Season 3 — Episode 8

Pride is a celebration of our true selves -- of loving yourself for who you are, and of accepting and loving others for who they are.

It can be a challenge to feel safe being out and proud without role models providing guidance and showing the way. Listen to Melissa Casburn share her personal and professional journey.


Join the Puppet Community on Slack


Ben FordHello and welcome to today's episode of Pulling the Strings podcast, as always, powered by Puppet. We're recording this the first week of Pride Month, and that's one of my favorite times of the year, because not only is it sort of a celebration of many of the people I love, but it's a celebration of being able to love yourself for who you are and of accepting and loving other people for exactly who they are, too. It's a time to be proud of our true selves. So hi, my name is Ben Ford. I'm the ecosystem product manager here at Puppet and I'm active in the community @benford2K. We are today trying out a new way of hosting the show. So cohosting with me is...

Lauren LeeHello, I'm Lauren Lee. I have recently joined the Puppet family as the director of community. You may recognize me from our new Twitch stream. That's So go check that out. Or for my personal podcast called We Belong Here: Lessons from Unconventional Paths to Tech, which celebrates diversity in tech and unique and untraditional journeys to tech itself. I've been loving getting to know the Puppet community so far in the past few months since I've joined. And I'm really looking forward to joining you, Ben, as the co-host, on Pulling the Strings.

Ben FordI am really glad to have you here. And today we are really excited to talk with Melissa Casburn. She's a director of UX here at Puppet. Her pronouns are "she" and "her", and she brings experiences from more than 15, I think, years of UX, including Puppet and a whole variety of different industries through work in various Portland digital agencies. So she likes to focus on sort of systems thinking and ethics. And I'm super excited to sit with her on our Products Ethics Council here, which she drives. Most of you want to elaborate on any of that or tell us something interesting about yourself.

Melissa CasburnHi, thank you for the lovely intro. I guess the best place to start is why we're talking today. So I am an out and proud bisexual woman. I came out 30 years ago almost to the day. It was sometime around this month or so, 30 years ago. And I had the luck and the joy and the privilege of growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area. I did choose to go to San Francisco State University for my bachelor's work. And while I figured out that I was bi in high school, taking that sort of nascent realization to the queerest city in the world, arguably, I really just sort of it all sort of exploded. And I came out to everybody. I met this cute girl in the cafe on campus, and I thought, what if this is the girl I marry? And I rushed home and came out to my parents and it all just went from there.

Lauren LeeI love that.

Melissa CasburnIt was a really, really fun time to be alive. But unfortunately, you get into the work world, right? College is not the work world. And this was the by the time I got out of college, it was the mid 90s. It was not a super great time to be not only a woman in tech, and my career in tech spans all the way back to my mid 20s. But being a queer woman in tech, that was just unheard of. So it's been really amazing to be now at Puppet. I've been in Portland now for 23 three years and Puppet for six and a half years. And to be working at a company that is so forward in acknowledging and supporting and celebrating queer employees feels like such a healthy place for me to be. I actually started coming out at work about 10 or 15 years ago, but coming out first of all is is not a one and done process. You come out, over and over again, and there are places that are safer and less safe to come out. And there are times in your life that are safer and less safe and there are parts of the world. And so being at Puppet and having that sort of warm, soft space around me for the past many years has been really nice. I'm also excited to have been recently elected as the president of Portland Lesbian Choir, which I'll talk a bit more about later. But it's another way to be out and proud and visible and connected to community here in Portland. So that's a lot about me.

Ben FordThat's honestly, it's a beautiful story, Melissa. I always love hearing your story and talking with you about this. And congrats on the appointment. That's really exciting to hear. So I wanted to bring Melissa on because she told me about an article that she's working on about why she's out at work and how important it is to have role models in people's lives. So I'll start out, by asking: Who were your queer role models growing up and like in developing your career and giving you the confidence to do this?

Melissa CasburnNone. No, literally none. There were none. The 90s were an interesting time. Bisexual women were in this period of being highly sexualized by mass media. So for better or for worse, we had visibility, but it was really the wrong kind of visibility. There is also a tendency for bisexual folks to remain closeted, in general. We can become invisible. I'm in a relationship with a male partner. That means my status as a bisexual when we are in public together becomes invisible. A lot of bisexual people disappear. Their queerness disappears because we also statistically end up in relationships with partners of different genders.

Ben FordI hear that so much. My partner, personally, is also bisexual and we're in a very heteronormative appearing relationship. And she feels very invisible in a lot of spaces. So we do our best to celebrate and bring her out more.

