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How Alan Turing inspires me as a queer woman of color in tech

September 4, 2019

Growing up as a queer woman with an interest in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM), no one was as influential to my passion within technology as Alan Turing. 

A British scientist, famously known as a pioneer of computer science, Alan Turing remains an inspiration, an incredible changemaker, and a testament to bravery, resilience, and unparalleled courage. During World War II, his heroic act of developing a machine that helped break the German Enigma code not only paved the way for the U.S. victory in the war, but his creation also became the precursor to the modern computer and revolutionized the field of technology, artificial intelligence, and computer science as we know it. 

Despite his groundbreaking work, Turing’s contributions have been overlooked and looked down upon because of his sexuality, being a gay man. During his time, homosexuality was illegal and any indication of homosexuality was condemned and criminally punishable for “gross indecency.” Given the options of either prison or hormonal treatment to “cure” his homosexuality, he chose to recieve the treatment, a procedure known as chemical castration. Sadly, he later committed suicide by eating an apple he laced with cyanide.

Sixty years later, Queen Elizabeth II formally pardoned Turing and tributes were made to his contributions to the computing industry. This pardon by the queen under the Royal Prerogative of Mercy was inspired by a very influential and high-profile campaign driven by tens of thousands of people, including Stephen Hawking. Turing’s legacy remains so important today that he was tributed some sixty years after his death, not only because his actions saved countless lives and helped win World War II, but also because his achievements that left a remarkable impact on the scientific community should be remembered and honored. We would not have won the war if it weren’t for Turing. History would have taken a different turn. He pushed boundaries in a world that surrounded him with doubts and hatred. Yet, we would not have the technology that we depend on so much today if it weren’t for his brilliance and bravery that allowed him to break barriers. 

Despite his pardoning and tributes, I still strongly believe not enough has been done to acknowledge the impact of his innovations. Commemorations will not suffice; what is needed is continued sharing of his story and recognition for what he has done in order to inspire other marginalized groups pursuing a career in scientific and technical fields.

During my deepest struggles, I think of the struggles Alan Turing faced and how they might relate to my struggles of pursuing technology as a queer woman of color. When I think of this, it reminds me of how I too can create success despite the challenges of being a queer individual in tech, being judged and isolated because of my sexuality. I look to Turing’s struggles as my motivation, as a reminder of the power I have despite vulnerability, to recognize how far I have become, and to imagine who I will become. 

Turing showed me what a true hero is. During his time he was was unable to be open and honest about his sexuality because it was illegal, and as a result, he endured the traumatic psychologial and physical abuse when he was exposed for being gay. His story inspires me to stay true to myself and to live an open and honest life, given the privilege and community I have to be open to those around me. Because of him, I am inspired to live by my dreams and trust my gut no matter how difficult life may present itself. He is a representation of the queer community and an icon in my eyes–someone I will never forget.

It is a mandate for queer folks including myself to not only fight for our own rights and the rights of those around us, but to fight in honor of the queer folks that have fallen victim to discrimination and homophobia in the past for us to have the rights we have today. Integrating the lessons from Turing’s life story into STEM education and incorporating him into historical LGBTQ+-inclusive curriculum is absolutely necessary. All young learners should be able to imagine themselves succeeding in whatever field they dream of; having inclusive curriculum that recognizes people like Turing is needed to empower people of all backgrounds to dream big.

While we have lost a hero, we have learned a lesson. We can not let history rewrite itself into our modern frameworks by erasing from people like Turing from history lessons. We can not shy away from the struggles of his past, but instead, we must confront the wrong-doings and learn from them instead of running away. To me, his success despite the descrimination that tried to hold him back is an inspirational lesson that deserves to be heard, shared, and amplified. I only hope that we continue to keep his legacy alive, that we follow in his footsteps, and that we learn from his story. I am sure that Turing would feel the same.

Shannon Li is a GLAAD Campus Ambassador and a native New Yorker, from Brooklyn, New York. She is a sophomore at University of Michigan studying Information and Cognitive Science, with an interest in the intersection between technology, design, and social impact. She strives to use technology to build and design products that integrate accessibility, inclusion, and innovation together.

the voice and vision of a new generation