK, which I have been involved with. I found the experience of a bunch of trans people and allies coming together to write code to address our problems an exhilarating and positive one and I hope to share that with others.
I also just recently started a blog to tell the stories of people who were surprisingly and beautifully accepting when I came out to them. We need more positive stories and I hope that trans people approaching transition can draw encouragement from them. I’m also hoping that those stories can serve as a model for cisgender people who have just learned that a friend or loved one is trans.
My hope is that I can also persuade other trans folk to contribute similar stories. It's called Something I Need you to Know. I invite anyone to stop by and have a look, and possibly contribute a story of a positive coming out.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Naomi: Get support! Use whatever resources you can to build yourself a network of friends. I used the Internet and sought out other trans tech folks, but there are other options – meetups, groups run by therapists, etc. The main thing is to find someone who’s been or is going through something similar, and start forming some connections to help you through those times of doubt and darkness, and to help you focus on the light ahead.
Monika: Naomi, thank you for the interview!

All the photos: courtesy of Naomi Ceder.
© 2014 - Monika Kowalska

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