[I solicited essays from gay and lesbian colleagues on the occasion of the Turing centennial, and I was (pleasantly) surprised when Oded Goldreich offered a contribution too. Oded's essay is not very specific to the academic or computer science community, and he talks about topics that are probably "obvious" to gays and lesbians. On the other hand, maybe they are not so obvious to some readers, and so Oded's piece might be a good "introduction" to the posts that will comes later. On this note, you may also want to read this week's unusually good modern love piece. -- L.T]
I decided to contribute to this discussion of gays and lesbians (or rather LGBT) in academia (or rather in TCS/TOC) nowadays, because I think it will be wrong if only gay and lesbian colleagues will write about it. While I agree that this topic has more immediate implication on their life, it is a central social issue and as such it affects the life of each human and each human should be interested in it. The latter claim can be phrased in several ways including “nothing that is human is alien to me” and “no one is free while others are oppressed.”
I wish to address three related aspects of the topic, which I’ll call the “practical/life” aspect, the “cultural” aspect, and the “political” aspect. I consider all that I am about to say quite obvious and well-known (at least in some circles), but still believe that obvious things ought to be stated too.
THE PRACTICAL/LIFE ASPECT.
In a society that subscribes to ideologies that range between individualism to liberalism and humanism, a person’s sexual orientation should not be a social issue. But, of course, we know that this is and has been an issue in such societies, which demonstrates that these societies were and are far from what they pretend to be. In particular, severe forms of explicit oppression were a significant part of the life realities of LGBTs for several centuries, and softer forms of implicit oppression are still effecting the life of LGBT nowadays.
While it is true that attitudes towards LGBT have improved significantly in some societies and in some social groups, it is important to remember that (1) they improved less in other societies, (2) softer forms of oppression are still existing even in more progressive societies, and (3) the shadow of past centuries of oppression is not easy to brush off overnight.
THE CULTURAL ASPECT.
Historically, LGBT gave rise to a sub-culture (or a counter-culture), which has been very inspiring and carried a great emancipatory potential (in addition to being great fun and full of beauty). Let me use the term “queer culture” and align myself with it; that is, I view myself as queer. Let me also clarify that LGBT people are not necessarily queer nor should they be required to be queer. Still, I think I am allowed to advocate the queer culture.
The queer culture has great emancipatory potential because it is rooted in central aspects of its members lives and it couples these personal aspects with a rejection of some “dead” and dysfunctional aspects of the mainstream culture (e.g., the domination of instrumental rationalism (*) and the total division between life, beauty, and ideas). In other words, I am talking about a combination of a form (or culture) of life and a revolt against the existing order (and in particular its oppressive aspects). Indeed, this combination is a bridge between the personal and the political.
(*) By “instrumental rationality” I refer to confining rationality to low-level calculations of ends, while forgetting that a deeper sense of rationality calls for a critical reflection of the ends and purposes (rather than the non-critical and absent-minded conforming and adoptation of ends suggested by others). This is not unrelated to accepting a total division between real life on one hand, and ideas and beauty on the other hand, which makes life poor and the ideas and beauty deteched.
THE POLITICAL ASPECT.
The politics of LGBT face two possibilities. The first possibility is to join a coalition of oppressed people, which must include also the economically oppressed, and contribute to a deep social change in society. This is not an easy choice, because homophobic attitudes tend
to strive among the oppressed (since the dominant social groups promotes oppression, hatred, and fear among the oppressed themselves).
The second possibility is to focus on promoting its own interests, and remain neutral with respect to other forms of oppression. This is the easy choice, since the dominant social groups encourage the creation of various special interest groups that attempt to promote specific issues while not challenging the basic structures of society.
THE TOC/TCS ASPECT.
This brings us back to the life aspect, and my impression is that the TOC/TCS community is relatively LGBT-friendly. One may say that not being identified as gay, I would not have experienced negative reactions, but on the other hand it allows me to monitor what “straight” people say of gays. Recall that some LGBT are “out” in the TOC, and yet I never heard anything negative being said about this.