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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?

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tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
Tim Chevalier

May 2017

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