I met Teagan about three years ago. She had just graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University with a compelling thesis on the representation of transgender women in film. After moving back to the Left Coast, she started learning computer programming languages on her own and in Bay Area coding collectives.
Teagan recently hit the news with several articles on REFUGE restrooms, a new open source app that allows users to find safe, accessible, single-stall, and gender-neutral public restrooms. The Advocate, Huffington Post, Autostraddle each picked up the story, and we managed to speak amidst the buzz despite internet woes, a broken cell phone, and other technological conspiracies.
I’m proud to help Teagan and the REFUGE restroom app team share a word about their work.
KM: With everything that’s going on, how are you?
TW: Overwhelmed! But that’s been this week. Other than my phone breaking today, I’m doing great.
I can imagine. Did all the attention just rush at you this week or has it been climbing over the last few months?
Just this week. Posting it on my Facebook originally started it.
You must have either a lot of friends or a lot of well-connected friends. That’s great for the app and for the community grapevine!
I just posted the working basic version after the hackathon. After I posted it on Twitter and Facebook, it started to spread virally, and a friend who works for the Advocate messaged me to set up an interview.
And you’ve been coding the app quietly on github?
Yes, since November. I’ve been coding it on my lunch breaks and free time. I started learning how to code in September. This is my first application.
That’s incredible progress. Why is it important to you to do this project in this way?
I used the old safe2pee database back early in my transition to help me find bathrooms. It was an incredibly valuable resource.
But safe2pee has been defunct for a while now.
Right. I realized this a few months back, and saw the need.
What about people who don’t have access to smartphones? Will they also be able to access REFUGE restrooms in some way or is it going to stay a web/mobile database for now?
It’ll be a mobile/web database at the moment, but with funding and time I hope to build a system where you can text your address to a number and get the nearest 3 restrooms.
That would be awesome! A text-access option would make your team’s work available to even more community members. How many people are coding with you at the moment?
You’ve spoken a lot about the safe2pee database and using that to populate REFUGE restrooms. Were there any gaps in that data? What kind of data do you still need?
More data is always good. But the majority of the safe2pee data is focused in metropolitan centers so more rural areas would be an incredible help for folks. There are some international listings, but that’s a place for growth too. As of right now we have about 5,100 listings.
If people want to contribute data points re. safe and/or accessible bathrooms around the US, how should they do that?
They can add new bathrooms directly on the REFUGE restrooms site; there is a link on the home page.
Why did you and the team choose to make the app a copyleft, open source project?
For one, I think the app should be a completely free thing. I don’t really want to make money from it. If I’m able to get a job because of this work, that will be awesome. I’m finding that I might have to do some fundraising because the work on the site could be full-time work at this point. I want to finish developing it and do it right.
Also, if a project is open source, that does two things. It allows people to read my code, and that can act as a portfolio for me in some ways. It also allows other people to help. I’ve been working on the project largely by myself. I’ve convinced a few friends to help, but there is so much more work to be done, and other people are going to have some great ideas about how to contribute and make it the best possible resource. Open source allows for that.
Open source also allows people to take the code and build from it and create their own sites. I’ve already talked to somebody who wants to make a similar site to index restaurants for people with food allergies and provide information about possible allergens.
That’s potentially life saving. How important is it to you that this resource be a community project, something that trans + gender non-conforming communities, wider LGBTQ communities, and tech communities can all participate in?
I think the topic lends itself to community building. The goal is to provide as many safe places for people as possible. That’s a community goal. As much as this is my project, it’s also a resource the community needs: it’s a community project. The majority of the help so far has been from LGBTQ tech people or tech allies. I finished the bulk of the work this past weekend at the One Web For All hackathon.
Support from the programming / tech world would be huge: they bring an expertise that I don’t have. I’m a beginner at this, I’m still learning, and I want to learn from whoever is willing to teach me. Ideally I’d love to get into a programming intensive course and spend three months working on just code, preparing myself to have a job in the industry.
What do you think it’s important for readers to understand about REFUGE restrooms? You’ve created something of value with skill here.
I think it’s important for them to understand the context of safe bathroom access and violence against trans people—why we need this. At the same time, we’re too often framed as a tragedy in the media, and that needs to change.
Absolutely. So if someone now reads about you and wants to take supportive action, what are 3 things you’d like them to do?
1. Visit the REFUGE restroom website, and add to the database.
2. Spread the word. The more word is spread, the more people who need it can use the resource.
3. Donate to my Gittip page to help me move to part-time hours at work and do more development on the app.
Excellent. Congratulations, Teagan, and thanks for talking with me today!
Support Teagan and REFUGE restrooms by checking out REFUGE restrooms and dropping the team some fiscal encouragement through Teagan’s gittip page. Also like the REFUGE community on Facebook, and get regular updates on the app’s progress on Tumblr.