Turing Centennial Post 0: Oded Goldreich

[I solicited essays from gay and lesbian colleagues on the occasion of the Turing centennial, and I was (pleasantly) surprised when Oded Goldreich offered a contribution too. Oded’s essay is not very specific to the academic or computer science community, and he talks about topics that are probably “obvious” to gays and lesbians. On the other hand, maybe they are not so obvious to some readers, and so Oded’s piece might be a good “introduction” to the posts that will comes later. On this note, you may also want to read this week’s unusually good modern love piece. — L.T]

I decided to contribute to this discussion of gays and lesbians (or rather LGBT) in academia (or rather in TCS/TOC) nowadays, because I think it will be wrong if only gay and lesbian colleagues will write about it. While I agree that this topic has more immediate implication on their life, it is a central social issue and as such it affects the life of each human and each human should be interested in it. The latter claim can be phrased in several ways including “nothing that is human is alien to me” and “no one is free while others are oppressed.”

I wish to address three related aspects of the topic, which I’ll call the “practical/life” aspect, the “cultural” aspect, and the “political” aspect. I consider all that I am about to say quite obvious and well-known (at least in some circles), but still believe that obvious things ought to be stated too.

THE PRACTICAL/LIFE ASPECT.

In a society that subscribes to ideologies that range between individualism to liberalism and humanism, a person’s sexual orientation should not be a social issue. But, of course, we know that this is and has been an issue in such societies, which demonstrates that these societies were and are far from what they pretend to be. In particular, severe forms of explicit oppression were a significant part of the life realities of LGBTs for several centuries, and softer forms of implicit oppression are still effecting the life of LGBT nowadays.

While it is true that attitudes towards LGBT have improved significantly in some societies and in some social groups, it is important to remember that (1) they improved less in other societies, (2) softer forms of oppression are still existing even in more progressive societies, and (3) the shadow of past centuries of oppression is not easy to brush off overnight.

THE CULTURAL ASPECT.

Historically, LGBT gave rise to a sub-culture (or a counter-culture), which has been very inspiring and carried a great emancipatory potential (in addition to being great fun and full of beauty). Let me use the term “queer culture” and align myself with it; that is, I view myself as queer. Let me also clarify that LGBT people are not necessarily queer nor should they be required to be queer. Still, I think I am allowed to advocate the queer culture.

The queer culture has great emancipatory potential because it is rooted in central aspects of its members lives and it couples these personal aspects with a rejection of some “dead” and dysfunctional aspects of the mainstream culture (e.g., the domination of instrumental rationalism (*) and the total division between life, beauty, and ideas). In other words, I am talking about a combination of a form (or culture) of life and a revolt against the existing order (and in particular its oppressive aspects). Indeed, this combination is a bridge between the personal and the political.

(*) By “instrumental rationality” I refer to confining rationality to low-level calculations of ends, while forgetting that a deeper sense of rationality calls for a critical reflection of the ends and purposes (rather than the non-critical and absent-minded conforming and adoptation of ends suggested by others). This is not unrelated to accepting a total division between real life on one hand, and ideas and beauty on the other hand, which makes life poor and the ideas and beauty deteched.

THE POLITICAL ASPECT.

The politics of LGBT face two possibilities. The first possibility is to join a coalition of oppressed people, which must include also the economically oppressed, and contribute to a deep social change in society. This is not an easy choice, because homophobic attitudes tend
to strive among the oppressed (since the dominant social groups promotes oppression, hatred, and fear among the oppressed themselves).

The second possibility is to focus on promoting its own interests, and remain neutral with respect to other forms of oppression. This is the easy choice, since the dominant social groups encourage the creation of various special interest groups that attempt to promote specific issues while not challenging the basic structures of society.

THE TOC/TCS ASPECT.

This brings us back to the life aspect, and my impression is that the TOC/TCS community is relatively LGBT-friendly. One may say that not being identified as gay, I would not have experienced negative reactions, but on the other hand it allows me to monitor what “straight” people say of gays. Recall that some LGBT are “out” in the TOC, and yet I never heard anything negative being said about this.

Oded Goldreich

In Theory Celebrates the Turing Centennial

This year there are several festivities on the occasion of Turing‘s 100th birthday, which is next month, including the celebration that took place in Princeton a couple of weeks ago, the ACM-organized event next month, several events at the Newton institute in the UK, and several other events all over the world. Most of Turing centennial initiatives have taken the form of lectures and articles describing how far we have (or not) gone since Turing’s time in our understanding of computation.

Certainly, a big part of Turing’s life was being gay, which was not exceptional among leading British mathematicians of his time, or even among founding fathers of theoretical computer science, although his way of being “out” was (like his research) much ahead of its time.

(I think all readers of in theory are familiar with the story of how Turing’s openness led to his tragic death: after a robbery in his home, Turing told the police that he suspected that a certain 19 year old guy who had been in his home was involved in the robbery; after telling the police the nature of his relationship with said guy, Turing was arrested and prosecuted; despite the intervention of highly-placed people who were aware of the importance of his work, Turing was found guilty and, while he avoided jail time, he was sentenced to a “hormonal therapy” that was a sort of chemical castration, and he lost his security clearance. Shortly afterward he committed suicide by poisoning and eating an apple.)

Within the Turing festivities, I think it would be interesting to talk about how things have changed (or not) since Turing’s time for people who do academic work in cryptography and in the theory of computing and who are gay or lesbian.

So I have invited a number of gay and lesbian colleagues to write guest posts talking about how things have been for them, and so far half a dozen have tentatively accepted. Their posts will appear next month which, besides being Turing’s centennial month, also happens to be the anniversary of the Stonewall riots.

Those who have agreed to participate are a diverse bunch, male and female, junior and senior, and working or coming from the Americas, Europe and Asia.

But I would still be delighted to have additional contributors. The posts could be signed or pseudonymous, personal or political, anecdotal or philosophical, and basically about anything. Explaining why you reject the premise of having such posts in the first place would also be an acceptable topic. I would be particularly happy to have contributors currently working in Asia or Southern Europe. Email me (trevisan at stanford) if you are interested.