tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
[personal profile] tim
A few weeks ago, while reading about Peter Landin, a computer scientist who died recently and was one of the founders of my field of study (programming language theory), I came across an obituary mentioning that Landin was not only openly bisexual, but also was involved in queer activism. This particular fact was omitted from an otherwise excellent memorial talk on Landin that I attended at ICFP 2009.

While following links, I learned that an equally significant researcher, Christopher Strachey, was gay (the fact merits two sentences in an article by M. Campbell-Kelly, "Christopher Strachey, 1916–1975: A Biographical Note" -- sorry, you won't be able to read it unless you happen to have an institutional subscription to the IEEE Annals of the History of Computing), and that during the 1930s, his education was disrupted by a nervous breakdown he suffered that was possibly related to dealing with his homosexuality.

Of course, everybody knows about Alan Turing; when I read about Landin and Strachey, I asked myself "do you have to commit suicide in order to be known as a queer computer scientist?"

I felt as if somebody should have told me that two of the seminal figures in the field I've been working in for the past decade were queer men; I'm not sure who should have told me, or when. But then, I can already hear someone, somewhere asking: "Why should you know, or care? What business is someone else's sexuality?"

Eric Allman, the developer of sendmail (the program that historically has transferred much of Internet email traffic), who's gay, once said, "There is some sort of perverse pleasure in knowing that it's basically impossible to send a piece of hate mail through the Internet without its being touched by a gay program. That's kind of funny." I think that nails it. When you know that something important to you wouldn't exist without the contributions of queer people, it's a bit harder to hate them. The less ability you have to deny that queer people are not "other" but are rather your friends, family and colleagues, the more uncomfortable it is going to be for you to imagine looking at one of them in the eye and explaining why you voted to deny them rights.

Moreover, knowing that a successful person was queer puts their accomplishments in a different light. Knowing that a particular person had to work all that much harder to overcome the shame, guilt and low self-esteem that 20th-century Western culture foisted upon gay and bisexual men makes that person more admirable and creates a feeling of connection, the ability to place oneself in a tradition of people who have struggled and have overcome oppression.

I feel like conventional wisdom is currently saying that queer people have made it: now that we've attained some of the privileges previously reserved for straights, won't we please start acting like them? Not so fast.

I will keep talking about my sexuality in public, because I never chose to make my sexuality a public matter. The people who vote to recognize different relationships differently based on the presumed sexualities of the people involved are the ones who keep my sexuality a public matter. The people who make my ability to board a plane contingent on what set of genitals I have are the ones who keep my sexuality a public matter. Sexuality and reproduction have been matters for public concern forever, and they probably always will be. It's hypocritical to conduct open political debate on the subject of which varieties of sexuality are better than others, and then waggle the invisible finger of social propriety at sexual minority members who dare to engage in that debate by being truthful about themselves.

Who is helped by the taboo against discussing sexuality in public, anyway? I'm not sure that taboos against discussing any kind of sexuality, whether it be gay, bi, non-monogamous, kinky, public, or what have you, actually serve the interests of anybody I'm interested in protecting. What would a world look like where nobody hesitated to be honest about who they are sexually (and when I say "nobody", I mean "nobody" -- queer people aren't the only ones who have closets)? I don't think it would take any of the mystery out of sex; I don't think anything could take the drama and delight out of human relationships. I do think it would make it impossible for any kid growing up to believe that he's the only one who ever liked other boys, or for any kid growing up to believe that she's the only one who ever knew she was a girl despite all appearances to the contrary. Isn't it worth dealing with some discomfort in order to keep those kids away from the pills and sharp objects?

Ultimately, it's not shame about being gay, or bi, or trans, that drives queer people to depression and sometimes suicide. It's the inability to talk about it, and often an accompanying belief that talking about it would keep you out of social life for good. We are truly everywhere, and in 2009, no kid growing up should have to feel they're the only gay or bi or trans person in the world. Maybe what with the advent of the Internet, nobody (in social strata where access to it is ubiquitous, anyway) does believe that anymore. But we're still dangerously close to the time in history where young queer kids believed they were the only one who was like them.

