2011/06/24

Against the Balkanization of "History"

Yesterday was Alan Turing's birthday, and this weekend is LGBT "Pride" weekend. And never the twain shall meet, it seems.

Turing played a huge role in laying the theoretical foundation for computing. His life is considered computer history, and for some reason, this means it can't be part of queer history, even though he was gay, he was persecuted and prosecuted for being gay, and he killed himself after receiving the humiliation of chemical castration by estrogen "treatments". In the same way that black history is given its own month and treated as separate from other history, LGBT history is segregated from other history as well. If it doesn't specifically pertain to the history of LGBT civil rights, apparently it doesn't count.

Needless to say, I think this is ridiculous. I also think it's incredibly self-defeating for the LGBT movement not to make more of the overlapping history it does have. Turing is a clear case of a genius whose life was cut short by homophobia. Some of the graybeards who were instrumental in the early Unix days of the 1970s are still making huge contributions to computer science - inventing the Go language and the widely-used UTF-8 encoding system for Unicode characters, for example. Turing died at the age of 41; he could easily have lived to see the beginning of the Unix epoch and made even more amazing contributions. He might also have had more insights into biology, especially developmental biology.

I think it's important that we make clear these connections: that the world lost a brilliant mathematician and scientist to the bigotry of the day. It's great that the British government apologized in 2009 for what it did six decades ago, but even better would be to tackle today's discriminations - against trans people and Muslims to name two groups - that unfairly cut short the potential of both individuals and of the societies of which they are a part.

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