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Let’s hack Grindr! Queercon helps diversify tech field

12th Vegas conference boosts LGBT presence in once-hostile industry



Queercon, gay news, Washington Blade
Queercon, gay news, Washington Blade

Queercon co-founders (from left) Aaron Tebrink, Robert Walker and Jonathan Nelson pose at a lounge for LGBT hackers they set up at Bally’s Las Vegas Hotel and Casino. (Photo by Wesley Juhl)

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.”

Queercon, gay news, Washington Blade

Luke Faraone (in blue) uses an interactive Queercon conference badge to break the ice with another LGBT Defcon attendee. (Photo by Wesley Juhl)

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D.C. mayor to lift all restrictions on bars, nightclubs on June 11

‘We will definitely be celebrating Pride’ next month



Mayor Muriel Bowser announced Monday that she will fully lift capacity and other restrictions on most businesses, including restaurants and places of worship, on May 21. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced at a news conference on Monday that a continuing trend of significantly lower numbers of coronavirus cases and deaths in the city has enabled her to fully lift capacity and other restrictions on most businesses, including restaurants and places of worship, on May 21.

The mayor said bars and nightclubs will be allowed to increase indoor capacity from the current 25 percent to 50 percent on May 21, with all capacity restrictions for bars and nightclubs to be removed on June 11.

The mayor’s announcement came after representatives of the city’s nightlife businesses, including the city’s gay bars and restaurants, expressed concern that D.C. had yet to lift its capacity restrictions beyond 25 percent while surrounding jurisdictions in Maryland and Virginia had already lifted most restrictions.

“On May 21, restrictions on public and commercial activity, including capacity limits, types of activities, and time restrictions, will be lifted,” the mayor’s directive says.

It says restrictions for bars and nightclubs would continue at a 50 percent capacity from May 21 through June 11. The directive says restrictions for large sports and entertainment venues would also continue from May 21 to June 11, which includes a requirement such events apply for a waiver of the restrictions on a case-by-case basis.

“On June 11, capacity limits and restrictions will be lifted on those venues that cannot fully reopen on May 21,” the directive says.

In response to a question at the news conference, Bowser said the June 11 date would essentially end all restrictions on nightclubs and bars, including the current requirement that they close at midnight rather than the pre-epidemic closing times of 2 a.m. on weekdays and 3 a.m. on weekends.

In a development that could have a major impact on plans for D.C.’s LGBTQ Pride events, the mayor’s revised health directive announced on Monday includes the lifting of all capacity restrictions on large outdoor and indoor sports and entertainment events beginning on June 11.

That change would remove restrictions that have, up until now, prevented D.C.’s Capital Pride Alliance from holding its annual Pride Parade and Festival in June during Pride Month.

Capital Pride Executive Director Ryan Bos told the Washington Blade shortly after the mayor’s announcement that Capital Pride is assessing its options for expanding its current plans for in-person events in June.

“We will definitely be celebrating Pride in June,” Bos said. “We just received this information as well. So, we will be getting further information,” he said. “We have not been informed that they will be issuing any permits yet, so at this time we are moving forward with our original plans for doing things.”

Bos was referring to a city requirement for obtaining permits for street closings and use of other public spaces for events such as a parade or street festival. He said existing plans, among other things, call for an informal parade of cars and other vehicles on June 12 that will drive throughout the city to view homes and businesses that will be decorated with Pride displays such as signs, photos, and other symbols of Pride.

Those familiar with the city’s past Pride events don’t think there will be enough time for Capital Pride to organize the traditional large parade and street festival in time for June. But Capital Pride officials have talked about holding a possible parade and festival in October, and the lifting of the capacity restrictions announced by Bowser on Monday would likely make that possible.

In addition to lifting all capacity restrictions on May 21 for restaurants, the mayor’s May 21 timeframe for lifting restrictions includes these additional venues and events:

  • Weddings and special events
  • Business meetings and seated conventions
  • Places of worship
  • Non-essential retail
  • Personal services
  • Private at-home gatherings
  • Libraries, museums, galleries
  • Recreation Centers
  • Gyms and fitness centers
  • Pools
  • Office space
  • Schools
  • Childcare

“We’re very pleased that over the last several days, we have seen our case spread, our community spread numbers, venture out of the red into the yellow and fast approaching the green,” Bowser said in referring to a health department chart that shows the changes in coronavirus cases in the city.

“You might remember that our daily case rate peaked in January at 45.9. And today you can see it’s down to 6.6,” she said at her news conference on Monday.

“Throughout this process I have said how proud I am of D.C. residents and businesses who have responded, who have followed health guidance and have worked together to help protect our community throughout the pandemic. And we see it in these numbers today,” she said.

“Containing the virus will continue to require all of us to be focused on maintaining a robust health system,” the mayor said, adding that while over 200,000 D.C. residents have been fully vaccinated since December 2020, “many more thousands” still need to be vaccinated. “Vaccines are free and available on demand at walk-up sites across the District,” she said.

The mayor also noted that the city will continue to require residents and visitors to use a mask in accordance with existing and updated guidance set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Mark Lee, coordinator of the D.C. Nightlife Council, an association that represents restaurants, bars, nightclubs and other entertainment venues, said the mayor’s directive on May 10 leaves some details to be addressed but will open the way to bring nightlife businesses back to life.

“What we do know is that on Friday, May 21, businesses begin returning to normal operations and, three weeks later, on June 11, all restrictions for all businesses in the District will end,” Lee said. “It’s a day we’ve long awaited and one that will save much of our community enterprise from financial ruin.”

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Family code bill to be introduced in Cuban Parliament in July

CENESEX made announcement during May 4 press conference



Mariela Castro at a CENESEX press conference


Tremenda Nota is the Washington Blade’s media partner in Cuba. A Spanish version of this story was published on May 6.

