This month is Pride Month, during which time the LGBTQ community comes out in force to celebrate their identity. I wanted to write an article celebrating the works of the most influential gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual innovators, inventors and scientists throughout history.
However, there was a problem.
There are just not many lists of famous homosexuals in these fields.
While homosexuality has often been associated with the arts and creativity, it has never been as openly accepted within the scientific community. Indeed, being a homosexual was a criminal offense in many countries until recently (and in many countries, it continues to be today), which will have prevented many historical figures from coming out of the closet. In the UK, before 1967 (just over 50 years ago) homosexuality used to be punishable by sentences as harsh as life imprisonment. As a result, many of history’s greatest homosexual scientists may have hidden their true identity.
However, the gay community has a long history of contributions to science and entrepreneurship.
Here I have compiled a number of prominent innovators, scientists, and inventors who were LGBTQ, as they have either openly admitted to being gay or historical records of their relationships strongly suggest they were (see sources at bottom of the article). Let us celebrate their contributions in order to encourage others to follow in their footsteps (list in no particular order).
- Sir Francis Bacon
- Florence Nightingale
- Frederick the Great
- George Washington Carver
- Allan Cox
- John Maynard Keynes
- Lynn Conway
- Sally Ride
- Lana and Lilly Wachowski
- Peter Thiel
- Jon Hall
- Leonardo da Vinci
- Alan Turing
- All of the LGBTQ innovators, inventors and scientists currently working around the world
14. Sir Francis Bacon
Bacon has been called the father of empiricism and modern science. His works argued for the possibility of scientific knowledge based only upon inductive reasoning and careful observation of events in nature.
Most importantly, he argued science could be achieved by the use of a skeptical and methodical approach whereby scientists aim to avoid misleading themselves.
Without the groundwork that he laid, many of history’s most impactful scientific discoveries may never have occurred.
Historical notes believe that he was primarily homosexual.
13. Florence Nightingale
Most people will know Florence Nightingale as a nurse during the Crimean War, checking on wounded soldiers during the night giving her the name “The Lady with the Lamp”.
What most people don’t know was that in addition to making nursing a respected profession, she was also an accomplished statistician and creator of some of the first infographics.
She was the first female elected to the Royal Statistical Society and pioneered using new ways of displaying data in visual ways that could be understood by non-statisticians, such as in coxcomb charts. She became the first woman ever to be awarded the Order of Merit by the British government.
What is interesting is even though her work led to the advancement of women’s rights, she publicly noted that she believed that women were not as capable as men. Her sexuality is up for debate, with some of her writings suggesting she may have been a lesbian, although the general consensus was that her religious beliefs kept her chaste.
12. Frederick the Great
You may not have heard of Frederick the Second, ruler of Prussia from 1740 until 1786. But in Germany, he is known as “Old Fritz” and modernised many laws to make society more progressive, and is particularly famous for the innovative way in which he revolutionised agriculture using the humble potato.
While the potato was discovered by Europeans after the Spanish invaded South America in the mid-16th Century, it wasn’t initially popular back in Europe, as it was seen as having no taste or flavour and people were suspicious of it. While Frederick wanted his peasants to begin farming the vegetable to help feed the people, they refused, saying
“What the farmer doesn’t know, he will not eat”.
So Frederick found an innovative way to convince his people of the value of the simple crop: he pretended that they couldn’t have it because it was too valuable.
He planted fields of potatoes around his Berlin residence and had his royal guards “protect” them as if there were gold. This made the peasants take note that these humble potatoes must actually be quite valuable. What they didn’t know is that Frederick had instructed his guards to not protect the potatoes very well, and sometimes even pretend to be asleep, allowing the peasants to successfully steal some of the crop, try it and plant it in their own fields. This helped spread the vegetable and give it the respect it now enjoys.
To this day, if you visit Old Fritz’s grave near Berlin, you will often see people putting a potato on his gravestone like my fiancee is doing in this picture.
Historical accounts believe he was homosexual, which enraged his family and society at the time. After a lowering defeat on the battlefield, Frederick wrote:
“Fortune has it in for me; she is a woman, and I am not that way inclined.”
11. George Washington Carver
Carver was an American agricultural scientist, best known for his work with peanuts and sweet potatoes to improve soil quality in the Southern United States. He was at his time once called the “Black Leonardo”.
