Group continues to promote LGBT visibility at Defcon

Queercon’s blinking conference badges and rainbow pins set them apart from the thousands of attendees at this year’s Defcon cybersecurity summit.

Attitudes toward the LGBT community have changed a lot since the social group formed at the conference 12 years ago, but the San Francisco-based nonprofit’s mission of promoting LGBT visibility within the tech industry hasn’t.

Defcon, which ended Sunday and drew about 16,000 participants, sold out of its pride-themed convention shirts. Queercon organizers at the event challenged attendees to hack Grindr, a hookup app for gay men, to figure out its security flaws.

Queercon co-founders Robert Walker, Jonathan Nelson and Aaron Tebrink, all Seattle residents, explained that the scene used to be a lot less friendly toward people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender.

“Hacker culture was really homophobic,” Walker said.

For example, a decade ago, chat rooms were rife with homophobic slurs, and many people who worked in the information technology field feared they would lose their jobs if they were open about their identities, Walker said. The men decided in the early 2000s they needed to create a visible space for LGBT people to network and socialize, and they were all surprised when it turned out that no one really minded.

“The fact that everyone seems to feel like they have to stay in hiding while they’re here, that seemed like the most important problem,” Nelson said. “(Queercon) is about reassurance. You don’t have to hide anymore. Everyone is kind of cool with this.”

The group used to be worried about getting beat up, but now it worries that it needs more room to fit all its members. Queercon grew from being a Defcon club into a nonprofit that now has a presence at multiple tech conventions. This year the group held gatherings at BSides Las Vegas and RSA, both Internet security conferences, and it’s looking at other spaces like GaymerX, a video game conference for the LGBT community.

Queercon President Jason Painter said he instantly felt a connection to the group when he joined about four years ago. The San Francisco resident said he was once fired from a job as a senior web architect when word got out that he was gay, so he takes LGBT visibility and diversity in tech very seriously.

“That’s what I find comes from this group. It is a very safe and open environment for people to be who they are,” he said.

Contact Wesley Juhl at and 702-383-0391. Find him on Twitter: @WesJuhl

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