Melissa CasburnAnd so it takes a lot of intention, right, to be visible in those scenarios. And I was growing up and in my formative years and post-college years around the time that Ellen DeGeneres was coming out. And so that was really just the beginning of so much visibility for the queer community as a whole. And bisexual people were not really strongly at the forefront. We've been around the whole time. We've been organizing and present and in the community, but we haven't been the face of it, really. And I just had literally zero role models. I looked more for strong women in tech without much concern for their sexual orientation, because that in and of itself, as I mentioned earlier, it was a hard time back then for women to survive in the tech world. I know it's not easy today, but it was a lot harder back then because they were just fewer of us.

Ben FordI bet that's so true. When we were first talking about this podcast, you kind of made this joke about like you were okay if you had to be "the token queer". I hate that phrase. But, you know, it's a thing. But what I'm curious about is after hearing that story, how did you develop the strength with being able to even make that joke in the first place?

Melissa CasburnI do want to talk about the word "queer" for a second, because it's a word that not everybody's comfortable with. I was not comfortable with for a long time because in my coming out years, that was absolutely a slur and it was a violent slur. It's nice to see the reclamation process that has happened, particularly with the younger generation around that word, in part because it's a lot easier to say it than LGBTQAII plus plus, what have you. But it also is such a more,as we sort of thin slice parts of our identity and are able to label and talk about and understand ourselves, in a more nuanced way. It allows us to just kind of wrap everybody in one big hug if you're comfortable with that word. But the reason I said that to you, Ben, is because we collectively have been held back and blocked from so much for so many years, housing, jobs, health care, legal protections. Look, we just had another big fight about it in the Supreme Court. What was that a year ago? Trans people are fighting every single day for rights and recognition. It seems like every time they get one step forward, the conservatives pull them two steps back. It's so hard. And I want to be part of normalizing queer people being out and proud and successful. And part of that is ensuring the younger people can see us doing those things to sustain the hope that they need to keep going. So many queer kids suffer through so much, not just at general society, but family and church and other kids and so many of them don't make it through it. I had a very privileged upbringing. I'm on a podcast so people can't see me, but I am white. I grew up middle class. I was a child of divorce, but very supportive, loving parents when I came out to them. They're like, cool, have a nice life. We love you. I'm very lucky in that regard. And a lot of other kids just don't have the advantages I have. And it's been very safe for me. And I do think that the workplace should look like the world in terms of representation. But not everyone is safe to be out at work because their environment's not safe, or because they carry too much trauma to come out, to show up and to show up as their whole selves. Many of us are also, as we talked about, passing or cis passing, I'm cis gender as well or what have you. There was a recent Gallup poll that said 5.6 percent of Americans are LGBTQ. But when you look at the younger generations, it's much higher. GenZ is actually 16 percent, so there's reasons for that people feel more comfortable coming out. We have more language. Kids understand earlier that heteronormativity is not their only option. We also, of course, have lost many, many people to AIDS and that has shrunk the numbers down from our older generations as well. So there's a lot there. But when you breakdown these numbers by sexual orientation, more than half of us are bisexual, according to this Gallup poll. 55 percent, we're everywhere, but we're invisible. So I know that there are folks at Puppet who are bisexual and are choosing not to talk about it. And they're at everybody's workplace who are choosing not to talk about it. And that's totally fine. It's never for me to say what's safe for you, but it's safe for me. And so I consider it sort of my job to to be out because it can be especially the age I'm at, where my career is evolved enough that if I had some run in and lost my job, I have a much bigger safety net than a lot of younger folks do.

Lauren LeeYeah, well, it's an important advocacy work to do, to model and to be that person for folks that might be at a different stage in their journey of sharing and living that kind of like authentic self at work, which is, feels like a newer concept even. I think we used to have to perform as like one person at the job and then be a real self at home. But it seems as though we're allowed to now maybe blur those a bit and it's celebrated. And I think that that is pretty cool.

Melissa CasburnI agree. And there look, there are people that are perfectly happy showing up at work in a way that's different from home. And that's fine, too. To your point, the option to do that and the language to talk about it and the support for it is very new.

Ben FordAnd it feels like it's kind of a little bit of our responsibility to share our privilege when we have that to share, you know?

Lauren LeeAbsolutely. Yeah, I totally agree. You touch on just like what it means, working in a safe space versus not to out other places or coworkers or places you've been before, but other places that you've been in.