Born into slavery, Carver’s former master raised him and his brother as their own children, and encouraged them to pursue their intellectual advancement. He rose through the academic fields while researching crop rotation at the Tuskegee Institute, placing particular emphasis on using nitrogen-fixing legumes to improve the conditions of soil depleted by cotton usage.
In order to encourage the use of peanuts, he is believed to have invented and cataloged many uses of the legume, including 105 recipes and several patents for using peanuts in the production of cosmetics, stains and paints. However, it is a myth that he invented peanut butter (which had been eaten by the Aztecs by the 15th century).
He is believed to have been bisexual, having both marriage to a woman and relationship with a man later in life.
10. Allan Cox
You may not have heard of Allan Cox, but as someone who studied Geography at University, his work is of significant importance.
An American Geophysicist, Cox and his colleagues were instrumental in developing a way to measure the changes in the Earth’s magnetic alignment and the geomagnetic polarity time scale. This enabled the testing of the seafloor spreading hypothesis, which gave some of the first credible evidence to the theory of plate tectonics, which Cox became a leader in researching and teaching.
He was in a long relationship with his colleague Clyde Wahrhaftig.
9. John Maynard Keynes
Keynes was a leading British economist whose theories on Macroeconomics profoundly influenced the economic policies of Western Governments in the 20th Century. His work was so influential that this branch of economics is known as Keynesian Economics.
Some of his core tenets were the usage of interest rates by central banks to balance the needs of economic growth and inflation.
While an open homosexual in his younger years, Keynes eventually also began dating women and married a Russian ballerina.
8. Lynn Conway
Conway is an American Computer Scientist and is credited with the invention of generalized dynamic instruction handling, a key advance used in out-of-order execution, used by most modern computer processors to improve performance.
She worked at MIT, IBM, Xerox PARC and DARPA and invented dimensionless, scalable design rules that greatly simplified chip design and design tools.
However, her journey was not a simple one. Born as a male, she suffered from gender dysphoria. She had to leave MIT after the medical climate at the time wouldn’t allow her desired gender transition in 1957, and she was fired from her job at IBM in 1968 after she informed them of her intention to transition.
It was IBM’s loss, as her later work at MIT, Xerox and DARPA on VLSI microchip design revolutionised the industry. She completed her gender transition in 1968.
7. Sally Ride
Sally Ride was NASA’s first female astronaut, going into space in 1983 and still holding the record as the youngest American Astronaut in space at 32 years old.
Her duty was to operate the robotic arm on the Challenger SPAS-1.
In 2001, she founded Sally Ride Science, a non-profit which continues to promote STEM literacy, with a particular focus on getting girls interested in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.
Although she was married to a man until the mid-1980s, by the time of her death in 2012, Ride had been in a 27-year relationship with a female partner, Tam O’Shaughnessy.
6. Lana and Lilly Wachowski
There is only one film I have ever seen in the cinema twice. That film was the Matrix, and to this day remains one of my favourite films.
It was directed by the Wachowski brothers, Lawrence and Andy, and was one of the most innovative films ever made. In addition to introducing the world to a beautiful mix of Sci-Fi and Philosophy, some of the special effects for the film required the directors to invent completely new filmmaking techniques. The most famous of these is probably the multi-camera setup used for the groundbreaking “Bullet time” 360° Slow-Motion effects.
However, both brothers were in reality transgender, even though initially they did not acknowledge this publicly. Lawrence eventually transitioned to Lana Wachowski in 2008, and was the first major Hollywood director to come out as transgender. 8 years later in 2016, Andy then also came out as transgender before transitioning to Lilly Wachowski.
5. Peter Thiel
You may not always agree with his politics, but you cannot ignore Thiel’s involvement in some of the most innovative technology company of the past few decades.
Co-founder of Confinity in 1998, which started PayPal in 1999, Thiel is often referred to as the “Don of the PayPal mafia”, a a group of former PayPal employees and founders who have since founded and developed additional technology companiessuch as Tesla Motors, LinkedIn, Palantir Technologies, SpaceX, YouTube, Yelp, and Yammer.
Thiel himself was also the first outside investor in Facebook and provides millions of dollars into forward-looking research technologies through the Thiel Foundation and Thiel fellowship.
While now openly gay and married to his long-time partner, Thiel was furious at being outed in a 2007 article by Gawker media. This resulted in him bankrolling a lawsuit involving Hulk Hogan to successfully bankrupt Gawker.
4. Jon Hall
Jon “Maddog” Hall is the Board Chair of Linux international, the open source movement promoting the freely available Linux operating system.
