Happy Pride Month! We’re stopping in this month to tell you all about the queer history of computing. You probably know a few of the famous LGBTQIA2+ tech pioneers — like Alan Turing and Tim Cook — but we bet you haven’t heard about all 10 of the individuals below whose life work played an integral role in the development of modern computer technology. Many of these individuals lived and worked in an era when social pressures (or even laws) required them to hide their true identities—which makes it all the more fitting that we celebrate them today.
We’ll start with the kingpin — the beloved and widely renowned father of computer science, Alan Turing. In the mid 1930s, Turing devised the idea for a universal machine that could decode and action a set of instructions; this Turing machine, as it came to be known, precedes the digital computers we use today. A graduate of Cambridge and Princeton, Turing worked as a cryptanalyst during World War II, when he designed and created a code-breaking system called the Bombe. The Bombe was so adept at deciphering the so-called unbreakable German codes that historians now say Turing effectively shortened the war by as much as four years. In his work after the war, Turing developed the idea of artificial computer intelligence and devised an experiment to test AI’s ability to think like a human being, which is still referred to today as the “Turing Test.”
After an early career as a physicist and teacher, Christopher Strachey transitioned into computer programming, where he made a name for himself by blending computer science and art. When he was still a total novice, Strachey, over the course of a single evening, wrote one of the first computer music programs, which played “Baa Baa Black Sheep” on the Ferranti Mark 1. In 1952, by which time he was an accomplished programmer, Strachey developed a love-letter generator that ran on the Manchester Mark 1 using a random number generating algorithm. These projects are widely regarded as the first examples of algorithmic or computational art. Strachey is also remembered as one of the developers of Combined Programming Language (CPL), an early precursor to the influential C programming language.
Edith Windsor is well-known as the queer rights activist whose victory in the landmark Supreme Court case United States v. Windsor helped overturn DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act), giving federal recognition to same-sex couples for the first time. Windsor filed the lawsuit after she was unable to claim a tax exemption left to her by her late spouse, as the term “spouse” referred only to heterosexual couples at the time. What’s less well known, however, are Wilson’s contributions as a computer scientist. Windsor worked at IBM for 16 years and achieved the highest technical position at the time, Senior Systems Programmer. Praised especially for her “top-notch debugging skills,” Windsor founded the consulting firm PC Classics after leaving IBM, where she made a point to provide tech educations for queer groups.
Jon “Maddog” Hall is the board chair for The Linux Professional Institute and a vocal champion of free and open-source software. Prior to this, Hall was head of the computer science department at Hartford State Technical College, where his temper earned him the nickname “Maddog.” On Alan Turing’s 100th birth anniversary, Hall wrote an article in Linux magazine, in which he came out as gay and called Turing his hero: “[Turing] did so much for the industry with which I have spent the last 42 years of my life.”
Mary Ann Horton is a computer scientist and transgender activist. She is one of the principal founders and designers of Usenet, a precursor to the modern Internet that is still in use today. Horton also invented uuencode, which was the forerunner to email attachments. In addition to her contributions to technology, Horton 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) policy, which led to Lucent becoming the first company in the United States to add transgender-inclusive language to its EO policy.
Audrey Tang is a nonbinary transgender software developer and self-described “civic hacker” who was appointed as Taiwan’s official Digital Minister in 2016. Tang is the youngest and first transgender official in Taiwan’s executive government. As Digital Minister, Tang is the force behind Taiwan’s tech-based COVID-19 response: promoting an open source website for finding shops with masks in stock, developing a vaccination reservation system, and creating an anonymous contact tracing system. Born in Taiwan, Audrey Tang is a self-taught programmer who was learning Perl at the age of 12, launching a startup at 15, and working in Silicon Valley by 19. A programming wunderkind, Tang is well-known for leading the Pugs project to develop the Perl 6 language, starting the Perl Archive Toolkit (PAT), and their role as an outspoken advocate for free software and an open web.
The author of two books and co-editor of another, queer-identifying Mary Gray is currently a Senior Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, and a faculty member at Indiana University. Gray, an anthropologist and media scholar, focuses on how people’s everyday uses of technologies transform labor, identity, and human rights. In 2020, Gray was named a MacArthur Fellow for her contributions to the study of technology, digital economies, and society. Her recent research has focused on “ghost work” (i.e., contract labor such as crowdsourcing and the impact of automation on on-demand economies). Dr. Gray chairs the Microsoft Research Ethics Review Program and is recognized as a leading expert in the emerging field of AI and ethics.
In 2014, Apple CEO Tim Cook became the first CEO of a Fortune 500 organization to come out as gay. The famously private Cook decided to do so after receiving letters from children struggling with their sexual orientation. He came out in a Bloomberg essay, saying, “If hearing that the CEO of Apple is gay can help someone struggling to come to terms with who he or she is…then it’s worth the trade-off with my privacy.”
As CEO and cofounder of Bitwise Industries, Irma L. Olguin Jr. aims to activate human potential in "underdog" cities across the United States. In 2010, Olguin created 59DaysOfCode, a software development competition to cultivate the Central Valley’s tech industry. She also co-founded Hashtag, an open workspace for designers, developers, and entrepreneurs to collaborate. Then in 2012, Bitwise Industries was founded to strengthen the tech industry in Fresno. In 2021, Olguin was included in the Fast Company Queer 50, a ranking of the most influential and innovative queer women and nonbinary people transforming the world of business, tech, and beyond.
Megan Smith was the United States’ third Chief Technology Officer during the Obama administration, helping the President and his teams harness the power of data and technology on behalf of the nation. After graduating from MIT, Smith served as CEO of PlanetOut, a leading LGBT online community in the early days of the web. She then served as a Vice President at Google, first leading New Business Development and later serving as a VP in the leadership team at Google[x] -— where she co-created the company’s “SolveForX” innovation community project as well as its “WomenTechmakers” tech-diversity initiative. During her tenure she led the company’s acquisitions of major platforms such as Google Earth, Google Maps, and Picasa.Currently, Smith is the CEO for shift7, a company striving to innovate tech-based solutions for systemic economic, social, and environmental problems.
There are far more queer & trans coding icons than we have room for in this single blog post; if you’re eager to learn more, check out our Trans Day of Visibility blog, in which we talk about game-changing trans computer programmers like Angelica Ross, Lynn Conway, Sophie Wilson, and more.