Melissa CasburnSo thankfully, I've never had anyone be actively hostile toward me at work. Thank goodness. I honestly don't know what I would have done in that scenario. I'm not a confrontational person. I don't know if I would have been scared out of my own job or something else terrible. So I'm very grateful for that. And I know that that's not the case for a lot of people. So I wouldn't say that I've been in necessarily an unsafe workplace in the past, but every workplace I've been in before Puppet was at least neutral about it, which is fine, right? It's fine to be able to show up and not feel like you're being celebrated, but not feel like you're being denigrated either. That's not a bad space to be. What I do love about Puppet, though, and the difference with being at Puppet and a lot of other companies today, is that we actively participate in Pride. We go and do the parade in the years where we have a parade, we have internal activities, we participate. I actually tabled a recruiting thing with Puppet for lesbians who tech a couple of years ago, which was super great. And then we're sending some folks this year to the Lesbians Who Tech Pride Summit. I can I just say also, I'm so excited the Pride Summit exists and I wonder what my life would have been like if that sort of support, community support had been around for me 20 years ago. And I hope that folks are taking full advantage of these opportunities while they're there. I just think it's so important. Back to Puppet, we have this wonderful rainbow version of our logo that we use all over the place and it feels good to see it. You know, I think that, I think probably a lot of people assume I'm straight. And certainly, if I'm out walking with my partner, they do. I will often go out of my way at work and outside of work to ensure, that I will invent opportunities to tell people that I'm bisexual because I'm trying to actively overcome that. I'm trying to intentionally overcome that. And I think I try to do that more at work, because that's a place where for me, personally, there's not scar tissue. But but like a wish. Right. That that had been there for me many, many years ago.

Ben FordI hear what you're saying there. I, I do things like I have some rainbow socks and things like that that I wear, just to blur those lines so that people think that maybe I am and maybe realize that it doesn't matter, you know. Like I can be who I am. And I don't care if you think one way or another way about me. That's one of the ways that I try to share privilege. It's very, very tiny in comparison to a lot of the things that you're talking about.

Melissa CasburnI appreciate it, though. I notice those things, and I can't be the only queer person who notices those things and appreciates it. Because it feels it feels like a warm smile, you know, walking through the workplace and seeing that recognition and Puppet really does that. Puppet take steps that signal to me, hey, we see you and we celebrate you and that that feels good. What I still to work at Puppet without it? Yes, but it's that extra bit. It's very warm.

Ben FordWhat are some other like pieces of advice you might give. Like me as somebody who was is like not really queer, but more like queer adjacent as an ally to be more supportive of the people in my life or my workplace?

Melissa CasburnOne of the conversations that's been picking up speed so much in the past couple years that I'm so grateful for is the one of assume gender. I have a lot of trans friends. In Portland Lesbian Choir, we have incorporated a very active pronoun sharing protocol. The biggest thing I think is, is to try to unwind any tendency you may have to make assumptions about gender, about the genders of people's partners, which, of course, then kind of looks to the sexual orientation of those people. We're just swimming in heterosexuality and cis gender all the time. It takes no small effort to step back from that and remove the ability to sort of automatically assume that. But that's what I would ask everybody to try to work on, is create open space for all of these different types of people to exist right in front of you. You know, when I was growing up, I had my first crush on a girl when I was 11, before I had a crush on a boy for the first time. But I didn't know what it was because everything's heterosexual, the whole world is heterosexual. So I didn't have any language for that. I didn't know what it meant. I just thought, oh, I really respect her and I would like to be her friend. And it took me years to look back on that and say, oh, no, that was actually my first crush. And for those of you who are older, like me, it was Marty Maraschino from the movie Grease, played byDinah Manoff. She's beautiful. Had society made more space for that when I was younger, I could have known when I was younger that I was bisexual. I wish that society had made more space for that when I was younger. And so it's why I would ask people to make space for that now, especially with the conversation being so available and folks being around to help you learn and point you to resources where you can self educate. And on that note, the other thing I would say, ask us questions. You can ask us questions if you're curious what it's like or you have a friend who is questioning or you are questioning and you just want to get some perspective, it's okay to be curious and not really understand how our lives are different and want to know more. If we're open to fielding questions from you. Cool. If somebody says, no, I don't want to have that conversation, just hear the "no" and respect their boundary.

Ben FordI was going to ask how you how you open that conversation, how you do that in a respectful way.

Melissa CasburnOh, I think you just be just be direct and clear. Every single person I know. So my trans friends probably get the most questions and curiosity about their lives and how they live. And I will repeat to you what they tell me, which is if you miss the pronoun, just do a quick apology and keep moving. If you have a question, just ask, are you open to a question or two?

Ben FordAre you saying open with a question of "can I ask the question?" rather than jumping right in?

Melissa CasburnYeah, start with permission. Look, I'm very open and I will say, Ben, you were very respectful of me, as we were talking about what this podcast was going to be like and I deeply appreciate that. I am an open book. A lot of people aren't, for many, many different reasons. So I might say, "Ben, I'm curious if I can ask you a question about your rainbow socks?" And you could say yes or no. That's all. Keep it light. Yeah. And respect that.

Ben FordThat seems like a really easy thing to do. And it makes it real light and easy for either person in the conversation to kind of like back out without losing face, maybe. It's an easy way to say no, it's an easy out. Right.