And so although probably everybody who's reading this knows that I'm a transsexual man and that I'm a bisexual person with a moderately strong preference for members of my own gender, I'm saying it again, and I don't intend to let anyone forget it. Happy National Coming Out Day!

What are you coming out as today, and who are you coming out to?

(no subject)

Date: 2009-10-11 09:37 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] wkfauna.livejournal.com
My dad was a vehemently homophobic person. He missed no opportunity to make fun of or insult teh gays. He also loved computers, and one year he got _Alan Turing: The Enigma_. He managed to talk to me about how the great the book was and how amazing Turing was at length for years without ever mentioning that Turing was gay or that that was one of the main themes of the book. Ever since I found out about the contents of the book, many years after my father died, I've been wondering what the moral of this story is.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-10-11 09:42 pm (UTC)
miang: Miang Hawwa (with Opiomorph), Xenogears: May God's love be with you (and there's nothing I can do). (chibified)
From: [personal profile] miang
I guess I'm coming out to you as a lover of closets, then, because I was saying "right on" to about half of this and abjectly horrified by the other half. I think it's a huge, huge leap from "no one should be ashamed of their sexuality" to "everyone should be free to talk about their sexuality anywhere, at any time, with anyone"; from the perspective of one person who wishes equality for all and for no one's sexuality to be a matter of public discourse, I am a fan of certain social taboos.

(It's bad enough having to decide whether or not to feign ignorance when my boss brings up Xtube and YouPorn in front of my other boss, who's clearly never heard of them -- either that, or she's a better faker than I am!)

I'd also like to point out that sometimes it really is shame about being queer that drives people to depression and suicide; that's not any more acceptable a situation, of course, but some messages -- particularly the strongly ingrained religious ones -- can't always be overcome even by very supportive social networks, online or off. I don't intend this to be disrespecting of your experiences, but yours are not universal, and I'm not sure what it helps to suggest that they are.

Anyway, happy NCOD; sometime that is not now and probably not via journal post, I might like to ask you more about the "not letting anyone forget it" part and how that plays out in your life, if you wouldn't mind.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-10-11 10:10 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] anemone.livejournal.com
I'm not entirely sure how one open one should be about their sexuality. Or rather, it's socially relevant and important, but how much of what's social-relevant should enter the work sphere is something I'm not sure about.

Anyway, this post made me think of the following:
http://blog.penelopetrunk.com/2009/09/24/miscarriage-is-a-workplace-event/

(no subject)

Date: 2009-10-12 08:45 am (UTC)
ext_36143: (Default)
From: [identity profile] badasstronaut.livejournal.com
Personally speaking, I'm keen on being out generally as a queer, and I think being out in that respect useful. I'm not so keen on having it broadly known (eg at work and so on) my specific sexual interests and activities.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-10-13 02:25 am (UTC)
kyriacarlisle: early modern sailing ship (Default)
From: [personal profile] kyriacarlisle
You know, I'm torn. Broadly, I agree with you; but then again, I'm definitely in the camp that agrees that I don't generally want my sexuality, in the sense of "what gets me off," to be public knowledge. I like a pretty strict work/home division.

Perhaps that's because - not every day, but much more frequently than I'd like - I find myself in situations where someone else has decided that something about me - sexuality, presentation, tits, whatever - is their property just because we happen to be in the same space. Often they're strangers, but not always, so if details of my sexuality-as-sexual-practice are commonly known, that interaction becomes much less safe for me; it puts me in the position of giving a list of kinks to somebody who's already proven both that they're not trustworthy enough to use it, and that they're likely to try to exploit it.

Does that make me a coward? Yes. Do I see a good way to change the attitudes world without feeling for a while less safe myself? No.

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Tim Chevalier

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