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Programming Pride: 10 LGBTQI+ Pioneers of Computer Science

8 min read

In honor of Gay Pride and the anniversary of Stonewall, we‘re highlighting a group of pioneers of computer science: people who were (or are) lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. As it turns out, there are many LGBTQI+ pioneers beyond Alan Turing and Apple CEO Tim Cook. The 10 LGBTQI+ people profiled here are individuals whose life work and discoveries have played an integral role in the development of modern computer technology.

Of course, many of these individuals lived and worked in an era when social pressures (and even laws) required them to hide their true orientation or identity—which makes it all the more fitting that we celebrate them today. We’ve listed them chronologically by birthdate.

Sofia Kovalevskaya (1850-1891): Russian mathematician

Sofia KovalevskayaBorn in Moscow, Sofia Kovalevskaya was the first major Russian female mathematician, the first woman to work as an editor for a scientific journal, and a contributor to the development of the Cauchy–Kovalevskaya theorem. Women at that time were not allowed to formally attend university, but Kovalevskaya was allowed to audit mathematics classes at the University of Heidelberg, Germany. In 1874 she presented papers on topics such as partial differential equations, the dynamics of the rings of Saturn, and elliptic integrals. Kovalevskaya became the first woman in Europe to earn a doctorate in mathematics. She later secured a position at Stockholm University with the help of Swedish mathematician Gösta Mittag-Leffler, whom she met through his sister, a woman with whom she had an intimate “romantic friendship” that lasted until Kovalevskaya’s death from influenza at the age of 41.

Alan Turing (1912-1954): English computer scientist, mathematician, and cryptanalyst

alan turing: LGBTQI+ computer science pioneerGenerally regarded as the “father” of theoretical computing science and artificial intelligence, Alan Turing is the name that most often comes to mind when people think about an influential gay computer science pioneer. His life story become even more well known thanks to the acclaimed 2014 film The Imitation Game. A graduate of Cambridge and Princeton, Turing worked as a cryptanalyst during World War II, playing a key role in the development of a technique to decipher encrypted German messages, which helped the Allied forces defeat the Nazis. After the war he worked at the National Physical Library in London, where he contributed to the Automatic Computing Engine (ACE) and developed the blueprint for stored-program computers. In his later work at the University of Manchester he developed the idea of artificial computer intelligence, including proposing an experiment to test AI, which is still referred to today as the “Turing Test.” Turing’s life had a tragic ending: arrested and prosecuted for “gross indecency” when authorities discovered he was gay, he committed suicide by ingesting cyanide and died at the age of 41. Turing was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most important people of the 20th century.

Christopher Strachey (1916–1975): British computer scientist

Christopher Strachey was born in Hampstead, England, and his father worked alongside Alan Turing as a cryptographer at Bletchly Park during World War II. Strachey studied mathematics and physics at Kings College, Cambridge, where he suffered a nervous breakdown during his third year (which his sister attributed to his struggles to come to terms with his homosexuality). After an early career as a research physicist and teacher, Strachey developed a program in 1951 that allowed the Pilot Ace computer at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) and later the Manchester Mark 1 to play a game of draughts (checkers). He also wrote one of the first computer music programs, which played “Baa Baa Black Sheep” on the Ferranti Mark 1. Strachey is also remembered as one of the developers of Combined Programming Language (CPL), an early precursor to the influential C programming language.

Peter Landin (1930–2009): British computer scientist

Born in Sheffield, England, Peter Landin studied mathematics at Clare College, Cambridge University, and for a time worked as Christopher Strachey’s assistant. His insight that computer programs could be based on mathematical logic led to the development of programming languages that could be universally understood by different machines. He eventually became emeritus professor of theoretical computation at London’s Queen Mary College. Landin was married but was openly bisexual. In the early 1970s he became involved with the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), and in the later part of his life became more and more devoted to gay rights activism.

Edith Windsor (b. 1929): IBM engineer and American LGBTQI+ rights activist

Edith “Edie” Windsor is best known as a gay rights activist who was the lead plaintiff in the landmark Supreme Court Case United States v. Windsor, which overturned Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and led to the legalization of gay marriage. What’s less well known is that Windsor was a computer programmer and an engineer, working with the UNIVAC at Combustion Engineering, Inc., and later at IBM in the 1950s and ’60s, eventually becoming a senior systems engineer.

Lynn Conway (b. 1938): American computer scientist

Lynn Conway is a pioneer of microelectronics chip design with an extraordinary life story. She attended both MIT and Columbia University, and in 1964 was recruited by IBM to work on a team building an advanced supercomputer. While at IBM she transitioned from male to female, and was subsequently fired by the company in 1968 after revealing her intention to live as a woman. Conway then began living with a new name and a new identity, and was forced to rebuild her career from scratch, going on to do important work at organizations including Memorex, Xerox PARC, and DARPA. In 2014 Time magazine named her one of the “21 Transgender People Who Influenced American Culture.” 

Jon Hall (b. 1950): programmer, Executive Director of Linux International

Jon “Maddog” Hall got his nickname from his students at Hartford State Technical College, where he was head of the computer science department. It was while working at Digital Equipment Corporation that Hall first became interested in Linux. He was also executive director of Linux International, a nonprofit that sought to promote the use of Linux-based operating systems. In 2012, Hall came out as gay in an article published in Linux Magazine.

Sophie Wilson (b. 1957): British computer scientist

Sophie Wilson studied computer science at Cambridge University, and while on summer vacation she designed a microcomputer used to control feed for cows. In the early days of her career she worked for Acorn Computers, where she contributed to the design of the Acorn System 1, an early 8-bit computer released in 1979, and later the BBC Micro, which proved hugely successful in the UK. Wilson is best known for her development of the Acorn RISC Machine (ARM) processor, still used today in 21st century smartphones. Wilson is a transgender woman.

Mary Ann Horton (b. 1955): American Usenet and Internet pioneer

Mary Ann HortonMary Ann Horton: LGBTQI+ computer science pioneer earned her Ph.D. in computer science from Berkeley in 1981, where she contributed to the development of Berkeley UNIX, which led to the growth of the Usenet in the 1980s. Horton is a transgender woman who, in addition to her contributions to technology, has also made significant contributions to transgender rights in the workplace. In 1997 she asked her then employer Lucent Technologies to include the language “gender identity, characteristics, or expression” in its Equal Opportunity (EO) nondiscrimination policy, which led to Lucent becoming the first company in the United States to add transgender-inclusive language to its EO policy.

Audrey Tang (b. 1981): Taiwanese computer programmer

Audrey Tang: LGBTQI+ computer science pioneerBorn in Taiwan, Audrey Tang is a self-taught programmer who was learning Perl at the age of 12, launching a startup at 15, and already working in Silicon Valley by 19. Something of a programming wunderkind, she's best known for leading the Pugs project to develop the Perl 6 language, starting the Perl Archive Toolkit (PAT), and her role as an outspoken advocate for free software and an open web. A transgender woman, Tang currently devotes most of her energy to political activism and social causes.

If you are interested in learning more about this topic, be sure to check out the fascinating online series A Queer History of Computing by Jacob Gaboury, who is an Assistant Professor of Digital Media & Visual Culture at Stony Brook University.

Rainbow flag image courtesy of Shutterstock.com. Photos of Sofia Kovalevskaya, Alan Turing, Mary Ann Horton, and Audrey Tang all in the public domain.

This post was updated from a previous version published in June 2016.