The month of February marks LGBT+ History Month, and this year the theme is “Outing the Past”. This means a celebration of the work of LGBT+ people throughout history, and the commemoration of their achievements and struggles.
Throughout history, there have been countless LGBT+ innovators whose ideas and inventions have changed the world, and the way we live our lives today. Often, due to institutional and societal discrimination, their work in its full authenticity goes unnoticed.
Perhaps the most famous LGBT+ scientist, partly thanks to award-winning film “The Imitation Game”, Alan Turing’s ground-breaking work has primarily been acknowledged posthumously. For the entirety of Turing’s life, from his birth in 1912 to his untimely death in 1954, homosexuality was a crime, punishable by hormone therapy, or sometimes even a prison sentence. It wasn’t until 1967 that homosexuality was legalised, although even this was only partial.
Despite the enormous setbacks his homosexual identity posed at the time, as biographer Andrew Hodges notes, Turing is considered as a "founder of computer science, mathematician, philosopher, codebreaker, strange visionary and a gay man before his time”. His most celebrated and impactful achievement is the cracking of the Enigma machine codes. Supposedly indecipherable, Enigma was used by the German government to send coded information across the world to important military personnel. Turing’s work to decipher it is believed to have shortened the Second World War by years.
This is not Turing’s only revolutionary work, however. During his time at the University of Cambridge, Turing published papers that we now recognise to be the very foundation of computer science as we know it today. His 1950 paper, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence”, details the potential for development of “machines that can think”.
Considered to be one of the earliest papers on artificial intelligence, although this term itself wasn’t coined until around five years later, Turing suggested that, if human beings think by using the external information available to them in order to reason, why couldn’t machines do the same thing?
At the time of Turing’s writing, computers weren’t only incredibly expensive, but also not technically advanced enough to store and then replicate commands. They could simply do as they were told. However, in the decades since Turing’s founding work, computers and artificial intelligence have advanced enormously, and are relied upon by many of us in our day to day lives.
Other pioneering areas of work for Turing include the early development of the cryptography we now use for data protection and public security, and the theoretical application of mathematics to understanding biological patterns in nature. Scientists eventually proved Turing’s theory decades after his initial conceptualisation.
Tragically, Turing’s life was cut short at age 41, following his arrest for the crime of homosexuality in 1952. He was ordered by British courts to take chemically castrating drugs, leading to his suicide in 1954. Turing was eventually pardoned by the British government in 2013.
LGBT+ scientists and innovators are still shaping the world we live in today; and whilst we have made significant steps towards equality, globally we still have some way to go. It is vital that we cultivate environments that amplify the achievements of all our colleagues. As Turing himself wrote:
“The isolated man does not develop any intellectual power. It is necessary for him to be immersed in an environment of other[s]… The search for new techniques must be regarded as carried out by the human community as a whole, rather than by individuals.”
Holly Battrick, Renewals Administrator