Turing Centennial Post 1: Irit Dinur

[Irit Dinur is one of the leading complexity theorists of my (or any) generation, and she is best known for her work on probabilistically checkable proofs, including her combinatorial proof of the PCP theorem. I am very thankful for her post below. — L.T.]

Turing’s tragic story — quite a disturbing trigger for talking about being gay in the TCS community. On one hand his story seems so distant and different from how things are for me today, but on the other hand, it is scary to think how recently it all took place; how closely related today’s culture is to that of Turing’s time, both scientifically and socially.

The fact is, that being gay in the TCS community is so easy and natural that I usually just don’t think about it. Sure, it would have been nice if there were a few more lesbians around; it would have been nice to not be the only one (that I know) in any workshop/conference/TCS event I’d ever been to. Even among the “gay colleagues” that Luca mentioned, being a woman makes me a minority within a minority. But I can’t really pin that on the TCS community. Our community has always felt like a very liberal and accepting place. Perhaps because many of us grew up as geeks, there’s a strong sense of resisting the exclusion of minorities in general.

In fact, my biggest sense of “coming-home” was not when I first started to go to gay parties or events, but when I first started undergrad as a math and CS major. That’s when I felt this amazing sense of being in the right place, and having lots of “my type” of friends. In that sense I align first with the TCS community and only then am I gay.

Writing this blog post made me want to talk to some gay and lesbian colleagues to hear their perspective and experiences. Can you guess how many of those there are? In all of Weizmann (not only CS) the number of gay colleagues that I am aware of is — zero. Perhaps it’s just me being clueless, but somehow I would have expected an institution with 250 faculty members to have more out gay people than that. Is it the age distribution? Among academic faculty the older generation is more dominant (percentage wise) than in other workplaces, and gay people in Israel were much more ”closeted” 10-15 years ago. If so, then hopefully this will naturally change within the next few years. I also hope that if more of us are more visibly out, this will help too.

The one area of life where my career and my being gay have been incompatible is when it comes to relocation. It is an integral and required part of our career path to spend some years abroad, often in the US, for postdoc, and later again for sabbaticals (although not mandatory at that stage). Many people don’t realize that being gay means that my partner and not-yet-legally-adopted children cannot get a J2 visa into the US on my behalf, which is how most non-gay scientists travel abroad with their families. This makes postdocs and later sabbaticals in the US much more difficult to arrange. I have been very fortunate to have gotten a lot of help from my TCS friends/colleagues, making my current sabbatical possible. I’m hoping that by the time for my next sabbatical this won’t even be necessary.

16 thoughts on “Turing Centennial Post 1: Irit Dinur

  1. Very interesting, especially the last paragraph. I didn’t realize how difficult it was for gay people to bring their families to other countries.

  2. Hi Irit,

    Thank you for your post.

    I had previously decided that the gay rights issue that most directly affects my acquaintances and friends (in the academic community) is that of immigration and naturalization. I understand that this may be a personal question, but I was wondering regarding your situation: are there legal things that you, your partner, and your children may do but have not done (whether in Israel or the United States) that would help with travel?

  3. The Defense of Marriage Act (DoMA), signed into law by president Clinton, recognizes only marriage between a man and a woman as valid for Federal purposes, and the USCIS only recognizes families based on marriage.

    So if Adele and Eve are married in New York, and Adele is an American citizen but Eve is not, then tough luck for Eve. There are actually a number of “love exiles”, American citizens who live abroad because it’s the only way to be with their spouse, including a friend of mine from San Francisco who now lives in London. (He tells me that, when it’s foggy, you can’t tell the difference.)

    There is proposed legislation to change this, and apparently the Department of Justice is slowing down deportations of spouses of American citizens in anticipation of a possible repeal of DoMA.

    Another consequence of DoMA: say Adam is a freelancer or a stay-at-home dad, and he is married to Steve in Iowa; Steve’s company provides health insurance to Adam. The IRS takes the position that this is a taxable benefit because Adam and Steve are strangers. Microsoft has started reimbursing married gay employees for the extra taxation.

    For similar reasons, while Adam and Steve file their Iowa state taxes jointly, they have to file their federal taxes individually. This gets tricky because on the federal form you want to deduct the state taxes that you paid individually, but wait, you did not! (There is a fix, I forgot how it works, but it’s very complicated.)

