Turing Centennial Post 5: Martin Farach-Colton

[Martin Farach-Colton is a professor at Rutgers, in the gayest computer science department in the country. He is well known for his work on algorithms and data structures. In the Fall of 1998, I was a post-doc at DIMACS and I lived in New York; since we had the same commute, I would sometimes get a ride from Martin. I was still quite new to the US, and I remember thinking it strange that Martin was the only person driving normally, while everybody else was going so slowly. Martin is the dean of out theoreticians, and he has written a very interesting post. I wish he hadn’t given up so easily on the theme of sexism vs. homophobia. — L.T.]

When Luca asked me to write a guest blog post on “Putting the Gay Back in the Turing Centennial”, I was happy to say yes. But I had a problem. If I were to write about being gay in the theory community, what could I write about? I’ve always been quite comfortable being openly gay in the theory community, and that doesn’t make for a very interesting story, does it?

But first, some context: I grew up in South Carolina, in an Argentine family. Both my family and my surroundings were deeply homophobic. When I moved away from home to go to medical school, I found myself in yet another very homophobic environment. Nonetheless, in 1986, I decided it was time to meet Mr. Right, and the first step was to come out to all my friends and family. Within 6 months I was living with Andrew. We’ll be celebrating 26 years together in a few months, as well as 9 years of marriage. Our twins are 12.

I wasn’t fully out at medical school, but when I started my PhD in Computer Science, I threw open the closet doors and was totally out from Day One. It would be years before I met another openly gay or lesbian computer scientist, and even more years before I knew of another LGBT theoretician. Yet I have found that being gay was no big deal within the theory community. Practically no one seems to care, and that’s the best kind of acceptance there is.

Remarkably, I felt this kind of open atmosphere at the very first FOCS I attended back in 1989. The world has changed a lot for gay people in the last 23 years, but the theory community changed earlier. Sure, people have said some homophobic things to me, but these were almost all minor incidents, and I’m also sure that those people would now be mortified by what they said 20 years ago. More often than not, when gay issues come up with my theory colleagues, they are mostly interested in topics like a technical analysis of how the fight for marriage equality is going. (I’ve been involved in this fight both here in the US — where there’s still plenty of work to be done — and in Argentina, which now has the most progressive LGBT laws in the world.)

What can explain the culture of the theory community? I turned to some of the women of my academic generation to see what it’s been like for them. After all, it seems that homophobia and sexism go hand in hand. Right off the bat, one of them torpedoed my premise. She pointed out that there have been plenty of gay men who are acknowledged as great geniuses. There is no stereotype to overcome with respect to being gay and being good at math. Indeed, in addition to Turing, Hardy was famously gay, as were Komogorov and his partner, the topologist Pavel Alexandrov. I’m not placing myself in such exalted company but merely pointing out that perhaps I had it easier than women in the field because I had fewer stereotypes to overcome.

I found general consensus that, although the theory community is not free of prejudice and stereotype, it’s a comfortable place for a lot of people. Perhaps it’s not just theory. My own department had, at its high-water mark, four openly gay faculty, two of whom were recruited as a couple. I also found Google very gay-friendly when I worked there in the early ’00s.

So, really, I feel like I have nothing substantive to say on the subject. And maybe the best news. To paraphrase Tolstoy, happiness is dull.

10 thoughts on “Turing Centennial Post 5: Martin Farach-Colton

  1. Sorry, Luca, for not saying more about the sexism angle. One woman after another pointed out differences between the way women and gay men are treated. The one interesting point that one of them made was that things had gone well for me as a gay man because I had a partner. She said that married women did better in the theory community because guys didn’t hit on them as much. In the case of a gay man, by having a partner I would seem to be hitting on the straight guys who make up most of the field. It may be an interesting point, but I don’t really buy it. Do you?

  2. That’s a very strange thought, I don’t think that I buy it.

    But I was thinking of something else: it seems that professions where there are a lot of women, like flight attendants or nurses, also have a lot of out gay men, and that in professions where you don’t see a lot of women, like engineering or investment banking, you don’t see a lot of out gay men.

