- Programming Pride: 10 LGBTQI+ Pioneers of Computer Science
- Sofia Kovalevskaya (1850-1891): Russian mathematician
- Alan Turing (1912-1954): English computer scientist, mathematician, and cryptanalyst
- Christopher Strachey (1916–1975): British computer scientist
- Peter Landin (1930–2009): British computer scientist
- Edith Windsor (b. 1929): IBM engineer and American LGBTQI+ rights activist
- Lynn Conway (b. 1938): American computer scientist
- Jon Hall (b. 1950): programmer, Executive Director of Linux International
- Sophie Wilson (b. 1957): British computer scientist
- Mary Ann Horton (b. 1955): American Usenet and Internet pioneer
- Audrey Tang (b. 1981): Taiwanese computer programmer
- Remember these 10 queer scientists who made history to celebrate the first-ever #LGBTSTEMDay
- 1. Leonardo da Vinci
- 2. Sir Francis Bacon
- 4. Florence Nightingale
- 5/6. Sara Josephine Baker and Louise Pearce
- 7. Alan Turing
- 8. Sally Ride
- 10. Ben Barres
Programming Pride: 10 LGBTQI+ Pioneers of Computer Science
In honor of Gay Pride and the anniversary of Stonewall, we‘re highlighting a group of pioneers of computer science: people who were (or are) lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.
As it turns out, there are many LGBTQI+ pioneers beyond Alan Turing and Apple CEO Tim Cook.
The 10 LGBTQI+ people profiled here are individuals whose life work and discoveries have played an integral role in the development of modern computer technology.
Of course, many of these individuals lived and worked in an era when social pressures (and even laws) required them to hide their true orientation or identity—which makes it all the more fitting that we celebrate them today. We’ve listed them chronologically by birthdate.
Sofia Kovalevskaya (1850-1891): Russian mathematician
Born in Moscow, Sofia Kovalevskaya was the first major Russian female mathematician, the first woman to work as an editor for a scientific journal, and a contributor to the development of the Cauchy–Kovalevskaya theorem.
Women at that time were not allowed to formally attend university, but Kovalevskaya was allowed to audit mathematics classes at the University of Heidelberg, Germany.
In 1874 she presented papers on topics such as partial differential equations, the dynamics of the rings of Saturn, and elliptic integrals. Kovalevskaya became the first woman in Europe to earn a doctorate in mathematics.
She later secured a position at Stockholm University with the help of Swedish mathematician Gösta Mittag-Leffler, whom she met through his sister, a woman with whom she had an intimate “romantic friendship” that lasted until Kovalevskaya’s death from influenza at the age of 41.
Alan Turing (1912-1954): English computer scientist, mathematician, and cryptanalyst
Generally regarded as the “father” of theoretical computing science and artificial intelligence, Alan Turing is the name that most often comes to mind when people think about an influential gay computer science pioneer.
His life story become even more well known thanks to the acclaimed 2014 film The Imitation Game.
A graduate of Cambridge and Princeton, Turing worked as a cryptanalyst during World War II, playing a key role in the development of a technique to decipher encrypted German messages, which helped the Allied forces defeat the Nazis.
After the war he worked at the National Physical Library in London, where he contributed to the Automatic Computing Engine (ACE) and developed the blueprint for stored-program computers.
In his later work at the University of Manchester he developed the idea of artificial computer intelligence, including proposing an experiment to test AI, which is still referred to today as the “Turing Test.” Turing’s life had a tragic ending: arrested and prosecuted for “gross indecency” when authorities discovered he was gay, he committed suicide by ingesting cyanide and died at the age of 41. Turing was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most important people of the 20th century.
Christopher Strachey (1916–1975): British computer scientist
Christopher Strachey was born in Hampstead, England, and his father worked alongside Alan Turing as a cryptographer at Bletchly Park during World War II.
Strachey studied mathematics and physics at Kings College, Cambridge, where he suffered a nervous breakdown during his third year (which his sister attributed to his struggles to come to terms with his homosexuality).
After an early career as a research physicist and teacher, Strachey developed a program in 1951 that allowed the Pilot Ace computer at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) and later the Manchester Mark 1 to play a game of draughts (checkers).
He also wrote one of the first computer music programs, which played “Baa Baa Black Sheep” on the Ferranti Mark 1. Strachey is also remembered as one of the developers of Combined Programming Language (CPL), an early precursor to the influential C programming language.
Peter Landin (1930–2009): British computer scientist
Born in Sheffield, England, Peter Landin studied mathematics at Clare College, Cambridge University, and for a time worked as Christopher Strachey’s assistant.
His insight that computer programs could be mathematical logic led to the development of programming languages that could be universally understood by different machines. He eventually became emeritus professor of theoretical computation at London’s Queen Mary College. Landin was married but was openly bisexual.
