Trans Networking: Lisa Marie Maginnis on Homelessness, Survival Sex Work, and Technology

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TransEthics: Tell us a little about Hypatia Software.

Lisa Maginnis: The main goal of the Hypatia Software Organization is to provide assistance to experiencers of transmisogyny in need, as well as make talented and professional software engineers out of those who are interested in the mentorship program. Hypatia Software Organization is a mentorship and benefits program run for trans people, by trans people. Because of this we prioritize empathy and understanding for our members. We are very anti-carrot and stick, mentorship is never a requirement to have access to benefits. To be a member, you simply must experience transmisogyny. That said, anyone is welcome to volunteer with us! 

Currently, our benefits consist of access to peer mentorship in Python programming, internship and employment opportunities, the emergency cash relief program, as well as access to our diverse and talented community at large. Our community is over 100 people strong, and growing every day.

TE: What other programs do you plan on mentoring in the future?

LM: Right now we are focused on Python programming as our main learning track. That said, mentors post their entire technical skill set when they sign up so really anything a student wants to learn that mentor wants to offer is on the table. These range from system administration to mobile application development. We encourage students to go for the Python track because it is the most put together course and syllabus we have right now. Additionally, our jobs hunt is focused around Python jobs.

The Hypatian community is always surprising me with what we are able to offer. I think our next big learning track will be focused around word processors, and other basic office tools that allow people to get entry-level jobs.

TE: For those of us who aren’t tech savvy, can you explain what Python is?

LMPython is a programming language used to make websites and other programs that you might find on your computer. We favor it because it is thought to be very easy to learn for new comers to programming. 

TE: What was it that inspired you to form Hypatia?

LM: I’m actually not the founder! I wish I could take credit for such a wonderful idea, but another wonderful magical trans woman slash slime girl  by the name of Lily was the original fonder back in late 2015. She sadly had to step away from Hypatia to focus on herself.

Hypatia was founded on the idea that homelessness is all too pervasive and common in [the Trans] community. Technology can be used to empower us to work in a field that is slightly more accepting of trans people existing. With that said, the driving force behind Hypatia has always been peers helping peers. Those who are more settled, helping those of us in crisis. Since Hypatia was first founded, that has always been priority number one! As trans woman, it is our duty to help those of us who are not as well off, period. While the tech field is far from perfect, and has many problems. I definitely think it pays very well, and working in an office is nice.

I entered the picture in 2016, when I met Lily at a tech conference. We instantly clicked on what the driving force behind Hypatia was. This is probably due to sharing a similar herstory with employment issues, homelessness and housing problems, as well as other problems that are far too common in our community. Since then I have stepped into the role as (Madam) President of Hypatia, with the responsibility and role of getting the word out to anyone who will listen and either needs our services, or is willing to lend a helping hand.

TE: How can one become a mentor?

LM: To be a mentor you must have ONE hour a week to donate, for up to six months. If that sounds like you check out hypatiasoftware.org/volunteer and be sure to read the entire page. After that, click on the “Volunteer Application” and someone will get back to you with in 48 hours.

You don’t have to be technical to join Hypatia as a volunteer either! We are always looking for people with different skill-sets. From welcoming new members and volunteers to make them feel at home, to guest bloggers, artists, and more… There is no skill that we would turn down. All of us have many skills that are useful and just don’t realize it.

TE: How important is it that mentors be trans?

LM: While it is not required (we do have some cis mentors), we think that it is very important to have mentorship be offered by people who really understand what you might be going through. Additionally its hard for a lot of us to feel safe working with someone who doesn’t at least share some common threads with us. At Hypatia, empathy is a priority and the best way in our opinion to foster that is with trans mentors.

TE: When reviewing cisgender mentors, how do you go about screening people to make sure that mentors actually are trans-supportive?

LM: That is not an easy task! Currently either myself or the Anti-Abuse Chair will personally interview them. Additionally we require them to hang around our community for at least three months before we allow them to work within the mentorship program. People entering into the program are generally in a very vulnerable situation. And that said, it is a peer mentorship program. Cis mentors are an exception not the rule. There is no rule of thumb here. We have to use our judgment.

And again, it is very rare. The cis mentors we do have are college professors or people already working in education already with mentorship experience. We think it is very important that the student gets to pick the mentor, so at the end of the day it is the student who gets to pick who they will be working with.

TE: You mentioned that when you had met Lily the two of you were going through similar problems. Would you mind expanding on those?

LM: I’ll try to speak more for myself as I don’t want to ever try to speak for someone else’s life experiences.

At the time we met, I was entering my second year of gainful employment in the tech industry. Before that I had been unemployed for almost three entire years. I had been fired from my previous job for transitioning, and honestly thought that everything for me was over. No hope, no prospects. Being unemployed with no income or stable housing for that long really wears on a person mentally.

I started to get desperate early on, feeling like a caged animal of sorts. Living in a really bad situation, doing whatever I could to insure I’d have food and a place to sleep the next day. During that time I focused every moment that wasn’t dedicated to survival into learning more about programming and technology, as well as contributing free software projects to build a resumé.

At the time, if you had asked me I would have been convinced that I was only unemployed for a few months! Time gets really surreal when you are desperate for long periods of time. Anyways, into my third year of being jobless I put everything I had been working on into one resume, and sent it off to every place that I thought might take it. Surprisingly enough one of the places got back to me, and even offered to pay for a trip on an Amtrak train a few hundred miles to come interview with them! It was a dream come true at the time, an air-conditioned office, with well dressed people… I felt very out-of-place… like an alien secretly undercover sent to assimilate into “middle class” culture.

Sure enough, I got the job!  I almost happy-danced myself to death at the time!