  4. Thank you Irit for writing, and Luca as well for the fascinating (and pretty horrifying, I must admit) comment. I do agree with Irit that the TCS community, and other academic communities that I know, seem tolerant to various minorities or “outsider group” (so much so that it feels odd to talk about “minorities” in that context) and I am grateful for that. I do feel quite confident that legal barriers or lack of acceptance of homosexuals will proceed according to the same pattern as legal barriers and lack of acceptance of African-Americans: segregation of homosexuals will be viewed, in 20 years, just like segregation of African-Americans is viewed today.

    One comment: I find it hard to believe that in the whole faculty of Weizmann Institute there are no out gay people. I would suspect that this is simply because this is such a non-issue that it is not even seen as good material for gossip. Thus, the only way for Irit to learn about it would be to actually know the person closely enough to know about their partners. To wit, I was a PhD student in an Israeli University, and I only learned that one of the faculty members was gay towards the end of my stay there: it never came up simply because it is perceived as such a non-issue in academic circles.that there would be no context in which it would come up, Thankfully, I think that this is the direction the rest of society is going, and that in a few decades, gays would be no more a “minority” than red-haired people are. We, as a society, owe a debt of gratitude for that to LGBT activists, pasty and present. (The fight is far from finished, of course, and there is a lot of ground left to win, although I do hazard a guess, as I noted above, that it is only a matter of time.)

  5. I did argue with Irit, in private, about the meaningfulness
    of her LGBT count at Weizmann (witing a total of 250)
    and at CS in Israel (within a total we estimated at 150).
    Indeed, I also don’t know of other LGBT faculty at Weizmann,
    but I know of two other LBGTs in TOC/TCS-in-Israel.
    In each case, the total seems low, but is it extremely low?
    I’m not sure.

    But, indeed, it may be that we are not “well informed”.
    For example, I belong to the “childfree minority”,
    but I don’t know the size of this minority in the general Israeli
    population nor do I know of any other childfree person in these sets
    (i.e., Weizmann at large and CS-in-Israel). What does it mean?


  6. On a related statistical note, I recently read a piece claiming that the popular 10% figure, popularized by the Kinsey report, is in fact wrong, in that there are much fewer than 10% homosexuals in society. I didn’t delve into the details, so I recommend taking this, as any statistical piece, with a grain of salt:

    In a related note, here is another statistical piece, this time about the amount of people in the US that believe in intelligent design or a young earth (hint: it’s higher than you think; not for the faint of heart). This might be off-topic, but then again, maybe not:

  7. (just speculating here)
    Perhaps the reason you don’t know any other gay faculty is that
    the older ones are closeted still (out of habbit?)- so they don’t talk about it, and the younger ones think its as consequential as having blue eyes-
    so they don’t talk about it. So the sllence could be from both directions.

  8. Irit – I fully agree that it is easier for gay people today than 15 years ago, and certainly in comparison to Turing’s day. However, I think your experiences as a normative-feminine-mother lesbian do not reflect those of butch lesbians. Men are much less tolerant of us, and computer scientists are usually men.

  9. To last anonymous: I am not Irit, but I’ll answer nonetheless. First, on what do you base the statement that Irit’s experience is as a “normative-feminine-mother lesbian”? This seems to me like a rather inflammatory remark. Are we starting to categorize people on a butchness (or “normativeness”) scale now? And where does the boundary between femme and butch lie on this scale? Second, the logic of your last sentence is odd. Suppose men are typically less tolerant to butch lesbians (I share this impression), and I agree that a significant majority of TCSers are men (unfortunately), but does that mean that TCSers are less tolerant, or, in fact, intolerant, towards butch lesbians? At least on this blog I expect it to be obvious that this logic is fallacious, even just for basic statistical reasons.

    Finally, I have not personally witnessed any lesbian in TCS that gets any different treatment because they are lesbian, but I am male so I am aware that I may not have noticed it, and/or that I might not be able to easily notice it. Since you are anonymous anyway, could you perhaps share with us some details? It is understandable if you do not, but I for one will be happy to learn.

  10. Thanks, Irit for this post.
    I found your insight about “coming home” to the math and cs community both touching and amusing.
    I wonder if some time in the future there will be support groups for closeted youth with mathematical tendencies, who are ashamed of being attracted to math.

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  14. Thank you for your openness, Irit! Knowing that there is a lesbian professor in TCS makes me feel less alone, even if there is no discrimination in the community. Being the only woman in a group can be lonely enough already.

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