Turing Centennial Post 4: Luca Trevisan

It is late Spring in 2000, and I am to have lunch in New York with Ran Canetti and Ronitt Rubinfeld. Ronitt is already there, and Ran arrives a bit late and asks what we are talking about. “I told Ronitt that I am gay” I say. “Oh…” says Ran “Congratulations!

What Ran meant, of course, was not to congratulate me for being gay (I really can’t claim any credit), but for coming out, and I have to say that “congratulations” is, indeed, an excellent response. It is also representative of the general reaction that I have had from the computer science theory community over time: not just tolerance, not even acceptance but actual enthusiasm. At the time, however, I didn’t know that this was going to be the case.

Later that year, I moved to Berkeley. I wanted to talk to someone about their experience being out at Berkeley, and the best I could find was a colleague in the math department who had been out since the 1980s (“since before it was cool,” as a hipster would say) and he had a few interesting things to say. His work spanned math and economics, and he said that he felt much more accepted in the math community. His theory is that there are so many weird people in mathematics, that being gay barely registers as unusual. (It’s a lovely theory, but I don’t know if I buy it.)

At Berkeley I attended a few events organized by a campus association of gays and lesbians in science and engineering. The overwhelming majority of participants were from Chemistry, and I heard the theory that this is because Chemistry is a lot like cooking and gays like to cook. More plausibly, a very prominent professor in the Chemistry department was a lesbian who had been out for a long time, and a gay guy joined the faculty the same year that I did. Indeed, in the ten years that I spent at Berkeley there was a noticeable number of out theory graduate students, and very few in the rest of the department, completely out of proportion to the size of the theory group.

One year, I was teaching a large algorithms class, and one day a student asks to talk to me outside of office hours. After asking a few questions about the last couple of lectures, the conversation takes an odd turn

Student: “Professor, are you gay?”

Me [thinking about what I had been wearing to class]: “Well, yes, but what made you think that?”

Student: “You have a link to the Castro theater on your home page”

Me [thinking that most recently the Castro theater had played a restrospective of Godzilla movies] “???”

Student: “I am gay too”

Me: “Ok, what about it?” [Damn it! I should have said “CONGRATULATIONS!!”]

Student: “You are the first person I am telling this”

Amazingly, a young man who had grown up in California, in the 1990s and 2000s, and who was going to school at Berkeley, had no gay friends, and had nobody he felt safe talking to. The best he could find was a professor with a link to a repertoire movie theater on his home page. He wrote me some time later to say that he had told his roommate and many of his friends and that everybody had been very nice to him.

So where am I going with all these stories? This is not Turing’s time any more, and the livelihood of gay and lesbian theoreticians who don’t live in Iran is safe. But we could make things even better.

Academia in the United States and Western Europe is uniquely supportive of its gay and lesbian members, and the computer science theory community in particular is exceptionally good. Yet, each new generation of gay and lesbian theory students starts grad school without knowing it, and instead of “just” having to stress out about when they are going to have their first good result, if their latest paper is going to get in the next conference, what job they will find when they graduate, and so on, they also have to worry about how open to be about their personal life. Unless, that is, they get to know how greatly welcoming the theory community is going to be to them. And how do they get to know it? By seeing how comfortably out older grad students, postdocs and professors are, or, at the very least, by reading about it on the internet.

21 thoughts on “Turing Centennial Post 4: Luca Trevisan

  1. This is a very touching post. Thank you Professor! During my grad school life I kept having the feeling that the theory community is a faceless important person, who always rejects my papers, and someone who I cannot really talk to during conferences. Not true, at least here…

  2. Just had to drop by and say I love this post!! I recently replied the same way Ran did, to a friend / colleague who told me he is gay. Oh, the look on his face. He just had to repeat himself to make sure I heard it right. It’s so nice to know that “congratulations” is the standard response in our community.

  3. Beautiful post.
    I’m wondering if you found the same accepting environment in Italian academia too.

  4. Wonderful post! I’m personally glad to know this, since I’m also a gay theory grad student close to graduation and weighing my options in US Academia versus Industrial Research – I’ll definitely take this into consideration!

  5. Dear Luca and fellow readers,

    I wonder if you have a sense how open the CS community is in departments outside of major urban centers. If I recall correctly (maybe I am missing a line from your CV), you lived/worked in Rome, Boston, NYC and the Bay Area.

