In 2012, on the 100th anniversary of his birth, Nature marked wartime code-breaker Alan Turing’s wider legacy.
The collection of features and opinion articles, along with an accompanying podcast, acknowledged that in his tragically short life, Turing — whilst working on a machine that would crack Nazi codes and become the modern day computer — shaped many of the hottest fields in science today, including artificial intelligence, biological pattern formation, and computation in physics.
Turing’s suicide came in 1954, two years after his prosecution for gross indecency related to his homosexuality, which was then illegal in England. Turing had divulged to police investigating a burglary at his home that he was in a same sex relationship, and after pleading guilty was given a 12-month course of diethylstilbestrol injections, a synthetic oestrogen which rendered him impotent and caused gynaecomastia. The alternative, prison, would have meant he could no longer work on his ground-breaking mathematical theories. He was posthumously pardoned in 2013.
This week the UK government announced that thousands of men convicted of sexual offences in England and Wales before 1967 (when the law was changed) will also be eligible for the pardon. The move, described as the “Alan Turing law”, followed calls for wider pardons and the launch of a petition in 2015 which gathered almost 640,000 signatures.
In many parts of the world homosexuality remains illegal, and even in places where it isn’t, coming out at work can be an ordeal. A Google search of LGBT scientists returns men and women who are and were able to build successful careers whilst being open about themselves.
Nature Careers has marked this positive trend. In March 2016 we interviewed David Smith, a chemist at the University of York, UK. Smith spent his early career avoiding personal discussions with colleagues because he did not want to reveal that he is gay. In January, he gave the plenary talk at the first LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) STEMinar, a conference devoted to networking.
“When chatting about the weekend with colleagues, I’d neutralize the gender of my partner or just not talk about my personal life at all,” he says. “But I’d end up in difficult situations — half lying, half telling the truth and trying to remember what I had told individual people to be consistent in conversations … I was in a long-term relationship and it got more ridiculous not to talk about it. I had been in my job for four or five years when another gay colleague arrived in the department. It gave me a bit of confidence. I came out in 2002, and I received an overall positive response. Some people were surprised but the uncomfortable period didn’t last long. York has one of the most diversity-friendly chemistry departments.”
The “Queer in STEM” survey examined sexual diversity among people working in science, technology, engineering and maths across the United States, Canada, the UK, and India. With 1400 responses, it found that where respondents lived made no difference to how ‘out’ they were to colleagues or students, even if the researchers were in big cities or in regions thought to be LGBT-friendly.
Their research shows encouraging progress in workplace attitudes. Compare it to a 2008 Nature Careers article by Bryn Nelson, for instance, which found that gay scientists in some places are swimming against a conservative tide that limits partners’ rights. The article began with Michael Falk, associate professor of materials science and engineering at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Falk switched jobs, taking a position at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, not for reasons of prestige, but Michigan constitutional amendment forbidding public universities and agencies to grant benefits relating to an employee’s unmarried ‘domestic partner’.
This issue has and is being addressed worldwide, with legislation allowing civil partnerships and gay marriage. Next year Australia is due to hold a referendum on the issue, but earlier this month opposition MPs have vowed to block the plan on costs grounds and because of fears it will unleash homophobic rhetoric. In a move that echoes similar calls in the UK relating to a final, binding decision on Brexit, they argue that Australia’s Parliament should decide.
We’ve come a long way since Alan Turing, but there’s still a long road ahead.
Update: the bill that this article refers to was “talked out” in the UK parliament and so will not be taken further. This was due to the government’s own plans for a different bill to pardon those convicted which, they say, will be faster and fairer.