Briefly Embracing the Foundations of Queerness in Engineering
It is without question that no reasonable professional engineer would begin a piece of work without a robust and informed understanding of what the project entails. We must know our own personal history in conjunction with our professional history to perform our work properly. In light of Pride Month and in the spirit of enlightenment, a brief introduction to the accomplishments that queer engineers, applied scientists, and inventors have achieved through our collective human experience has been made to bridge the gap between these two histories.
Debate continues to rage on within academic circles and industrial think tanks as to whether it is worth to engender, sexualize, or identify accomplishments or those achieving them in terms of their gender, sexuality, identity, and/or queerness in general. On one side, critics feel that the queer identification of accomplishments in STEM fields potentially takes away from the significance of the accomplishment itself. To others, this direct linkage of queerness to accomplishment strengthens the community, placing recognition and appropriate status to those worthy of their calling. In either belief, it is still important to acknowledge the under-representation of queer individuals in STEM by being able to provide a history that is, in fact, full of these individuals. The below accounts hope to make some of these people and their feats clear, and queer.
Vitruvian Village People
Our queer engineering history lesson begins in 15th century Florence at the height of artistic and technical ingenuity through the machinations of the Italian Renaissance. Well-known as a golden age of art, architecture, invention, and design through the reinterpretation of classical knowledge from bygone eras, there is no greater embodiment of the Renaissance and no greater representation of queer engineering excellence, than Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) himself.
Leonardo’s artistic works such as The Last Supper, Madonna on the Rocks, and the eternally notorious Mona Lisa, tend to outshine his less-celebrated feats in engineering that helped shape modern construction and infrastructure as to how it exists today. As a precedent master in the principles of mechanical engineering, da Vinci freely and gratuitously used simple machines such as levers, gears, and pulleys (among many others) combined with fundamental knowledge in momentum, centripetal force, and friction to design and construct bridges, mills, war machines, and even rudimentary advancements into flight that have inspired and awed for generations since.
Even more obscure than his many technical accomplishments come the apparent questions and many interpretations of Leonardo’s sexuality. As a meticulous note-taker and record-keeper of his many accomplishments, very little personal record is kept into any affairs, relations, or trysts da Vinci may have experienced during his lifetime. What does exist, however, is an accusation of sodomy dating back to 1476 with a well-known goldsmith and male prostitute, Jacopo Saltarelli, against Leonardo and three other Florentine men. While the accusation was later acquitted, the punishment of sodomy was rarely enforced at this time in Florence due to a subdued but existing tolerance towards homosexuality among the middle- to upper-classes.
The state of LGBT rights in Europe from the Middles Ages onward towards the Enlightenment Period was surprisingly ambiguous in its early stages. However, homosexual activity went from being completely legal in the majority of Europe to almost universal enforcement of the death penalty by 1532.
Prussian Polyglot, Holistically Homosexual
Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), was a Prussian-born polymath, explorer, and pre-emptive founder for geomagnetic monitoring. Due to an innate curiosity and a latent homosexuality repressed by the Prussian government early in his youth and education, Humboldt sought to escape the confines of a sexually restrictive world and sate his endless pursuits in science to explore the world in a way unique to very few. Because of these ambitions, Humboldt was able to formulate the importance of the earth’s magnetic field for further accurate meteorological pattern recognition. Faraday and Tesla later used Humboldt’s findings in their own engineering works. Humboldt’s influence was vast and powerful, and could very likely receive some credit in the abolishment of the death penalty against sodomy within the Prussian kingdom in 1794 given his close relations to Frederick William II.
Beyond an Artificial Intelligence
Despite the progresses made with major reforms throughout the continent during the era of 19th century Napoleonic France, persecution and criminalization of LGBT people continued onwards well into the mid-20th century (and beyond, in certain cases!). No account of queer engineering history could be complete without the consideration Alan Turing (1912-1954) had brought to computer science and software engineering. Turing’s major contribution to the United Kingdom during World War II was brought about through the cracking of the Nazi Enigma Code, whereby Allied Forces could intercept the nearly impossible-to-predict naval strategies at play during the European campaigns of World War II. Seen as the father of the modern computer and artificial intelligence through the development of the eponymous Turing Test, Alan Turing’s contributions greatly exhibited the successes that could be achieved despite the enormous pressure of being a closeted gay man directly working for a government that criminalized such orientations.
In cruel fate, this same government found Turing guilty of ‘gross indecency’ in relation to a failed relationship-turned-robbery-turned-persecution in 1952. Forced into chemical castration with the use of a synthetic estrogen compound known as diethylstilbestrol (or DES), rendering him impotent, Alan Turing committed suicide in 1954 due to the pressures and persecutions he faced with his criminalization. Today, pardon has been granted towards Alan Turing and other gay men and women by Queen Elizabeth II in 2013 and the passing of an amnesty law in 2017, informally called the Turing Law in his memory.
