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.