The tech industry we work in now, while still learning its ways, is one where an openly LGBTQ+ person such as Tim Cook or Peter Thiel can rise to the top of a huge international company. This wasn’t always the case, and in previous years, many LGBTQ+ people had to hide their true selves for fear of persecution or prosecution. To mark Pride 2022, we wanted to share with you some of our LGBTQ+ technology heroes.
If you’ve seen a British £50 note in the last year or so, you may have noticed it no longer contains steam age inventors Watt and Boulton, but Alan Turing. Turing is widely recognised as a genius and one of the fathers of computing and cryptography. Equally important to his story, though, is the fact that he was an openly gay man, persecuted and prosecuted in his lifetime by the country which he served so loyally.
Alan Turing was born in 1912, and his intelligence was obvious from a very early age. He gained a degree in maths from Cambridge, followed by a PhD from Princeton in 1938. The work he is most famed for today, however, took part during the Second World War and remained unknown to the public for the rest of his life. Operating from Bletchley Park, Turing turned his powerful cryptographic mind to finding better ways to crack German secret codes, including the infamous Enigma machine. The work and insight Turing provided during this time played a vital role in helping defeat the Nazis.
Alan Turing also did very important work within the early development of artificial intelligence, and gave his name to the Turing test (though he referred to it as ‘the imitation game’). To pass the test, which has become especially important in the development of AI in recent years, a computer must be able to have a conversation with a human in which the latter can’t tell if they’re speaking to a human or computer.
Unfortunately, Alan Turing’s ground-breaking work was overshadowed during his lifetime by his prosecution for homosexuality in 1952, when it was still illegal in the United Kingdom. After he was convicted, Turing elected to avoid a prison term by agreeing to ‘chemical castration’ to remove any sexual urges he may have had. Sadly, only two years later, Turing was found dead at his home. The official cause was suicide from eating a cyanide-laced apple (perhaps after his favourite film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs) but there have also been theories it was accidental.
Incredibly, despite homosexuality being legalised in the UK in 1967, Turing’s conviction remained in place until a petition was raised in 2009 demanding Turing be pardoned. This resulted in the Queen officially announcing a pardon in 2014, and led to the Alan Turing law, which retroactively pardons gay men convicted under the old laws.
That Turing is now on a national banknote recognises not just the hugely important work he did in cryptography and artificial intelligence, but also symbolises changing attitudes towards LGBTQ+ people in society and government. So many things we take for granted now in technology may not have been possible without Alan Turing and his research.
Lynn Conway is a pioneer in many ways, both in computer research and as a transgender rights activist. She grew up suffering from gender dysphoria – a feeling of distress that the gender she felt wasn’t the same as the one she was assigned at birth. Despite this affecting her studies, she earnt two degrees and a job as a researcher at IBM in 1964. Unfortunately, due to the climate of the time, they sacked her when she transitioned a few years later (they apologised for this in 2020). This, while deeply unfair, led to her joining Xerox PARC, where she helped create the VLSI microchip revolution that led to the computing explosion of the 1980s. She has also worked steadfastly to improve conditions for transgender people in technology.
Sally Ride was not just the third woman and first female NASA astronaut in space, making her initial launch in 1983, but also a professor of physics, and the first known LGBTQ+ astronaut. Sally Ride went into space twice, another first for a woman astronaut, and after her retirement returned to academia, as well as being president of since and space website, space.com. Ride, who sadly died ten years ago this month, chose to keep her sexuality private during her lifetime. Since her death she has been honoured with a ship named after her, as well as a landing site on the moon, a Google Doodle, a postage stamp and her face on a coin – another first for an LGBTQ+ person!
Angelica Ross has followed a career path that could best be described as inspiringly unusual. As a child, before she transitioned but having already come out as gay (it didn’t go down well with her religious parents) she joined the US Navy. Sadly, this didn’t last due to bullying, and back home with help from a friend she started her transition. Ross made her acting debut in 2005, which built into regular roles in the critically acclaimed Pose and American Horror Story, a first for a transgender woman actor. Alongside her acting career, Angelica Ross is a self-taught coder and CEO of TransTech Social Enterprises, a company set up to foster skills in the tech sector, especially for trans people.
Describing herself as an “out, queer person of colour”, Nergis Mavalvala is best known within the tech community for her work in astrophysics, and in particular for her involvement with the earliest observation of gravitational waves (ripples in the curvature of spacetime, to simplify massively). Born in Pakistan, Mavalvala grew up in a family where education was encouraged and gender stereotypes weren’t encouraged. She eventually moved to the US to study, and is now dean of the MIT School of Science. She’s won numerous awards for her work in both the USA and Pakistan, where she’s honoured as an inspiration for Pakistani scientists.