National program prioritizes LGBTQ digital equity

  • by J.L. Odom
  • Wednesday May 15, 2024
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People work at a center that participates in PowerOn. Photo: Courtesy LGBT Tech
People work at a center that participates in PowerOn. Photo: Courtesy LGBT Tech

For LGBTQ people, access to the internet and devices such as smartphones and computers can have a significant impact on their lives. The devices enable them to connect with social and support groups, and find information about queer-friendly establishments, companies with anti-discrimination policies, and gender identity and affirming care.

But for many in the LGBTQ community, such access is hard to come by due to the digital divide.

LGBT Tech, a research-centered nonprofit based in Staunton, Virginia, is on a mission to address this issue with its national program "PowerOn."

"We see the importance in general of technology and its role in the world today, but especially for our LGBTQ community and the unique ways that our community uses technology," Kristen Kelley, LGBT Tech's director of programs, said in a Zoom video call with the Bay Area Reporter.

Launched in 2015, the program takes the digital divide by its inequitable horns by supporting the specific technology-related needs of LGBTQ organizations and individuals, offering grants for technology access and tools.

To date, the PowerOn program has distributed over $400,000 worth of technology and over 2,000 devices to the LGBTQ+ community, and has reached nearly 400,000 LGBTQ+ individuals in need of technology, according to the PowerOn website.

LGBT Tech was founded in 2013 by Christopher Wood, a gay man who is the organization's executive director; ever since, it's been a think tank when it comes to identifying and addressing LGBTQ technology limitations and gaps.

Kristen Kelley is LGBT Tech's director of programs. Photo: Courtesy LGBT Tech  

Kelley explained the organization's history.

"Our organization started out doing a lot of work around advocacy and education, of the intersections of technology and the LGBTQ+ community. Through that work, we started working in the space of the digital divide for LGBTQ individuals, [with the] understanding that our communities are often faced with lots of different barriers, such as systemic economic disenfranchisement," said Kelley.

Based on its IRS Form 990 for 2022, LGBT Tech has a budget of about $1,124,209. Most of its funding appears to come from grants, according to the document. Wood's total compensation is $180,198.

PowerOn program supporters include Apple, AT&T, Comcast NBCUniversal, Google, and Meta.

Kelley, who is bisexual/pansexual, queer, and nonbinary/female/gender fluid, oversees the PowerOn program and network of partner centers in 30-plus U.S. states and territories. There are currently 107 PowerOn partner centers throughout the U.S., with 12 total in California, including The Center for Sexuality & Gender Diversity in Bakersfield.

"We are incredibly grateful for our partnership with LGBT Tech and the PowerOn program. The support has allowed us to build and enhance our technological capabilities and empowered us to make a more profound and more meaningful impact in the lives of the individuals we serve," wrote Jesús Martell Gonzalez, executive director of the CSGD, in an email to B.A.R.

Gonzalez, a gay man, commented that since the CSGD is in rural Kern County, they've faced certain challenges in terms of reaching LGBTQ community members.

"Serving the 2SLGBTQIA+ population here often means navigating vast distances and sparse resources, which can limit our reach and impact," he wrote.

The PowerOn technology that CSGD has received has helped González and fellow staff better connect with LGBTQ individuals living in remote areas; he described the technology as "transformative."

"It has enabled us to significantly expand our virtual programming, making our services more accessible than ever before. This shift to digital platforms means that we can now connect with individuals across the entire county, many of whom might not have had the opportunity to engage with our support services due to geographical and transportation barriers," he shared.

Through connecting with centers such as CSGD, Kelley, and LGBT Tech have been able to determine how to best meet their needs.

"During the beginning of the pandemic, we were working with LGBTQ+ centers to start providing them with more technology that they could use in order to switch a lot of their programs to be virtual or hybrid. And throughout that, we saw that there really was a big need there, as a lot of grants that nonprofits can apply for don't allow you to purchase technology," Kelley said. "And so we began to provide that technology and fill that gap for the PowerOn centers that we work with."

David Heitstuman, executive director at the Sacramento LGBT Community Center, described the PowerOn grant as a "game-changer."

"It's helped bridge the digital divide, especially for youth experiencing homelessness or other economic challenges," he wrote in an email to B.A.R.

One program at the center that has reaped the benefits of PowerOn technology is the Economic Justice Program, which offers professional development and career counseling to LGBTQ and BIPOC individuals.

[T]hanks to PowerOn, we can better equip them with the technology they need to access valuable resources. This includes job searching tools, resume building platforms, and online educational opportunities. PowerOn is truly helping to uplift these individuals towards a brighter future," wrote Heitstuman, a gay man.

PowerOn technology has also impacted the center's ability to support LGBTQ+ youth and others in crisis.

"They can research local resources, apply for emergency aid, and stay connected with supportive peers — all crucial steps towards a more stable and hopeful future," he commented.

LGBT Tech's research on the technology landscape and the LGBTQ digital divide plays a key role in the PowerOn program's mission and offerings to partner centers in Bakersfield, Sacramento and elsewhere.

Shae Gardner is LGBT Tech's policy director. Photo: Courtesy LGBT Tech  

"We have a really fantastic feedback loop that we've managed to create that allows research to underscore everything — all the decisions we make in all the work that we provide — and that feedback loop involves research between our community centers, understanding what really is impacting the community, and then working within the industry with other civil organizations and companies. It gives us all the ability to marry that community with research and outreach that we have," Shae Gardner, a lesbian who is LGBT Tech's policy director, said in a Zoom video interview with the B.A.R.

