Yesterday represented a historic moment for America as the Supreme Court legalized same sex marriage nationwide. I’m happy at this result, and feel proud of my country. I supported same sex marriage and gay rights ever since I first learned about the issue. This was back in 2007, before prominent Democrats such as President Obama and the soon-to-be 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton explicitly pledged their support.
As I ponder about the ruling and its various consequences, I’m noticing from Facebook and other sources (e.g., Scott Aaronson’s blog) that support for same sex marriage is practically universal among computer scientists in academia. To this day, I have yet to have one come to me stating that he/she opposed same sex marriage. Update June 2020: that was true at the time I originally wrote this post five years ago, and remains true today.
Yet this signals an interesting paradox.
One of the main issues regarding diversity in computer science is that it’s heavily dominated by Caucasian and Asian males. The issue of diversity in computer science and other STEM fields has been well-documented, and a quick Google search will lead to articles such as this one.
The Republican Party in America, often referred to as the “anti-gay” party in my social circles, also has a strange dominance of Caucasian males. (To be fair, there are some prominent Asian males, such as former Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal,1 but a dataset is better than a single data point.)
So how come academics support same sex marriage?
I am a biracial, White and Asian male, and my politics are generally left-of-center (with some exceptions), so I am probably one of many examples of this paradox. Perhaps I can offer some opinions on why this is present:
Academia is liberal. This is not controversial, with notable political figures stating that universities are liberal bastions. As Michael Bloomberg commented in his Harvard 2014 commencement speech, ninety-six percent of all faculty campaign donations for the 2012 U.S. presidential election race went to Obama2. Computer science just happens to be one subfield of academia, and there is no obvious reason why we should be more liberal or less liberal than other fields.
Computer science is also a subfield of, well, science, and being a well-educated scientist is inversely correlated with religious fervor (and positively correlated with athiesm), which is then positively correlated with support for same sex marriage. Richard Dawkins, in his thought-provoking book The God Delusion which I highly recommend, eloquently dissects these observations and their subsequent consequences.
Here’s a reason that’s specific to our field: one of the founders of computer science was Alan Turing, who was arguably one of the most important gay figures in history3. His story — that of being the most important British code-breaker during World War II, one of the pioneers of comptuer science … and being prosecuted for displaying homosexual behavior in private (really?), and then committing suicide — is heart wrenching to digest. The Imitation Game, while not the most factually accurate account of his life, shows how our opinions of homosexuals has changed over the past few decades. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that some prominent Republicans who support same sex marriage have a gay relative4. Perhaps computer scientists feel an obligation to respect the father of the field.
There’s a lot more that I’d like to cover, but for now I’m taking pleasure in the current ruling and thinking about the consequences. Hopefully we’ll see other countries continue to follow suit. I’m wondering about what will happen in Japan and China, for example. There’s a really nice map of LGBT rights by country or territory on Wikipedia, but there’s not a whole lot of dark blue (I think that’s the color for marriage … I’m colorblind) by Asia. I don’t know why Asian countries seem to lag behind the curve in gay rights. Still, as I look at how much attitudes have changed in recent times, perhaps it’s not too far-fetched to suggest that within fifty years, same sex marriage will be legal in Japan (as well as China and South Korea). Actually, one might be able to make a reasonable argument for every country except North Korea and the Middle Eastern ones. Update June 2020: Taiwan legalized same-sex marriage in 2019. Thank you, Tsai Ing-wen.
We’ll see what the future holds.
Michael Bloomberg also delivered the 2014 Williams College commencement speech, so I saw him in person. He did not mention the issue of liberal academia; instead, he talked about cracking down on the illegal gun market. ↩
Seeing lists of important gay people like these perplexes me. These lists should only contain people whose sexuality is known without a doubt. Alan Turing fits this criteria; guys like Leonardo da Vinci (really?) do not. ↩