In the early 1970s he became involved with the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), and in the later part of his life became more and more devoted to gay rights activism.
Edith Windsor (b. 1929): IBM engineer and American LGBTQI+ rights activist
Edith “Edie” Windsor is best known as a gay rights activist who was the lead plaintiff in the landmark Supreme Court Case United States v.
Windsor, which overturned Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and led to the legalization of gay marriage.
What’s less well known is that Windsor was a computer programmer and an engineer, working with the UNIVAC at Combustion Engineering, Inc., and later at IBM in the 1950s and ’60s, eventually becoming a senior systems engineer.
Lynn Conway (b. 1938): American computer scientist
Lynn Conway is a pioneer of microelectronics chip design with an extraordinary life story. She attended both MIT and Columbia University, and in 1964 was recruited by IBM to work on a team building an advanced supercomputer.
While at IBM she transitioned from male to female, and was subsequently fired by the company in 1968 after revealing her intention to live as a woman.
Conway then began living with a new name and a new identity, and was forced to rebuild her career from scratch, going on to do important work at organizations including Memorex, Xerox PARC, and DARPA. In 2014 Time magazine named her one of the “21 Transgender People Who Influenced American Culture.”
Jon Hall (b. 1950): programmer, Executive Director of Linux International
Jon “Maddog” Hall got his nickname from his students at Hartford State Technical College, where he was head of the computer science department.
It was while working at Digital Equipment Corporation that Hall first became interested in Linux.
He was also executive director of Linux International, a nonprofit that sought to promote the use of Linux-based operating systems. In 2012, Hall came out as gay in an article published in Linux Magazine.
Sophie Wilson (b. 1957): British computer scientist
Sophie Wilson studied computer science at Cambridge University, and while on summer vacation she designed a microcomputer used to control feed for cows.
In the early days of her career she worked for Acorn Computers, where she contributed to the design of the Acorn System 1, an early 8-bit computer released in 1979, and later the BBC Micro, which proved hugely successful in the UK.
Wilson is best known for her development of the Acorn RISC Machine (ARM) processor, still used today in 21st century smartphones. Wilson is a transgender woman.
Mary Ann Horton (b. 1955): American Usenet and Internet pioneer
Mary Ann Horton earned her Ph.D. in computer science from Berkeley in 1981, where she contributed to the development of Berkeley UNIX, which led to the growth of the Usenet in the 1980s.
Horton is a transgender woman who, in addition to her contributions to technology, has also made significant contributions to transgender rights in the workplace.
In 1997 she asked her then employer Lucent Technologies to include the language “gender identity, characteristics, or expression” in its Equal Opportunity (EO) nondiscrimination policy, which led to Lucent becoming the first company in the United States to add transgender-inclusive language to its EO policy.
Audrey Tang (b. 1981): Taiwanese computer programmer
Born in Taiwan, Audrey Tang is a self-taught programmer who was learning Perl at the age of 12, launching a startup at 15, and already working in Silicon Valley by 19.
Something of a programming wunderkind, she's best known for leading the Pugs project to develop the Perl 6 language, starting the Perl Archive Toolkit (PAT), and her role as an outspoken advocate for free software and an open web.
A transgender woman, Tang currently devotes most of her energy to political activism and social causes.
If you are interested in learning more about this topic, be sure to check out the fascinating online series A Queer History of Computing by Jacob Gaboury, who is an Assistant Professor of Digital Media & Visual Culture at Stony Brook University.
Rainbow flag image courtesy of Shutterstock.com. Photos of Sofia Kovalevskaya, Alan Turing, Mary Ann Horton, and Audrey Tang all in the public domain.
This post was updated from a previous version published in June 2016.
Remember these 10 queer scientists who made history to celebrate the first-ever #LGBTSTEMDay
July 5, 2018 marks the first international celebration of LGBTSTEM Day, an initiative organised by a group of associations working to support LGBT+ rights in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM).
The days aims to bring visibility to LGBT+ scientists, more than 40 percent of whom remain closeted at work. According to the 2015 American Physical Society survey, nearly half of transgender or gender-non-conforming physicists experienced workplace harassment. LGBT students are also less ly to pursue a degree in STEM fields compared to their heterosexual peers.
“To solve the many diverse challenges humanity is facing in the twenty-first century we cannot afford losing people from minority backgrounds,” said Dr. Alfredo Carpineti, chair and founder of the British charity Pride in STEM—one of the main organisers of the initiative—in a press statement about the day.