HAVANA — The National Center for Sexual Education on May 4 during a press conference in which it unveiled the program for the 14th annual International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia events in Cuba announced a bill to amend the family code will be introduced in Parliament in July.

CENESEX Director Mariela Castro Espín said during a meeting with official and foreign media outlets at the International Press Center that this year’s events are part of the process of amending the family code.

She added that this legal change will reflect several rights guaranteed in the constitution, which is why it is necessary to sensitize and educate the Cuban population to avoid prejudice and discrimination.

“I was able to appreciate that the majority of the population … is in favor of recognizing the rights of LGBTI+ people and especially the rights in the family sphere that include the possibility, the option, of marriage,” said Mariela Castro during the press conference.

The official referred to the results of the National Survey on Gender Equality in Cuba, conducted in 2016 and published in 2019. According to this official study, 77 percent of the Cuban population between 15 and 74-years-old said that gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people should have the same rights as any other citizen.

CENESEX’s director, however, did not use this information in the 2018 parliamentary debates sparked by Article 68 of the bill to amend the constitution. The idea that it was not the appropriate time to implement same-gender marriage in Cuba eventually won out.

Mariela Castro told Tremenda Nota a few days before the referendum in which Cuban voters approved the current constitution that she was aware of the survey, but she did not explain why she did not use the data it revealed as an argument (in favor of marriage equality.)

“It was a wasted tool that now we can only use in the next referendum,” then-MP Luis Ángel Adán Roble told Tremenda Nota during a February 2019 interview, as did Mariela Castro.

The moment that Adán Roble mentioned has arrived.

It became known during the May 4 press conference that the family code will be introduced in the scheduled parliamentary session in July. The Council of State on March 22 appointed a commission that will be in charge of preparing the bill, but the list of its members was not made public until April 30. None of them are openly LGBTI+.

Activists over the last few weeks have demanded that Parliament reveal the identities of those who make up the commission and the deadline they have to prevent the Family Code. The May 4 press conference resolved the last outstanding point.

The Cuban IDAHOBiT program

Mariela Castro and CENESEX Deputy Director Manuel Vázquez Seijido explained that numerous activities with the goal of making visible and fighting against all types of discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity will virtually take place from May 4 through May 30.

The IDAHOBiT events in Cuba have a program that includes academic dialogue, social activism and artistic presentations from virtual spaces.

Forum debates are among the activities. The Juventud Rebelde newspaper will host the first one with the theme “Deconstructing myths around same-sex families and partners” and Cubadebate will hold the second called “Constitution and Sexual Rights in Cuba: Progress and Main challenges.”

They also announced at the press conference the books “Paquito el de Cuba: A Decade of Online Activism” and “Non-Heteronormative Sexualities and Gender Identities. Tensions and Challenges for Human Rights” will be presented.

There will be virtual panels titled “Diverse Families: Histories of Non-Hegemonic Lives,” “National Program for the Advancement of Women: Opportunities to Confront Homophobia and Transphobia,” “Keys for Inclusive Communication” and “Sexual Rights and Religious Fundamentalisms.”

Castro Espín explained that CENESEX will use its social media accounts to promote the program, contribute to the sexual education of Cubans and the recognition of rights for all people, regardless of gender or sexual orientation.

A show against homophobia and transphobia that will officially end the events will be broadcast on social media and on television.

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Bill to ban conversion therapy dies in Puerto Rico Senate committee

Advocacy group describes lawmakers as cowards



Puerto Rico Pulse nightclub victims, gay news, Washington Blade


A Puerto Rico Senate committee on Thursday killed a bill that would have banned so-called conversion therapy on the island.

Members of the Senate Community Initiatives, Mental Health and Addiction Committee voted against Senate Bill 184 by an 8-7 vote margin. Three senators abstained.

Amárilis Pagán Jiménez, a spokesperson for Comité Amplio para la Búsqueda de la Equidad, a coalition of Puerto Rican human rights groups, in a statement sharply criticized the senators who opposed the measure.

“If they publicly recognize that conversion therapies are abuse, if they even voted for a similar bill in the past, if the hearings clearly established that the bill was well-written and was supported by more than 78 professional and civil entities and that it did not interfere with freedom of religion or with the right of fathers and mothers to raise their children, voting against it is therefore one of two things: You are either a hopeless coward or you have the same homophobic and abusive mentality of the hate groups that oppose the bill,” said Pagán in a statement.

Thursday’s vote comes against the backdrop of continued anti-LGBTQ discrimination and violence in Puerto Rico.

Six of the 44 transgender and gender non-conforming people who were reported murdered in the U.S. in 2020 were from Puerto Rico.

A state of emergency over gender-based violence that Gov. Pedro Pierluisi declared earlier this year is LGBTQ-inclusive. Then-Gov. Ricardo Rosselló in 2019 signed an executive order that banned conversion therapy for minors in Puerto Rico.

“These therapies lack scientific basis,” he said. “They cause pain and unnecessary suffering.”

Rosselló issued the order less than two weeks after members of the New Progressive Party, a pro-statehood party  he chaired at the time, blocked a vote in the Puerto Rico House of Representatives on a bill that would have banned conversion therapy for minors in the U.S. commonwealth. Seven out of the 11 New Progressive Party members who are on the Senate Community Initiatives, Mental Health and Addiction Committee voted against SB 184.

“It’s appalling. It’s shameful that the senators didn’t have the strength and the courage that our LGBTQ youth have, and it’s to be brave and to defend our dignity and our humanity as people who live on this island,” said Pedro Julio Serrano, founder of Puerto Rico Para [email protected], a Puerto Rican LGBTQ rights group, in a video. “It’s disgraceful that the senators decided to vote down this measure that would prevent child abuse.”

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