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Bildemontasje av Hart, Turing, Conway og Ride


These are the queer geniuses that changed the world

Written by Stine Pjaaten Published: June 21 2021

One of them was among the first in the USA to change gender, another might have shortened WW II by several years. Meet the technologists who not only changed the world but also fought a battle to be themselves.

They lost their jobs, were branded as being sick, had to live in sin and were punished with injections that made them impotent. We don’t have to go many years back in time before being lesbian, homosexual, bisexual or trans sealed your fate – no matter where in the world you lived.

So in order to mark this year’s Pride Month, we recall some of the most well-known technologists through time, who in addition to being pioneers in their fields also dared to be themselves – in spite of the times they were living in.

Saved thousands of lives through a screening program – and took charge of their own

Alan L. Hart
The American physicist Alan Hart was one of the first people in the USA who changed gender. Photo: Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission (OCHC).

Alan Hart (1890-1962) was a pioneer in medicine and healthcare in the 1900s – a time when tuberculosis was a leading cause of death in the USA and large parts of Europe.

Educated at Yale, Hart was a physicist, researcher and radiologist who introduced the use of x-rays to discover illnesses in their early stages. He developed a screening program that was implemented all over the USA, thereby helping to save thousands of lives.

Although Alan Hart was born Lucille Hart, he referred to himself as a boy from an early age. While studying medicine, problems arose due to the fact that as a woman, Hart liked women, so he sought and received psychiatric help from Professor J. Allen Gilbert. In the end Hart asked Gilbert to operate and change him from a woman to a man, justifying this request by stating that people with abnormal desires should be sterilized.

This is how Hart became one of the first individuals in the USA to change gender. Gilbert wrote in his notes that the operation was decisive for Hart, giving him «a new outlook on life, and ambitions that are worthy of his great intellect».

Alan Hart started a new life and married twice, the final marriage lasting the rest of his life. He wrote several novels and short stories, working as the director for hospital admissions and rehabilitation for the Connecticut State Tuberculosis Commission until his death in 1962.

The brain behind theoretical computer technology and artificial intelligence

Alan Turing
Alan Mathison Turing managed to crack the Nazis’ Enigma code during the Second World War, but was himself shattered by medical treatments of homosexuality. Photo: Scanpix

Another Alan who must absolutely be included here is Alan Mathison Turing (1912-1954). A British long-distance runner, mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst, philosopher, computer scientist and mathematical biologist. Amazing!

You’ve probably heard of him, but if not, you’re most likely familiar with his work; that is, he discovered the Turing machine – the idea that all computers are based on – and is considered the founder of theoretical computer technology and artificial intelligence.

But it doesn’t stop there. During the Second World War, Turing worked at the British Centre for Cryptanalysis. He proposed several techniques for cracking German encryption, and was responsible for cracking the Nazi’s Enigma code. This contributed to the Allies’ victories in a series of decisive battles, and it’s presumed that the work he led shortened the war in Europe by between two and four years. Turing’s story has been made into the 2014 film «The Imitation Game», directed by MortenTyldum and starring Benedict Cumberbatch, who was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Alan Turing.

Unfortunately, Turing’s incredible story had a tragic ending. Homosexuality was illegal at that time, and Turin had been involved in several relationships with other men. In 1952 he was arrested for «indecency», subsequently being punished with hormone injections of estrogen that made him impotent.

Two years later he was found dead in his own apartment, and it’s assumed that he was poisoned by hydrocyanic acid. While the death was written off as suicide, a number of people believe that it’s highly unlikely that Turing took his own life. It wasn’t until 2009 that the British Prime Minister Gordon Brown extended a public apology on behalf of the British government for «the appalling way [Alan Turing] was treated».

Discovered groundbreaking computer technology

Lynn Conway
One of the USA’s most prominent computer scientists, Lynn Ann Conway, who was born a male, lost her job at IBM when she started the process of changing gender. (Photo: Alchetron, Free Social Encyclopedia for the World)

Lynn Ann Conway, born in 1938, worked for the computer giant IBM throughout the 1960s. Here she discovered a revolutionary way of making the microchips found in computers more powerful by using a method that most modern computers use today. Starting in her childhood, Conway knew she’d been born in the wrong body, and when she finally got the opportunity to start the process of changing gender, she lost her job at IBM.

After Conway started a new life as a woman, her accomplishments went unacknowledged for several decades. She worked her way up in the computer industry and wrote a groundbreaking textbook about VLSI – technology that allows for the use of far fewer yet more efficient microchips, a discovery that was a precursor to modern-day computers and mobile phones.

Her career continued to move forward, and she was involved in several prestigious projects, including her recruitment to a research program in the Defense Department. She was also the key individual behind research on high-performance data processing, autonomous system technology and intelligent weapon technology.

As her work became more widely known, Conway realized that her gender reassignment would soon be revealed. So she came out as a trans person at the close of the 1990s, later writing about her experiences on her personal website. All of this finally got Conway recognition for her entire life’s work.

Today Lynn Ann Conway is 81 years old and a well-known spokesperson for trans people all over the world.

The first American woman in space

Sally Ride
Sally Ride broke down barriers as the first American female astronaut. Photo: Shutterstock

The last hero on our list is the first American woman in space: Sally Ride (1951-2012). She was a member of NASA Astronaut Group 8 in 1978 – the first class that women were allowed to join. She was one of 8,000 applicants, and was chosen along with 34 others to take part in this program.

Ride had a PhD in physics from Stanford University. She received a lot of media attention, and during a press conference was asked questions like «Will being in space affect your reproductive organs?» and «Do you cry when things go wrong at work?» In spite of the strong focus on her gender, Ride wanted to talk about herself as an astronaut. On June 18th, 1983, she was the first American woman in space onboard the Challenger space shuttle.

Later on, Ride became director of the California Space Institute at the University of California-San Diego. In 2001 she started a company called Sally Ride Science – with the goal of inspiring children to become interested in science and mathematics. She founded the company with the help of two friends and her female partner Tam O’Shaughnessy.

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