Pride Inspired In Science: Alan Turing, Ben Barres, and Legacies
Published: Jun 30, 2023 by Peter Vaillancourt
Pride month has always been both a fight and a celebration for the LGBTQ+ community, and for me that continues to ring true as my own rights - as a trans man - are threatened across this nation in 2023. 1 The very first Pride march was held in honor of the Stonewall Uprising of 1969, a moment where the people of our community chose to stand up for themselves and refuse to be silenced, erased, or persecuted any more. 2 It was not the first time LGBTQ+ people had to make that choice, nor will today be the last day. And the annual celebration of Pride that we engage in each June honors that choice to continue to exist, and dare to thrive, in the face of adversity.
The communities in which scientists, researchers, academics, and all other forms of Research Software Engineers exist are unfortunately not an exception to the norms of society that do not always accept or embrace LGBTQ+ identities. However, these blogs that we in the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Working Group of US-RSE have put out throughout the month of June are an intention to highlight some of those individuals in the history of science and technology who have risen above the challenges we face, and been able to shine. They have shone bright as role models because of their career accomplishments and their bravery in choosing to live an honest life by being true to themselves and those they love. So in today’s post, I would like to talk about two such people who have been role models to me as I have navigated my own career as a trans man in science and technology.
You may have heard of Alan Turing, known to many as “the father of computer science and artificial intelligence,” a British mathematician, and a victim of homophobic laws. 3 You can find numerous accounts of his life in popular culture now, through film, books, and so on. I do not endeavor to improve upon their account here, only to speak about the personal effect he has had on me.
I first read Alan Turing’s famous paper “On computable numbers, with an application to the Entscheidungsproblem” 4 when I was an undergraduate student studying applied mathematics and physics. A friend in the computer science lab that I frequented had suggested it to me as something I might enjoy, and I think it would be fair to say that it changed my life. This was the era of my epiphany that all computation, at the core, is truly just mathematics. My burgeoning love of mathematics joined with a new fascination for the world of computing in a way that has propelled my mind and my career since. But more than that, I had a secret.
By the time I was reading Alan Turing’s paper, you see, I had already started my transition several years before. I had gone through various stages of coming out multiple times (first for sexual orientation, then gender identity) as a teenager and then young adult. I had endured a lot of rejection, and settled on a life where I barely told anyone at my undergraduate university about my gender identity. I was fortunate enough to be seen as male, which was satisfying, but left some longing to be known more fully and embraced. Through the story of Turing’s life, his honesty in being true to himself even when he faced legal repercussions, was inspiring to me. 5 His life and his work gave me hope that someday I could have both a meaningful career and be known. I have held onto that hope ever since, and these days I am proud to say that I live that honest life. I am visible in the hopes that some other student may one day be inspired too.
While a much less well-known name, Ben Barres has had a profound impact on me and the scientific community. His career as a neuroscientist and neurobiologist at Stanford University involved groundbreaking work in glial cells as well as advocacy for gender equality in science. 6,7 After coming out in 1997, he experienced dramatically different treatment as a scientist simply because he was perceived as male. His natural response was to then become a vocal advocate for women in science. One major example of this is his 2006 Nature paper called “Does gender matter?” 8, which scientifically breaks down and refutes the argument of innate ability based on gender. If you have not read it, I highly recommend it.
For me personally, Ben Barres completely shifted the realm of possibilities I considered when I thought of becoming a scientist. He was the first transgender scientist I had ever heard of, and the first role model I felt a genuine kinship with naturally. His story validated my own in so many ways that I sorely needed, and demonstrated to me the need for visibility of diversity in science.
Furthermore, in every corner of science, mathematics, technology, etc. that I have existed in, I have seen and felt the difference of being treated better than my female colleagues when I am seen as “just another guy” in the room. It is only when I have been open about being transgender that I have sometimes become the target of similar forms of bias, and thus, the desire to improve gender equity is always in my heart and mind. Looking back, I credit Ben Barres as the initial catalyst that drove me to DEI efforts, where I continue to pour out my passion in the hopes of building a better, more equitable, scientific community where all people’s contributions are valued.
Leaving a Legacy
As Pride month is coming to a close today, I am reflecting on the impediments we have overcome, but I am also looking forward to the outcomes of the seeds of hope we are planting today simply by celebrating. By celebrating the life of Alan Turing and Ben Barres, I realize the potential for the legacy that myself and my contemporaries will leave. What students will decide to pursue a career in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics because of the work you are doing today? Whether you are a member of the LGBTQ+ community or an ally, I hope that you can be a part of the legacy that we are leaving to continue the fight and the celebration of Pride. I am proud of who I am today, and hopeful about where we’re going.
Over 120 bills restricting LGBTQ rights introduced nationwide in 2023 so far. American Civil Liberties Union. (2023, June 28). https://www.aclu.org/press-releases/over-120-bills-restricting-lgbtq-rights-introduced-nationwide-2023-so-far ↩
About : Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and Queer Pride month : library of Congress. The Library of Congress. (n.d.). https://www.loc.gov/lgbt-pride-month/about/#annual-pride-traditions ↩
Alan Turing: True to Himself. 2015. Glsen. https://www.glsen.org/sites/default/files/Alan%20Turing%20True%20to%20Himself-Final.pdf ↩