Last night I was reading the book Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software by Steven Johnson. (Thanks for lending it to me Justin!) I’m only a few chapters in but I learned something really important about the history of computers. Alan Turing, the father of modern computer science, was gay. I mention this not in shock or surprise but in pride. I think it’s wonderful. I’m just really concerned that I’m just now learning this. Maybe it’s because I never researched it. Maybe it’s because people don’t talk or write about it. Well, I’m going to write about it.
I feel that the public history of computer science is incomplete. When we teach the history of computer science or even just talk about it online we need to mention the details of peopleâ€™s lives. Why? Details inform their work. They give us a fuller image of the men and women we respect and admire. They give us something to connect with. I know that you can be great at what you do no matter your sexual preference, gender, or race – but these things do make a difference. We need to celebrate our uniqueness. Especially freedom loving computer geeks. 🙂
The fact is the majority of geeks online are men – white, heterosexual, men. Not all geeks are men, but a majority are. (Once I have the data to prove this I’ll link to it. But a safe theory I believe.) I happen to be a heterosexual male and am ashamed of this majority I belong to.
The age of hetero male geeks ranges from early teens to senior adults. Sadly many guy geeks where once nerdy teenagers that were uncomfortable with their own sexuality. Young geeks can be pretty immature about sexuality online. Could this contribute to the lack of mainstream discussion of gayness among computer geeks?
While researching the Alan Turing some more I discovered that right before his death he was convicted by Britian’s discriminatory anti-gay law known as,
gross indecency under Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885. Turing was unrepentant and was convicted. [Why the hell should he repent?] Although he could have been sent to prison, he was placed on probation, conditional on him undergoing hormonal treatment designed to reduce libido. He accepted the oestrogen hormone injections, which lasted for a year, with side effects including the development of breasts. His conviction led to a removal of his security clearance and prevented him from continuing consultancy for GCHQ on cryptographic matters.
This is so incredibly sad. Imagine how many MORE wonderful accomplishments for humanity Turing could have given if he wasn’t harassed, tortured, and possibly murdered. How disrespectful it is to have treated him this way. No man or woman should be treated this way – no matter the time or place. But for such a person who has given our planet so much to be treated this way is difficult to comprehend. We need to make sure that all history books discuss sexuality – and other things – relating to historic people while teaching their accomplishments. To hell with don’t ask don’t tell!
More interesting information from Wikipedia about Turing:
In 1954, he died of cyanide poisoning, apparently from a cyanide-laced apple he left half-eaten. The apple itself was never tested for contamination with cyanide, and cyanide poisoning as a cause of death was established by a post-mortem. Most believe that his death was intentional, and the death was ruled a suicide. It is rumored that this method of self-poisoning was in tribute to Turing’s beloved film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. His mother, however, strenuously argued that the ingestion was accidental due to his careless storage of laboratory chemicals. Friends of his have said that Turing may have killed himself in this ambiguous way quite deliberately, to give his mother some plausible deniability. The possibility of assassination has also been suggested, owing to Turing’s involvement in the secret service and the perception of Turing as a security risk due to his homosexuality.
In the book, Zeroes and Ones, author Sadie Plant speculates that the rainbow Apple logo with a bite taken out of it was an homage to Turing. This seems to be an urban legend as the Apple logo was designed in 1976, two years before Gilbert Baker’s rainbow pride flag.
From now on I’ll always think about Turing and his accomplishments when I see the rainbow Apple logo. It’s design may have not been intentionally symbolic but in my mind it is forever repurposed. Here’s to Alan Turing’s accomplishments! Cheers!