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.