7 Prominent LGBTQ+ Technologists, Past and Present
As we celebrate Pride Month, it’s worth taking some time to think about some of the prominent members of the LGBTQ+ community who have not only made great strides in technology, but also advocated for recognition and equality. From the mid-20th century to today, LGBTQ+ technologists continue to push the industry forward in new and exciting ways. The following is just a small sampling of these technologists:
Alan Turing (1912–1954)
An English mathematician helped pioneer computer science and artificial intelligence (A.I.)., Turing is perhaps most famous for his work at Bletchley Park, the center of the U.K.’s code-breaking efforts during World War II, where he figured out the statistical techniques that allowed the Allies to break Nazi cryptography.
For his wartime efforts, Turing was appointed an officer of the Order of the British Empire. Following the War, he designed an Automatic Computing Engine, basically a computer with electronic memory (a fully functioning example of the ACE wasn’t actually something built in his lifetime, however). He also theorized quite a bit about artificial intelligence (one of his core concepts, the Turing test, is still regarded as a benchmark for testing a machine’s intelligent behavior).
Turing was prosecuted by the British government for his sexual relationship with another man, Arnold Murray. Found guilty, he was chemically castrated and stripped of his security clearance, which prevented him from working for Britain’s signals-intelligence efforts. A little over two years later, in 1954, he was found dead of cyanide poisoning, and whether it was suicide or an accident has preoccupied historians for decades.
In 1999, Time listed Turing among the 100 Most Important People of the 20th Century. Five years later, the British government officially pardoned his conviction.
Edith Windsor (1929—2017)
A technology manager for IBM as well as an LGBTQ+ activist, Edith “Edie” Windsor was lead plaintiff in United States v. Windsor (550 U.S. 744), a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that found that a crucial portion of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) violated the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment. The ruling helped legalize same-sex marriage (along with a later case, Obergefell v. Hodges).
At IBM, Windsor worked on projects related to operating systems and natural-language processing. After leaving IBM in 1975, she started a consulting firm. In 2016, Lesbians Who Tech, an organization for lesbian and queer women in tech, set up the Edie Windsor Coding Scholarship, with 40 people selected for its inaugural year of giving.
Lynn Conway (1938—)
As a computer scientist at IBM in the 1960s, Lynn Conway helped make pioneering advances in computer architecture. One of her projects, ACS (Advanced Computing Systems), essentially became the foundation of the modern high-performance microprocessor. However, IBM fired her when it discovered that she was undergoing gender transition.
Undeterred, Conway moved on to Xerox PARC, where she worked on still more innovative projects, including the ability to put multiple circuit designs on one chip. She was also key in advancing chip design and fabrication. After her stint at Xerox, she moved to DARPA, and from there to the University of Michigan, where she became a professor of electrical engineering and computer science.
At the turn of the century, Conway began to work more in transgender activism. In addition coming out to friends and colleagues, she also used her webpage to describe her personal history (followed up, much later, by a memoir published in 2012). In 2014, she also successfully pushed for the prominent Institute of Electrical and Electronics (IEEE) Board of Directors to include trans-specific protections in its Code of Ethics.
Jon “maddog” Hall (1950—)
Jon “maddog” Hall has been the Board Chair of the Linux Professional Institute (the certification body for free and open-source software professionals) since 2015. In addition, he’s executive director of the industry group Linux International, as well as an author with Linux Pro Magazine.
In a 2012 column in Linux Magazine, Hall came out as gay, citing Alan Turing as a hero and an inspiration. “In fact, computer science was a haven for homosexuals, trans-sexuals and a lot of other ‘sexuals,’ mostly because the history of the science called for fairly intelligent, modern-thinking people,” he wrote. “Many computer companies were the first to enact ‘diversity’ programs, and the USENIX organization had a special interest group that was made up of LGBT people.” He also became an advocate of marriage equality.
Leanne Pittsford (1980—)
In 2012, Leanne Pittsford founded Lesbians Who Tech, which claims it’s the largest LGBTQ community of technologists in the world (with 40+ city chapters and 60,000 members). Lesbians Who Tech hosts an annual San Francisco Summit attended by as many as 5,000 women and non-binary people, and it provides mentoring and leadership programs as well as the aforementioned Edie Windsor Coding Scholarship Fund.
Pittsford is also the founder of include.io, which connects underrepresented technologists with companies and technical mentors. In 2016, she also organized the third annual LGBTQ Tech and Innovation Summit at the White House.
Megan Smith (1964—)
The third Chief Technology Officer of the United States (U.S. CTO) under President Barack Obama, Megan Smith also served as a vice president at Google. As U.S. CTO, she spearheaded a number of initiatives, including the recruitment of tech talent for national service. She also recognized the need to build up the government’s capabilities in data science, open data, and digital policy.
Smith is currently the CEO and co-founder of shift7, which “works collaboratively on systemic social, environmental and economic problems.” She is also a life member of the board of MIT, as well as a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the National Academy of Engineering.
Tim Cook (1960—)
Widely considered the first chief executive officer of a Fortune 500 company to come out as gay, Apple CEO Tim Cook told CNN back in 2014 that he went public in order to show gay children that they could “be gay and still go on and do some big jobs in life.”
Cook, who once said that being gay is “God’s greatest gift to me,” joined Apple as a senior vice president in 1998, during some of its leanest years. He quickly solidified his reputation as a peerless operations executive, refining the company’s supply and manufacturing chains. As Apple rose to new corporate heights on the strength of its iPod, iPhone, and iPad sales, this supply-chain refinement ensured that millions of devices reached users’ hands. Cook was promoted to chief operating officer, and stepped in to temporarily head the company when CEO Steve Jobs fell sick with cancer.
Following the death of Jobs in 2011, Cook took the CEO reins and restructured the executive team, with a renewed focus on creating a culture of teamwork and collaboration. He oversaw the launch of the Apple Watch and the AirPods, moving Apple in the long-predicted direction of wearables, and began to shift the company’s focus from hardware to cloud-based services such as music and gaming.
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