[Sampath Kannan is best known for his work on program checking (which was introduced in a joint paper of Sampath and Manuel Blum), computational biology and streaming algorithms, and also for his outstanding service to the computer science theory community, first at NSF and now at the Simons Foundation. He has contributed a personal and deeply felt post to this series.]
I discovered Turing the mathematician long before Turing the gay man. Growing up in India in the pre-internet era, Turing’s story, had I known it, would have probably sparked an earlier awakening. It didn’t help that neither our field, nor the philosophical milieu of my upbringing encouraged me to pay attention to sensory perceptions and emotional reactions to them – I couldn’t, imagine being a physicist, although others who grew up in the same circumstances have gone on to do exactly that. However, I have had a growing realization that acknowledging one’s own perceptions and reactions is important for one’s happiness and well-being. Given all the obstacles that people face to discovering who they truly are, it is important that there are more positive role models for them to look to.
Of course things have changed a lot over the last three decades. Our field, most universities in the west, and IT workplaces are friendly places for LGBT people. The way we view Turing’s personal life is evidence of this change. My own university was one of the earliest to set up an LGBT center, way back in 1982. It was also one of the first to offer domestic partner benefits and most recently, in a symbolically important gesture, it decided to “gross up”, i.e., to pay LGBT people more to offset the tax disadvantages they suffer on benefits to their partners. While Penn is on the leading edge of some of these changes, it seems clear that this is a trend that will sweep universities and research labs. Thus fear of the reaction at the workplace need no longer be a reason for people coming out of the closet.
There still remain the other obstacles – personal and social – and these are not so easy to overcome, especially for the many non-westerners in our field. How much of an embrace does one need from one’s friends and family? Or is acceptance in some form good enough? How does one withstand the pressure to marry? The homophobia of peers in school and college? In my time the elite technology institutes in India were male-dominated and unthinkingly homophobic. But here too things may be improving – a gay and lesbian group is thriving at IIT Bombay and it is celebrating its first birthday with more than 100 members, a majority of them on campus! Perhaps concomitantly, the number of female students on these campuses is increasing as well.
If only Turing were alive today …