    My superficial impression is that coming out, say, in a university located in a small town (depends which one, of course…) or, for that matter, applying for a job at such a university when you are openly gay, would be harder. You obviously have been remarkably successful, but in the hypothetical situation that your research was slightly less awesome, do you think that being openly gay would have hurt your job prospects? Do you have acquaintances (or readers) whose experiences provide anecdotal evidence (“anecdata”?) one way or the other?

  6. Adam, this is an interesting and complex question, and maybe the next post will be a good place to return to it.

    I think that the academic community is more or less the same everywhere. After all, many of the professors in “small town” universities studied in a “big city” university and vice versa. There could be a bit of self-selection, in the sense that the kind of person that, among two equally good offers, chooses the one in a small conservative is different from the kind of person that chooses the one in a big liberal city, but that’s about it.

    But, with the exception of MIT people, one doesn’t live one’s entire life in the University. So I think that for gay and lesbians considering a job in a small conservative town would have concerns such as, if they are single, what is the dating pool going to be like, and if they are partnered how is their two-body problems going to be dealt with (Irit has already talked about immigration difficulties, but there is also the problem that if the university has some formal program for solving two-body problems, it is usually for people who are legally married…), and how safe are their children going to be, and so on.

  7. Just for the record, my limited experience at Penn State has been that both the university and the town are open, tolerant places. That isn’t to say that some of the concerns you mention aren’t valid (the LGBT dating pools for people over, say, 25, are indeed small), but the gay couples I know here have had positive experiences.

    I asked since (a) I am probably less aware of LGBT issues than I could (should?) be, and (b) I was curious what the general perception is. For example, if gay and lesbian academics are avoiding applying to less urban colleges because of fear of an unwelcoming environment, I would want to know and to do what I can to change things.

  8. Thanks for the great post. I’ll try to keep in mind the “congratulations” reply.

  9. In all fairness, now that Anderson Cooper is out, is there anyone left who wants to be straight?

  10. This is a fascinating, and very touching, post, which brings all kinds of questions and observations:

    1. I have my own theory about why the hard-science communities are tolerant to homosexuals and minorities. I feel it has something to do with the fact that they share an ethos, and a purpose, which creates camaraderie; simply — the goal (solving the universe’s mysteries) is too important to care for such petty issues as one’s sexual preferences. Also, scientists tend to think they have a lot in common with each other, again, because they share a common ethos. According to this theory, one might theorize that the less radical professional disagreements there are in a community, the more unified its ethos will be and the more tolerant it will be to minorities (all other things being equal). I don’t know if this theory makes sense.

    I believe that another example of this effect can be seen in the difference in reactions between the hard-science communities and the humanities communities on the issue of academic boycotts (in particular about Israel). While humanities people see it as their role to correct society, scientists think of themselves as working together to resolve the great mysteries of the universe. Therefore, academic boycotts are perceived as a reasonable (albeit extreme) measure in the humanities, but totally unreasonable and counter-productive in the hard sciences. Again, this is just my theory.

    2. I found it interesting to read your anecdotal evidence that the appearance of one out faculty member attracts gay students. I wouldn’t be surprised if the same is true about other minorities. Maybe just like there are platforms for “women in science”, there should be a platform for “gays in science”.

    I found the discussion in the last paragraph of the post, that gay students have one extra thing to worry about — how their being gay will be accepted — particularly fascinating. I admit that, as a heterosexual male (sort of), this issue totally didn’t register on my radar: I understand the difficulties faced by women in science, partly because of gender biases and stereotypes, as well as a relative lack of role models, but I never once realized that there could be any difficulties for gays in science. Awareness of this issue could definitely be a first step: if I wasn’t aware of it, I think almost no one is.

    Some quick googling turned up only one result: the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals (NOGLSTP). (Their website seems surprisingly annoying; I wouldn’t find anything particular reassuring about it if I were a young gay grad student.) There must be room for more.

    3. Finally, I really like the “congratulations” response. I always think it when I hear someone’s gay, but I never said it, and I’m not sure why. It always feels weirdly condescending, although it’s probably only in my mind.