From Transistors and Resistors to Transitions and Resistance
No doubt, the influence of Alan Turing can be consciously observed through the work of Sophie Wilson (born 1957), an openly transgender female computer engineer responsible for the creation of the Acorn Micro-Computer and, more contemporaneously, the ARM processor, used primarily in mobile devices today as their base computing processor architecture. Sophie’s work and story continues to inspire new generations of queer engineers across the globe.
While the focus thus far has been European-based, the feats of queer engineers from the Americas are surely just as worthy to mention across such a discussion.
Lynn Conway (born 1938) helped pioneer the Mead & Conway Revolution in Very-Large Scale Integration (or VLSI) computer chip design, wherein millions of transistors were able to be integrated onto a single chip and thereby launching industrial automation into the foray of the Digital Revolution still underway. At the same time these developments were made, Lynn was undergoing her gender transition in the late 1960s, which in turn had caused her firing from IBM and the loss of access to her children due to American legislature at the time. Lynn Conway continues to be an openly vocal trans rights activist along with her work aligned with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (or DARPA) and the University of Michigan.
Fruit Made Free, Skies Laid Bare
Much like Lynn and also a former director at IBM, Tim Cook (born 1960) currently heads Apple as CEO, just prior to Steve Jobs’ death, wherein he worked as COO for the corporation. With a Bachelor of Science in industrial engineering from Auburn University and an MBA from Duke’s Furqa School of Business, Tim Cook was the first Fortune 500 CEO to publicly come out as gay in 2015, stating that ‘[w]here I valued my privacy significantly, I felt that I was valuing it too far above what I could do for other people, so I wanted to tell everyone my truth.’
The first LGBT-identified astronaut, Sally Ride (1951-2012), had figuratively and literally reached for the stars in her pursuits through mechanical engineering and her participation in space with the Challenger mission in 1978. However, being an extremely private individual, the truth about her sexuality was not made public until following her death from pancreatic cancer in 2012. In spite of this, Sally Ride had shown queer engineers across the world that you can go the distance both physically and romantically with her relationship with Tam O’Shaughnessy lasting for more than 27 years together. The LGBT STEM landscape continues to be dynamically shaped today through queer people motivated to undertake technological advancement and fierce pride in their sexual and gender identities.
Crosslinking the Future of LGBT STEM Success
Carolyn Bertozzi (born 1966), credited with the founding of bioorthogonal chemistry, continues to shape this landscape through her research into cellular and genetic engineering and avid support of biotechnology startups across the United States. The founding of biorthogonal chemistry has enabled great advancements in the realm of biopharmaceuticals and modern medicine, and Dr. Bertozzi’s advocacy of queer people in the sciences continues to form new opportunities today.
Elena Rodriguez-Falcon (born 1972), originally of Mexican descent but now residing in the UK, has recently opened a new engineering university aimed at recreating Humanist philosophy with her students by rounding off engineering education with pursuits into the arts, humanities, and social sciences once prevalent in the intelligentsia of bygone times. As a proud and openly gay female mechanical engineer, she hopes to diversify the engineering landscape by broadening intellectual horizons and providing opportunities to people from all walks of life.
Jack Andraka (born 1997), currently an openly gay engineering student at Stanford University, was recognized with several awards for his research into pancreatic cancer detection and carbon nanotubes at age 15. Jack’s current mandate hopes to inspire new generations of LGBT STEM youth into pursuing technical and scientific careers to change the narrative of what queer people can achieve.
With consideration to the above discussed, this article aims not to over-glorify queer engineers as a rewriting of history or in skewing the paradigms of their lives. It is not about taking away the importance of the achievement in the hopes to forward some agenda to indoctrinate instead of educate. Instead, the purpose of this article is to enlighten you, good reader, with a side of engineering history that is not typically discussed or present within the modern-day working world and to recognize that queerness in engineering comes to significant mutual benefits . As engineers, we learn from works made before us, mistakes earlier forged that we come to correct, and in the collective understanding that our profession requires us to grasp. In light of such thinking, I hope that this article sparks new ideas, creates new commonalities among peers, and generates the pride that this time of the year is all about.
We can’t thank Eric enough for putting together this article and shedding light on stories and communities that are not shared enough in our engineering lives. We believe that the engineering profession has room for many different people, personalities, genders, and sexualities, and can only be further enriched as our diversity continues to grow.
In creating this article, Eric consulted a multitude of sources, which can be found here if you would like to read more.
To read more on Eric himself, check out his bio on our contributors page.