Pride Month 2014: LGBT Scientists of Note

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Month (originally Gay Pride Day) is celebrated annually in June, and this year President Obama issued a presidential proclamation officially marking June of 2014 as LGBT Pride Month. The month of June was chosen to commemorate the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City, an important turning point in LGBT civil rights in the United States.

Why discuss LGBT Pride Month on Science NetLinks? Simply put, LGBT people are a part of every community, including the STEM community, and that needs to be recognized. They face challenges and discrimination because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, just as almost all LGBT people do. LGBT individuals also face the problem of invisibility — in fact, you probably already know of a few prominent scientists whose LGBT status is not widely known.

Margaret Mead (1901–1978) could be considered one of these scientists: an influential American anthropologist and President of AAAS in 1975, she was married three times to men in her lifetime, but her relationships with women are less well known. Mead's first and perhaps most famous work is Coming of Age in Samoa, a study that compared adolescents and young women in the Pacific to individuals of the same age group in the United States. Coming of Age in Samoa was both influential and highly controversial after its publication in the United States. Though Mead did not publicly identify as bisexual or a lesbian during her lifetime, information that has come out since her death about fellow anthropologists Ruth Benedict and Rhoda Metraux strongly imply close, personal relationships between Mead and these women. In fact, Mead and Metraux lived together for over twenty years in New York City, until Mead's death.

Alan Turing (1912–1954), on the other hand, is more widely known for his status as a gay man as he faced terrible persecution in the United Kingdom for his sexual orientation. During his lifetime, Turing was known as a mathematical genius, a pioneering computer scientist when the field was still in its infancy, and theorist in the field of artificial intelligence. During World War II, Turing worked as a cryptographer for the UK and created new techniques for breaking German codes. Turing is also famous for one of his ideas about artificial intelligence, now known as the Turing Test: Turing suggested that machines or computers could be deemed "intelligent" if a human communicating with it could not tell it apart from an actual human. The Turing Test continues to be a controversial idea in artificial intelligence to this day.

It was discovered in 1952 that Turing was in a relationship with another man, unfortunately while homosexuality was still a crime in the UK. For all of his contributions to British wartime efforts and academia, as punishment for being gay Turing was forced to choose between going to prison or being chemically castrated via hormonal treatment; he chose the latter. Two years later, Turing was found dead at his home as a result of cyanide poisoning. Alan Turing's death is widely believed to have been a suicide. It is a sobering reminder of the tragic effects that institutionalized homophobia can have on LGBT individuals.

Finally, Sally Ride (1951–2012) is practically a household name in the United States for being both the youngest person ever and the first American woman to be in space. Ride was an accomplished physicist and astronaut, serving on two NASA missions and helping develop her shuttle's robotic arm. After leaving NASA, Ride taught and researched at Stanford University and the University of California—San Diego. She also founded Sally Ride Science, a science education company focused on introducing girls to STEM fields, and co-wrote a number of children's books about space and science.

Ride passed away in 2012 of pancreatic cancer, and it was not until her obituary was released that her being a lesbian became public knowledge. Though Ride had been briefly married to fellow astronaut Steven Hawley in the 1980s, her obituary revealed that she had been in a relationship with her childhood friend and Sally Ride Science co-founder Tam O'Shaughnessy for almost 30 years, until Ride's death. A new biography, Sally Ride: America's First Woman in Space by Lynn Sherr, explores Ride's decision to keep her sexual orientation away from the public eye.

These are just a few of the accomplished individuals part of both the STEM and LGBT communities. To learn more about being an LGBT scientist or engineer and how you can help fight homophobia in STEM, visit the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals and oSTEM.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons


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