    I like to listen to Marc Maron’s podcast, and I really enjoyed his recent episode, where he interviewed Donnell Rawlings. Rawlings is a fascinating character in general, but in particular he had an anecdote about his gay brother’s coming out and the discussion which ensued with his (former-drug-dealing-)father which I found very relevant to this post series. I’ll take the liberty of transcribing it here (it’s around minute 39 of the podcast):

    Donnell Rawlings: One of my brothers, he lives here in California. He’s older, and he’s gay
    Marc Maron: Yeah? And how is that?
    DR: It’s awesome. Nowadays, you know what I mean,[…] He just recently, really came out […] black people, you gotta make an official announcement.
    MM: But is there more acceptance, in the world now?
    DR: Yeah, definitely. I mean, and I know, my dad is like old school, like, he uses the word bitches, crackers, you know, like where he came from. And when my brother told me one day, I was at the improv, and he came up to me, and he’s like “you know I keep it real like you, right?”. I’m like, what? He says, you see the guy over there? That’s you brother in law. But I was like in the middle of taking pictures and shit, it didn’t register, Marc, so I think it’s another brother, I’m like “My father just don’t stop, when’s he gonna stop?”. And I’m thinking about it, and I’m like “Oh, shit”: my brother just introduced me to his baby-daddy or somebody, right?
    And I call my dad, right? I’m like “dad!” He’s like “what, son?”, I’m like “Charles just told me he was gay!”, and my father way like “yeah, man [sighing]”. I was like “yeah?” he’s like “yeah”. And this is where I know the world has changed, my dad is like “yeah, man”, he said, “man,” he said, “you know I ain’t with that shit, but the dude he dating is a good dude”. Yeah, he validated the relationship, Marc!
    He said it, like, tough, in a tough way, like he said, “the dude he’s dating, he’s a good dude, he’s a good nigger”. And I haven’t heard my dad say someone is a good nigger, it was reserved for like a strongarm guy, or someone who can watch your back, like “see that dude, he’s got a gun”, but I never thought you could use it to explain the gay relationship your son has with another man. And that’s when I knew the world, like, it’s changing, you know what I’m saying, things changing

  11. Moose: thanks for your comments. The interview segment is great. I really dislike the use of “partner” in a romantic relationship, and I think that I am getting too old to be anybody’s “boyfriend”, and I had never thought of “baby-daddy”, which is perfect!

    About (2), I didn’t mean to say that gay students prefer to go where gay professors are, and I don’t think it’s true. The point that I wanted to make is that gay students are everywhere, but they don’t seem to be comfortable being out, even in very welcoming environments, unless they see someone more senior who is also out.

  12. Hi Luca,

    I’d like to add my thanks for this series of posts that you have been doing. I was only aware of LGBT issues at a more abstract level and it is great to hear these personal stories.

    And as couple of commenters have said, it’s great to know about the Congratulations response!


  13. A story a friend told me. He is a very friendly and nice guy. Once he was flying back to US from Germany and a young American girl sat next to him. They starting talking. At some point she asked him if he is German. My friend replied that he is Iranian. The girl turned pale. She didn’t speak with him anymore. It was possible to read the unease on her face as if he was going to blow up the plane.

  14. Great post, Luca.

    While I am happy for the gays in CS theory, Chemistry, California, and CNN, I wonder what the equivalent of “the first black president” is for gays.

    The story about the “indelible image of boy’s pat on Obama’s head” (http://goo.gl/9oU1j) drove home the point that Obama being in the white house is a powerful message for young black Americans — not just that they aren’t lesser citizens in the eyes of the law, but that they aren’t lesser humans in the hearts of their neighbors.

    What will be a landmark that drives the message that being gay is broadly accepted, embraced, and being out about it is routine and natural? A celebrity marriage of an NFL star to a Catholic military general?

    Off-topic: to commenter Andy who had “the feeling that the theory community is a faceless important person, who always rejects my papers” — oh please. Just because the theory community embraces diversity and pluralism along many axes, don’t assume it’s not a faceless important person who always rejects your papers :-)

  15. I liked your post, Luca.

    I was wondering how is the situation in the Italian accademia. Were you out already when you did your PhD in Rome?

  16. Siva, I think that in San Francisco we are already there, and I can think of two defining moments. One was in 2004, when then Mayor Gavin Newsom directed the city clerk to give marriage licenses to same-sex couples, in what was generally seen to be a publicity stunt. (That is, it was taken for granted that grandstanding for gay marriage would be good publicity for him.) The other was at a recent election for the board of supervisors; now I can’t find any articles about it, but I remember that a rumor was going around that one of the candidates, who was an out lesbian, was in fact straight. (This was, needless to say, a damaging rumor.)

    In most of the remaining 99.7% of the United States, I would say that gay people, for the time being, would be quite ok being thought less than human in their neighbor’s hearts, provided they wouldn’t need to worry about, say, being attacked for holding hands with their boyfriend (sorry, baby-daddy) in public.

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