LAS VEGAS — Thousands of hackers and cyber security professionals descended on Las Vegas last week for multiple tech industry conferences, hundreds of which sported rainbows and Queercon badges with blinking lights.
Although many in the United States are now used to it, these queers still want everyone to know they’re here.
Queercon started as an LGBT meet-up group at the Defcon cyber security conference more than a decade ago. Imagine a small group of friends meeting at the hotel bar. But the San Francisco-based nonprofit, which finished its 12th year with Defcon at Bally’s Hotel and Casino on Sunday, is becoming something else.
Queercon will always be a social club for those who work in the tech industry, but the men who lead the group have made it their mission to increase LGBT visibility.
And it seems to be catching on.
Defcon made, and sold out of, Pride-themed convention T-shirts for the first time this year. And there was an interesting new challenge for about 16,000 conference attendees this year: hack the gay hookup app Grindr to expose its security flaws.
Queercon co-founder Robert Walker said it’s an important challenge, because inadvertent leaks of Grindr’s data could open men in the community to stalking, harassment or worse, because the app tracks users’ locations.
“That’s both a really powerful and a really dangerous thing,” he said. “One of the main reasons people don’t date online is because they don’t think it’s safe.”
Walker runs his own startup, a dating app called Cuddli that emphasizes traditional dinner-and-a-movie experiences and connects users with the best date spots, so he said he understands why user safety is such a big deal.
Queercon set it up so that not only did its members get to take a crack at it — albeit with some boundaries in place to protect men who use the app — but everyone else did too.
“There’s no better way to find a lot of security problems quickly,” Walker said.
Reports from the Grindr challenge will be submitted to the company when they are completed, he said.
In just 12 years, Queercon has gone from being worried about threats from other conference-goers to inviting them to hack a gay app with the group.
Rather than worrying about being accepted like it did in the early days, the group is starting to worry about having enough space and looking to expand into new tech spaces. Attendance has nearly tripled at all of the group’s events, with nearly 2,000 people at this year’s pool party and hundreds of people cramming into the Queercon lounge they set up in the hotel.
Walker, 40, of Seattle, said that when he started Queercon with his friends, the scene was a lot different. He was just starting to come out himself, and the computer community was a lot more homophobic.
Chat rooms were filled with homophobic slurs, and people who had good tech jobs were still worried about being fired and having their neighbors find out, he said.
“‘Gay’ was actually a pejorative,” he said.
Yet he has always been involved with Defcon, because he’s passionate about information technology.
“I loved almost everything about it, except that I couldn’t be me,” he said.
And he quickly learned he wasn’t the only one. “There was a lot of pent up demand,” he said.
Co-founders Jonathan Nelson and Aaron Tebrink, also from Seattle, said it wasn’t so much that the computer community was hostile, just that no one wanted to talk about it. Both men remember being shocked how quickly everyone got used to the idea that there were LGBT people around.
“The people who are least used to it are the people who are gay, the ones who are not comfortable and don’t know if they’re going to be well received,” Nelson said. “Everything we do that has high visibility it’s really just for encouraging the other members of this community to be out and come join in.”
That includes people like Kyle Spiers, 17, of Rockville, Md. His love of computers and cryptography brought him to Defcon for the first time last year.
“I came out here completely alone. I had no friends,” said Kyle, who identifies as bisexual. “I saw the gay pin and thought that would be the best way to meet some friends. You know they’ll at least be nice to you.”
Kyle explained that he often has to deal with people’s misconceptions about both the LGBT and technology communities. People expect him to either love fashion and be good at dancing or to be a pale computer geek, he said.
“It’s definitely a huge minority,” he said. “People get confused when they look at me.”
Evan Mackey, 30, an electrical engineer from Tulsa, Okla., has also struggled with being gay and working in the tech field.
“I’m more in the actual ‘Good Ole Boys’ club, so I just tend not to talk about it,” he said. “I expected it to be a much bigger thing. I was nervous to wear a rainbow shirt my first year [at the conference].”
It’s stories like Kyle’s and Mackey’s that motivated San Francisco’s Jason Painter, 35, to take a more active role with the group three years ago. He established the group as a nonprofit and helped it grow into other cyber security conferences, including BSides and RSA.
Painter said he’s driven by the stories he’s heard about people who come with co-workers, find Queercon and come out for the first time. And he empathizes with people who are anxious about being out at work — the information security manager was once fired from a job as a web architect shortly after it got out that he is gay.
“It was instantly a group that I connected with,” he said. “It’s a very personal issue for me. I want to make sure that diversity in tech, in the IT field, which is heavily male-dominated, is inclusive of everyone.”