Thinking about Alan Turing

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Jun 28, 2012 GMT
Bruce Byfield

You don't often hear about lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transsexuals, and queers (LGBTQ) in free software. Like the rest of the community, they're too busy contributing to their projects of choice. However, this past week, two events have emphasized the fact that they exist.

The first event is the centenary of Alan Turing's birth. If you know anything about the history of computing, you must have heard of him: the builder of proto-computers, the cryptographer primarily responsible for cracking the German Enigma code in World War 2, and the inventor of the Turing Test for evaluating artificial intelligence.

What you may not known was that, found guilty of the victimless crime of homosexuality, in 1954 he was given the choice of imprisonment or chemical castration. He chose suicide instead, although rumors of accidental death, murder or assassination are sometimes raised.

I don't know about you, but the idea that a government could drive a citizen to suicide gives me a few seconds of pure terror -- and I mean that precisely and without any exaggeration. The fact that, except for Turing, there might not have been a United Kingdom to condemn him only makes it worse. Obviously, Turing didn't win the war by himself, but it would have been longer and bloodier without him. At the very least, the United Kingdom would have been left much weaker without him.

Somehow, an apology from the prime minister fifty-five years too late to save Turing or provide any comfort for his family doesn't make what happened any better. A brilliant man, perhaps a genius, was lost because of institutionalized bigotry, and there's no getting around that twisted fact.

Inspired by the first, the second event was Jon "maddog" Hall's decision to come out as gay in his Linux Pro Magazine blog (http://www.linuxpromagazine.com/Online/Blogs/Paw-Prints-Writings-of-the-maddog/In-Honor-of-Alan-Turing-A-message-from-the-sponsor). A long-time, world-wide ambassador for free and open source software, Hall wrote a heart-felt, simply worded account of his growing realization of his sexual orientation and why he had decided to announce it to the world.

Just how small the change has been since Turing's death is shown by the fact that Hall waited to make the announcement until after his fundamentalist parents died. He worried, too, that the news might harm the free software communities to which he has devoted so much of his life. Yet in the face of continued discrimination and the current debate in the United States over same sex marriage and other LGBTQ issues, he eventually decided that the announcement would do more good than harm.

LGBTQ in the Community
Reading Hall's blog entry, I couldn't help but sympathize. Moreover, I know that Hall is far from the only LGBTQ in free software.

Many, as Hall used to be, are out to friends, but not to the world at large. Announcing that you are LGBTQ is still handing trolls a huge club to beat you with. And many, like Hall, worry about the harm such an announcement might to do to their causes. Either way, they would prefer not to be mentioned here, and I have to respect that.

Others I have encountered are openly out. For instance, there's Denise Paolucci, co-founder and owner of Dreamwidth Studios, a popular blogging service. Paolucci is one of the few women who runs an open source company, and Dreamwidth remains one of the few projects with a majority of female contributors. Our paths have only crossed lightly, mostly because of a story I did a few years ago, but she seems a friendly and energetic person, and devoted to her wife.

Then there's Skud (aka Kirrily Robert and now Alex Baylee). Outspoken, intelligent, sarcastic, and insightful, Skud helped make the issues of sexism and misogny in free software part of the public discussion, partly by speaking constantly on the subject and partly by founding the Geek Feminism blog. In fact, for several years, she kept the issue alive next to singlehandedly, until the backlash burned her out, and she left the community to become a sound engineer.

Nor should I forget Carla Schroder, my elder in the craft of writing. Happily partnered, she is now homesteading in smalltown Oregon -- in fact, she's currently running a KickStarter project to write a book about her experiences (http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/countrylife/country-life-for-city-people-the-modern-homestead/posts/254630). When Schroder is not writing articles for sites like Linux.com, she's writing books about Audacity and Linux networking. While editing the Linux Today site, she was also capable of rousing fire and brimstone editorials (that I still miss).

A moment to acknowledge
These are some of people I think of when the subject of LGBTQ in free software is mentioned. If you gave them any special consideration just because they could be lumped in as LGBTQ, I suspect they would be annoyed -- and rightly so, because they're not the kind for whom anyone needs to make special allowances. The quality of their work speaks for itself, and mostly they want nothing except the ability to continue it without enduring personal attacks or threats because of who they are.

But for the rest of us, the majority who identify themselves as straight, I think that a reminder is useful: there are LGBTQ among us, and some of them are doing outstanding work.

Alan Turing died on 7 June, 1954. We've missed the anniversary this year, but maybe we could turn that tragedy into something more like he deserved. What if, in 2013, the free and open source software community agreed to celebrate Alan Turing Day? Just as Ada Lovelace Day is observed as a time to write about inspirational women in the sciences, so Alan Turing Day could become a moment to acknowledge the contributions of LGBTQ members of the community.

More practically, perhaps the day could be a day to collect donations to help fight the bullying of LGBTQ teens or to legalize same sex marriage. In celebrating the accomplishments of LGBTQ, it seems to me that the free software community would also be proclaiming its own inclusive values.

Anyone who thinks the idea worth developing, please run with it. But, even if you don't think anything formal is necessary, Alan Turing's centenary still seems like a good moment to acknowledge the LGBTQ people in free and open source software. They are, after all, our friends and colleagues -- and no one should have to endure even the lesser, daily versions of the things that must haunted Turing in the last days of his life.

Comments

  • I was about to say something

    But then I noticed:
    "Notice: Your comment will not be visible until it has been approved by our staff!"
    So I gave up (and wrote this instead).
  • Nice idea!

    Diversity in all its forms strengthens and improves a community. Celebrating that diversity is fun, and draws more new contributors. So lets get to it!
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