I think a lot of how Hypatia works is based on that narrative, except we offer a community peers to help raise each other up. I got lucky, and had the privilege of learning a lot of tech when I was younger. Not everyone has that luxury going into situations like that. Time becomes money, and money is hard to come by, so investing time without guidance on how you would turn that into a job skill is not something anyone should be expected to try.

TE: What were you doing when you lost your job for transitioning?

LM: The job I had before being fired due to transition was answering phones. It was pretty terrible. Everyone I worked with was really freaked out by my transition and didn’t know what to make of it. I think that my voice when answering phones was one of the things that became a problem for me. It was a hard job, and I didn’t think I had the right to exist in the first place. These days I have a lot more self-confidence and pride, and I know I have every right to exist — As well as the right to be respected by my coworkers as an equal.

TE: What did you do to support yourself when you were homeless and couch-surfing?

LM: Whatever I could. At first I did IT contracting with people I met online, but my social circle was only big enough to sustain me that way for the first year. If I had known I was going to lose my job I would have probably been able to sustain it longer. But, life generally doesn’t give us a warning before tossing us into a new situation.

I hesitate to talk about this next bit, but I really think it is important for younger trans women who might find themselves in a similar situation. When it became apparent I couldn’t keep a roof over mine and my partners heads anymore I turned to the streets as a very novice sex worker. I had no Idea what I was doing, nor how to do it safely. I didn’t understand basic safety concepts like how to screen clients or how to avoid being ripped off. Luckily for me I’ve always been good at thinking on my feet so nothing too seriously ever happened to me. Although I definitely had some very close calls. Back then, I had very little self-respect and I didn’t think a trans woman could be much in this world outside of homeless and dead on the side of the road. This is not a healthy world view, at all. I put myself into many situations that I probably should not have made it out of alive.

I feel strongly that if I had a healthier view of what a trans woman could be in this world, and had some pride in myself I would not have been putting myself at so much risk. Additionally I would have talked to other trans woman on-line or in real life who had more experience than myself and gotten advice on how to stay safe! As a trans woman it is easy to forget that we are amazing people, and have much to offer this world! Never forget this.

TE: Survival sex work seems to be something a lot of trans women experience. Are there any resources aside from befriending other trans sex workers on-line and getting advice?

LM: I really wish there were, but there are not as far as I know. At Hypatia we have a very nurturing environment, and encourage our members to ask for advice for safety. In DC there is HIPS (hips.org/), a very cool organization with a street team. Organizations like this are very rare, there needs to be more!

TE: So Hypatia offers advice for trans women who do survival sex work as well?

LM: Correct. I think it would be both foolish and dangerous to pretend like survival sex work isn’t a thing. Remember, we are run by and for trans people… Empathy and a shared background of oppression play a big role in the services we offer. There is no shame in sex work.

I feel strongly that sex work as a profession is far too stigmatized. Like I said earlier, feeling ashamed about sex work is what put me into such dangerous situations. I felt like it wasn’t something I could talk about or share with other people. It is very important that it is something people feel okay talking about, and to do. We cannot sweep it under the rug. Whether it is your chosen vocation or you are doing it just to survive, there is NO shame in sex work. Furthermore I think it is important to have some pride and respect for yourself. Without this, sex work is not something that is safe to engage in. We have to remember as trans women we are unique and rare, and under no circumstances are we disposable!

TE: Tell us about your other project: TransAdvice.org.

LMTransAdvice.org is a peer support network. It predates me by sometime technically.  Under the name “TSSupport.org” it actually dates back to 1995! The idea is to provide a safe space on-line where trans people can talk to each other. A space where our privacy is respected, and talking about our daily struggles is encouraged. So many of us do not have anyone to talk to in real life, so TransAdvice.org strives to fill this void for those of us who are looking for an on-line peer support chat. 

I stepped into the project in 2010, about a year after I transitioned (wow, feels like yesterday!). We re-branded the site TransAdvice as a nod to the idea that the best we can do in a peer support setting is offer advice. No one can tell anyone how to live their life you know. (giggles

Me and a few friends I met on-line set it up after being kicked out of other on-line trans places for being too “scrappy”. What was our daily struggle, was found offensive to the people who ran the other communities. I feel strongly that this is classism in play. It takes money and resources to host an on-line community, so most places are run by middle class or higher people. Soon after, we were merged with TSSupport.org, as their leadership was looking to pass the torch to the next generation of trans woman. One day, I hope to repeat this and pass the community on to the next batch of new blood when it is time for us to step down.

These days I simply serve in an advisory capacity, helping with the Code of Conduct, interviewing new staff members, and helping keeping things going in the background.

TE: One last question: Knowing what transition has cost you, how would you advise trans people who are still in the closet?

LM: The straight truth: It was worth it… every second of it. Transition was the best thing that ever happened to me. While earlier in this interview I talked about a lot of trouble and hardship, I would never dream of living as the way I was before. It simply was not a life worth living for me, and honestly I probably would have taken my own life if I never decided to transition. Bad things happen to good people, that is just part of life. And things got better for me… rememberer this. I’m still alive, I’m happy as hex and I have no regrets.

Before transition, my memory is very foggy, I did not make many memories and it all feels like a bad nightmare in retrospect. After transition I was finally able to start living for the first time in my life. My advice to anyone out there planning to transition who is still in the closet? Don’t let the world scare you for being yourself! Live your life on your terms, and you’ll be much happier! Big risks come with even bigger rewards, if you hang in there you will find yourself happier than you could ever imagine.

TE: Thank you for spending your time with us, and thank you for all you do for our community.

LM: Thank you for taking the time to interview me!! Every little bit helps get the word out there!

Follow Lisa on Twitter!

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