The logo for the LGBTSTEM Day initiative (Image by Pride in STEM)
“LGBTSTEMDay won’t fix all the issues, but it will shine a big light on them. We are sure it will start conversations, and that’s so important. Ignorance kills. It is time to stop pretending that the STEM disciplines are not influenced by politics and social changes. Some science might be done in a physical vacuum, but no science is done in a historical one,” Dr. Carpineti added.
In occasion of the historic occasion, let’s remember 10 queer men and women in science who changed the world—a list by no means exhaustive, as many more LGBT+ scientists keep working every day to contribute to human knowledge.
Find the 10 possibly queer scientists listed below:
1. Leonardo da Vinci
The archetypal Renaissance man made significant contributions to various fields of the sciences and the arts—and lived his life as an openly gay man, according to Walter Isaacson’s recent biography of the artist and inventor.
2. Sir Francis Bacon
Sometimes referred to as the “the father of modern science” for developing the scientific method of investigating an hypothesis, Bacon was also a politician, a philosopher and a jurist.
His fellow member of parliament Sir Simonds D’Ewes, a puritan, outed Bacon in his “Autobiography and Correspondence” in a passage that, according to gay history writer Rictor Norton, was suppressed from the book’s published version in 1845 and largely ignored by Bacon’s biographers.
The scientist who first understood how gravity works was known to be an introverted character who suffered from mental health issues.
He left no private diaries and little correspondence and, according to Oxford University’s Newton Project, it remains disputed whether the troubled scientist was a “repressed homosexual,” but “if true [this] would undoubtedly have placed a man of his background and upbringing under extreme mental strain.”
4. Florence Nightingale
Nightingale devoted her life to helping the sick and the poor, played a key role in helping wounded soldiers in the Crimean War and is referred to as the founder of modern nursing. A deeply religious woman and an icon of the Victorian era, her sexuality remains disputed—but a controversial BBC documentary in 2001 suggested the “Lady with the Lamp” was a repressed lesbian.
5/6. Sara Josephine Baker and Louise Pearce
The two American women both made huge contributions to public health, and knew each other.
Baker, a doctor, devoted her career fighting infant mortality in New York’s poorest neighbourhoods, while Pearce helped develop a treatment for a deadly African sleeping sickness through her work as a pathologist at the Rockefeller Institute. The two women lived together with author and scriptwriter Ida A.
R. Wylie, who reportedly self-identified as a “woman-oriented woman.” The three women were all members of Heterodoxy, a feminist luncheon club whose membership was largely made up of lesbian or bisexual women.
7. Alan Turing
A well-known mathematician, Turing’s ingenious invention of the Enigma machine allowed to decode Nazi Germany’s secret communications, playing an instrumental role in the Allies’ victory of World War II. His namesake Turing machine is considered a model of a general purpose computer, serving as a predecessor of modern-day computers.
But despite his history-making contributions, Turing fell victim of British laws criminalising homosexuality when he acknowledged a relationship with another man as part of a police investigation into a burglary at his home. To avoid going to prison and continue his work, he was made to undergo a hormonal treatment that made him impotent and caused gynaecomastia.
He killed himself two years later, in 1954.
8. Sally Ride
Ride was the first American woman to travel to space and remains the youngest US citizen to claim that achievement.
An engineer and a physicist as well as an astronaut, she married fellow NASA space traveller Steve Hawley in 1982, but the two divorced five years later.
After her death in 2012, it was revealed she had spent the previous 27 years of her life in a relationship with her childhood friend Tam O’Shaughnessy, a professor emerita of school psychology at San Diego State University and a science writer.
Dr. Sally Ride, the first American woman to travel into space, speaks to the media at the San Diego Aerospace Museum February 7, 2003 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)
Clayton was a physicist by profession and a long-time trans rights advocate with the organisation Press for Change. She was known internationally for her work in the fields of Nuclear Criticality Safety and Health Physics, and held several leadership roles in organisations focusing on atomic weapons.
According to the LGBT History Month’s website, Clayton transitioned without medical support after suffering traumatic experiences from physicians. She promoted trans rights in the workplace through her work with the UK Trades Union Congress (TUC) and was involved in the development of the 2004 Gender Recognition Act.
She was awarded the title of Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 2006 for her services to gender issues.
10. Ben Barres
A neurobiologist at Stanford University, Barres’ pioneering work helped uncover how the human brain functions.
An advocate for marginalised minorities in academia, Barres transitioned in his late 40s and, in 2013, became the first openly trans man to be offered membership of the prestigious National Academy of Science.
Describing the sexist and transphobic attitudes he faced in the scientific community in an interview to the New Republic in 2014, Barres said: “People who don’t know I am transgender treat me with much more respect,” he says. “I have had the thought a million times: I am taken more seriously.”
In his obituary in December 2017, the university said Barres’ research on the brain’s glial cells “revolutionised the field of neuroscience.