Gardner is the author of LGBT Tech's "Beyond Binary: LGBTQ+ Rights in the Digital Landscape, a 22-page report published in January that examines the LGBTQ community's technology use and participation in the current U.S. digital landscape. It draws from previous LGBT Tech research as well as from sources such as the Human Rights Campaign, The Trevor Project, the Williams Institute, an LGBTQ think tank housed at UCLA School of Law, and the Federal Communications Commission.

"I really wanted to create a document that put that all into one place and that really showcased that, essentially, the work we are attempting to do is to make sure that the bigotry and discrimination that we see too often in the real world is not being replicated in digital spaces," Gardner said.

In a section of the report about access to technology, it reads, "Reliable access to connectivity and devices is one of the most powerful tools in ensuring economic and social empowerment."

It then calls attention to the digital divide: "LGBTQ Americans contend with income disparities, workplace bias and limited economic prospects, making dependable and affordable access to technology more important, yet often more difficult to find."

The PowerOn program and its offering of technology grants is a response to those research findings, and to that perceptible divide.

Once a year, the program accepts applications for a Community Tech Grant; any LGBTQ+ organization seeking technology to use in its centers can apply.

"Because we work with such a large number of LGBTQ-serving organizations, one thing that we really look at, and one thing that we're also understanding in terms of the reach and impact of the program, is the fact that there are so many different services that LGBTQ organizations are using the technology to provide," said Kelley. "Most of those organizations are providing services that are specific to the needs of their locality and their community in that location."

Centers' grant applications include requests in line with their available or planned services, such as technology for case managers to use for their casework, administrative-related technology such as printers for community outreach and desktop computers to create an accessible LGBTQ community space.

"One of the things that we saw as centers were switching their services either to completely virtual or hybrid was that there was actually an expanded reach, especially for organizations that serve rural communities. So folks who might have had to travel farther to reach that center were now able to be more easily integrated into its programs," Kelley said.

Once a center receives technology from PowerOn, they are considered a part of the program's network for life. They can continue to apply for additional technology in future Community Tech Grant application periods.

There's also the Individual Tech Grant, open a few times throughout the year and available for members of the LGBTQ community in need of access to technology for personal use, including devices such as smartphones, laptops, and tablets. Community members can apply for grants through PowerOn partner centers or other organizations that are working with the LGBTQ community, explained Kelley.

Those who have received assistance are grateful.

"The PowerOn grant has really impacted how I've been able to work as a consultant in media communications by building different graphics and designs for different nonprofits. Here in New York, I've been able to do work through this laptop that I've been given for organizations such as GLIT [Gay and Lesbians Living in a Transgender Society], Inc. and United Trans Creatives," MX Leo Williams, a nonbinary Individual Tech Grant recipient, stated in a PowerOn Instagram post.

In the video, they also commented that they intend to use the laptop to pursue a degree in communications.

The reach of PowerOn is discernible in social media testaments such as Williams' as well as in the numbers: According to the PowerOn website, in 2023, PowerOn technology was used by 100 people to complete schoolwork, 257 people to find stable housing, and 335 people to apply for a job.

Kelley shared that they've received a record-high number of 2024 Community Tech Grant applications — 110 — from LGBTQ organizations, with 79 of them being new (i.e., not already part of the PowerOn partner center network). There's an uptick in the number of individual tech grants as well. In 2023, the total number of submissions was 228; so far in 2024, in only the first of three rounds of applications, they've received 100.

"We're seeing it grow at an exponential rate, honestly, and I think a lot of that is due to the specific needs that we're meeting in regard to being able to supply devices for the centers to be able to do their work," Kelley said. "A lot of the time, we see centers, for example, that might not have a budget to be able to afford technology for their case manager, so people are using their personal computers and things like that or they might not have technology in the space for their clients to use. So I think we're meeting any need within that space."

With increased technology access comes the consideration of safety for the LGBTQ community, particularly during a time of anti-LGBTQ legislation at the state and federal levels, and prevalent anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and ideologies throughout the country.

Potential issues include data breaches, online harassment, and inadequate or altogether absent policies, as there's a lack of uniformity throughout the U.S. when it comes to LGBTQ+ protections and regulations.

"We really want to make sure that as we're distributing technology to the community, that they're also equipped with the knowledge in order to keep their information safe," said Kelley.

Data privacy and doxing are two major safety concerns for LGBTQ+ individuals, Kelley noted, as both involve the sharing of personal information.

"It's important to understand the role that things like that can play, especially for somebody who might be, for example, a trans person in a state where gender affirming care is being criminalized and what that could mean for them if their data was compromised in some way. And so that's been something that we've been really paying attention to," they said.

PowerOn partner centers currently have access to resources related to data privacy, digital skills and bridging the digital divide. Kelley shared that LGBT Tech also plans to publish a guidebook that provides information about online safety and cybersecurity for LGBTQ-serving nonprofits. There's a corresponding online resource hub in the works, as well, that's geared toward LGBTQ individuals, plus safety-related trainings planned throughout the year.

Gardner noted, "This is an election year, and given the sort of landscape for LGBTQ+ rights in the country, I think that the [LGBTQ] community is certainly going to be in focus as this election ramps up. I always like to remind people that the same issues that are impacting us in physical spaces are the same ones that can be replicated and brought over into digital ones."

"Digital spaces provide a level of access, safety and community that we too often do not have in the real world. For members of the LGBTQ+ community, access to information, resources, and visibility are things that keep them alive, and in an increasingly turbulent country, it only becomes more important to protect those spaces online," she added.

LGBT Tech's research on the LGBTQ community and technology is available at

For more information about the PowerOn grants, click here.

This story is part of the Digital Equity Local Voices Fellowship lab through News is Out. The lab initiative is made possible with support from Comcast NBCUniversal.

Updated, 5/16/24: This article has been updated to state that LGBT Tech's annual budget for 2022 is $1,124,209.

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