Lauren LeeI'm wondering if there's any advice that you can share to someone who's maybe listening that isn't in that space where they feel they can be open or fully who they are in their workplace or in their job. I think it's so cool that you are, as you say, just like an open book on who you are and living authentically yourself. There's a lot of reasons people aren't. But someone that's listening, maybe wanting resources or encouragement that we could share?

Melissa CasburnSo I can only be an expert about myself and my own experience, what I will say about my own decision, because I mentioned earlier that I did not start to come out until I was in my mid 30s. I chose that time because the burden of holding it in felt heavier than the potential losses or burden I might feel by letting it out and I had to weigh those risks for myself, what is the real, real risk to me in this scenario? What are the real risks I might face in this scenario? Am I at risk of losing my job, losing friends, losing family, losing community? Versus what is the psychic burden of holding this in and having to either obfuscate myself or in some cases actually lie about who I am, which I would dance around the point. I never claimed to be straight, but I would dance around it for many, many years unless I felt like I was in a place where I either wasn't at risk or I didn't care about that person's opinion. But that is such an intimate personal process for everyone. I would encourage folks to build community outside of work so that there is a support network in place. If something bad happens or if you just had a bad day, where is your soft landing? And I'll talk about Portland Lesbian Choir for a minute, which I promised to do because that is a soft landing for me. I joined Portland Lesbian Choir in part because I'm too old to keep going to karaoke bars, but because I also was missing community. My career is very satisfying. I have wonderful friends. But I was really missing being in community with other queer people in a really active way, not just accidentally running into people on the street or going to Pride once a year, but really being steeped in community. Portland Lesbian Choir is a non audition choir, so you do not need to have the best voice to join. We are as much about being in community as we are about singing, and the two things really build on each other. And if you're for listeners who go to church and sing gospel, you might understand what I'm talking about. It is that sort of powerful way of connecting through shared values and shared experiences. And the music that we perform is always around themes that are important to queer people by artists who celebrate queer people or are queer themselves as much as possible. Not all of it, obviously. And there are other choirs in town. If this floats your boat, there's Portland Gay Men's Chorus, Transpose PDX, Aurora Chorus, Bridging Voices, The Northwest Queer Chorus. There's lots of us out there joining for this kind of activity. And look, maybe you're not into singing. That's cool. But there are also other queer groups. And so build that community where you can to help you sort of counterbalance what may feel scary in other contexts, work being one of them. P.L.C. just debuted our spring show on YouTube. It's called The Roof and a Bed, and it features music that explores home and houselessness. We partner with Rose Haven, which is a women's shelter in Portland as well. If you don't want to sing with the choir, please check out our concerts. If you don't want to do that, maybe you can donate some money because we're a nonprofit and we're always looking for donations to help us keep going.

Lauren LeeOh, I love that you have that. It sounds like an incredible group. It's so cool that you found that. I live far away from your home in Miami, but I would love to see if there is one local here.

Melissa CasburnI guarantee you there's stuff in Miami. There's a lot of queer people in Miami.

Lauren LeeYeah, but it just sounds like a really neat way to gather and intentionally kind of cultivate community. And there's something really lovely about just singing collaboratively that fills, yeah, fills you up in a really incredible way.

Melissa CasburnIt does. It really does.

Ben FordThere's a lot of other community things you can get involved with. My partner and I used to run with a local group here called the Portland Front Runners. And one of the things that I loved about it is that they welcomed me into their life, into their group, to go run with them, even though I was more adjacent and I was just welcomed as one of the group. And it felt like a really good, safe space to just be and just be who you were, you know?

Melissa CasburnYeah. Another Portland resource, if you're here, is the Portland Bi Brigade, which is a group that they participate in, Pride. They do, well, in the before times when bars were open, they would do a bar meet up at one of the, well, there's not as many gay bars in Portland as there used to be, but they would do a meet up periodically at Krush, which is over in Southeast. Boy, do I miss the Egyptian room. If anybody listening ever want there. Big lesbian bar that used to be down on Division. Fantastic.

Lauren LeeWell. Thank you for sharing all of this, Melissa. Where can people find you online?

Melissa CasburnI am on Twitter semi regularly. My handle is at @mcasburn. I will be pushing an article to Medium shortly. That is about why I came out at work and stayed out, which will echo a lot of what we talked about here. And my Medium handle is @MelissaCasburn. And because the only thing about me is not my queerness, I'm also on Instagram. So if you like knitting and pictures of Labradoodles, you can find me there at @Melissacasburn.

Ben FordThat sounds awesome. I'll make sure to put links to all of those in the show notes. But thank you so much for sharing your story with us, Melissa. I love talking with you because you have so many incredible insights on just work and life and everything.

Melissa CasburnThank you, Ben. That is a very generous compliment and I appreciate it.

Lauren LeeIt was such a joy. Thank you both for having this conversation. And I believe that's a wrap for today. And once again, thanks for being here on Pulling the Strings podcast, powered by Puppet.