    So maybe there is some commonality between factors that discourage women from pursuing certain professions and factors that discourage gay men from being out in those professions (or from pursuing them at all). Or maybe not, and it’s just that gay men are more comfortable being out among straight women than among straight men.

  3. As a woman in theory, I think the biggest difference in terms of how women (and minorities) and other people are treated is that it is *believed* that women (and minorities) receive preferential treatment in admissions and jobs. There is no such belief with respect to gay men that I am aware of.

    Thus, in the early career stages, you constantly think about yourself that you are here because of an affirmative action measure. You think that other people think that about you. And other people do think that about you!

    As I have become more senior, I do not have these thoughts very much any more. However, as a graduate student, I constantly had these thoughts. This resulted in self-doubt that lead to unproductive behaviour such as trying to solve problems on my own and not learning to be a productive collaborator. This was explicitly reinforced by professors who told “weaker” students not to work with “stronger” students lest they become discouraged and/or not contribute sufficiently to work with their name on it. When I look back on it, I do not think the “weaker” students were weaker. I think that they missed out on learning more from and building connections to their “stronger” and more confident peers, and given the gender balance of the “weaker” students, this is one example of sexism in graduate school.

    Despite what I write, I am a strong supporter of affirmative action, because only when gender and race do not matter any more, will these thoughts not occur to people and they can do their best work. Also, ultimately, I do not think I have received more preferential treatment than discrimination.

    Without affirmative action, equally talented women are likely to be overlooked. However, with affirmative action (and with the false belief that this only promotes less qualified people rather than qualified people who would otherwise be overlooked), from the beginning of their career, women are used to other people assuming that they are less qualified. This affects you in many ways, many of which are directly related to interactions with other people which are very important in our research community. Gay people have their own difficult issues to deal with, but I do not think that people treat them as if they are less qualified a priori.

  4. Right, it’s all about stereotypes, and I don’t think that gay men suffer from the same type of stereotyping within the research community that women do.

  5. I too have had a very positive experience as a queer women in the Rutgers’ computer science department. My orientation has mostly been a non-issue in the systems community. Though there were occasional remarks about not flaunting my “gayness” to minimize its impact on job prospects. However, I have had to bear stronger sexist statements (It is easier for you to get a job because you are a women) than homophobic ones. Overall, I had a positive experience at Rutgers as a queer woman with my adviser, fellow grad students and the rest of the community.

  6. Pingback: Turing Centennial Series from In Theory blog | Healthy Algorithms

  7. Luca, thanks for this series, I read the posts with great interest.

    Martin, I really liked your post, that transcended the individual stuggles and emphasized the overall, remarkable communal acceptance. Still, I have to say, I have been with you on the sidelines from early 90’s and you faced several homophobic incidents, none minor when they occurred. You were more courageous and open than most, and in the process, you helped bring out this acceptance. You have triumphed, so the past might not look challenging, but it was challenging nevertheless and I am glad you and your family are here. Now that the theory community (and some of the US Society) has arrived at this acceptance, you are ahead, fighting the legal and political battles that I hope others embrace. Thanks for constantly providing leadership by example.

    — Metoo

  8. Thank you for the post Martin. I will echo your experiences that it is difficult to find other LGBT students in CS and related fields. It is difficult enough to be gay and different from most of society, but then add in a math or science field and it can feel positively isolating.

    I disagree with the statement of gay stereotypes. There are some gay role models yes, but there are women role models as well, I don’t think there have been enough of either to shatter the stereotypes associated with being in the field (or being gay or a women), however. Hopefully someday.

    I’ll also add that Rutgers now has two student groups that are designed for helping create a supportive environment for women and LGBT students. We have Women in Computer Science, and I and several others founded a Rutgers chapter of oSTEM (Out in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) last year.

  9. Pingback: (Belated) Turing Centennial Series from ‘in Theory’ blog « kryptomusing

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