He is an advocate for using open source software and hardware available for any entrepreneur, no matter what their background is.
In June 2012, in honor of Alan Turing, Hall published an article in Linux Magazine announcing that he is gay.
3. Leonardo da Vinci
You may have heard of this guy and his contributions to both science and the arts.
Not only did he paint some of the most respected works of art of all time (including the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper), he was also a voracious designer of innovative new inventions as well as a skilled illustrator and scholar of the natural and human world. In fact, during this period of the Renaissance, science and art were not seen as exclusive of one another.
During his years, Da Vinci is reported to have documented over 13,000 pages of notes in his studies of various subjects, which covered a fascinating variety. These included studies in Light, Human anatomy, Botany, Geology, Cartography, Hydrodynamics, Astronomy, Alchemy (chemistry), Mathematics on Perspective and Geometry, as well as Engineering challenges varying from Dams, Bridges, War Machines to Flying Machines.
I can think of nobody in history who can boast a portfolio as varied as that.
While Da Vinci kept his love-life private, it is widely believed that he was homosexual, based on accounts from those who knew him at the time, as well as court documents where it was revealed he had been involved in a sexual encounter with several men.
2. Alan Turing
Turing was a British Mathematician and father of the general-purpose computer.
Without him, we would not have the device which you are reading this article on or any other modern computer.
During World War 2, he worked for the British code-breaking centre at Bletchley Park, helping to build the algorithms and machines which broke the previously “uncrackable” Enigma codes used by the Nazis, helping to bring an end to the war.
Following the war, he used this knowledge to design the Automatic Computing Engine, which was one of the first designs for a stored-program computer. This was later improved upon by his work developing the Manchester Computers, some of the first stored-program computers.
However, the world lost one of its most influential minds far too early, as in 1952 Turing was charged with the crime of “gross indecency” after admitting to having had a homosexual relationship with another man, which was a crime at the time. Not only did this charge mean that he could no longer work for the Government Communications Headquarters, in exchange for not going to prison he was forced to accept chemical castration through injections of Diethylstilbestrol (DES), an estrogen medication which left him impotent.
In 1954, he was found dead due to a reported cyanide-based suicide.
In September 2009, British Prime Minister released the following statement about how Alan Turing had been treated at the time:
Thousands of people have come together to demand justice for Alan Turing and recognition of the appalling way he was treated. While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time and we can’t put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him … So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan’s work I am very proud to say: we’re sorry, you deserved so much better.
While the world is a more forgiving place now, this showcases the fear that many of the world’s LGBTQ scientists had to live with for what would happen if their secret were to come out.
1. All of the LGBTQ innovators, inventors and scientists currently working around the world
I want to finish acknowledging the least-famous innovators, inventors and scientists in the world, as they are the ones shaping their own history by currently living it.
Laws and attitudes around the world towards LGBTQ+ people and their rights are changing. Until 1975, gay men and women were banned from working in the federal departments of the United States, which excluded them from pursuing research at Universities or many academic careers. But today, marriage equality and gay rights are becoming more commonplace, although there is still a way to go.
According to a recent survey published in Nature, 40% of men studying STEM subjects but in a sexual minority (not straight) would leave the degree after four years, much higher than the 26% of straight men who would leave. This is partly because the environment in academia and laboratories is still adjusting to how to treat more diverse people who don’t look or behave like “traditional” scientists. There are also very few out gay role models which LGBTQ scientists, especially at undergraduate level, can look up to.
However, things are improving. More and more scientists, innovators and inventors are coming out, and more support networks like those listed on the LGBTSTEM Day website are there for people looking for advice or community.
If you identify as LGBTQ and are either in STEM fields or working on innovation, then please continue your important work and writing your own story.
And let’s hope that in 100 years from now, we will have thousands of more inspirational world-changers to add to this list.
Did I miss any LGBTQ innovators, scientists or inventors from this list? Who should they be? And if you are LGBTQ and working in STEM fields, what has your experience been? Let me know in the comments below.
Latest posts by Nick Skillicorn (see all)
- Corona releases Fit Packs: Beer cans that link together - June 20, 2019
- Podcast S2E37: Duncan Wardle – The former Head of Innovation and Creativity at Disney - June 16, 2019
- 14 LGBTQ+ Innovators, Inventors and Scientists who changed the world - June 10, 2019
- Fascinating new innovation: 3D colour X-rays - May 27, 2019