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.