XXVIII.2 March - April 2021
Page: 26
Digital Citation

Ignored intersections

Gopinaath Kannabiran

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This article is part two of a three-part series exploring the entanglements between queer desire and the design of computer-related technologies. In the first part, I argued for understanding queer desire as a generative force in computing research and knowledge production in STEM-related fields. In this article, I will draw attention to some of the queer identities and experiences that are not accounted for within existing heteronormative discourses of technological progress.

In 2011, I noted that "nonbinary genders are largely ignored and our understanding of gender itself is binaried" [1] with respect to HCI research on gender. Over the past decade, an increasing number of researchers have engaged with queer people's lives through their work and contributed important insights to various HCI domains. During a panel discussion on "Being Queer in Technical Environments" at the 2016 ACM Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing Conference, I highlighted some of the major contributions made by queer people to computing technology in order to advocate for an inclusive work environment through institutional-level policy changes. In some sense, my argument was a plea to treat queer colleagues with dignity in professional environments because of what they can contribute to others as researchers, teachers, and innovators. An audience member asked, "But what about inclusivity of queer people who are not brilliant?" I was at a loss for words. This incident pushed me to critically examine how queerness is articulated and whose experiences are accounted for through the rhetoric of inclusivity. I hope that by drawing attention to the intersections of ignored queer experiences, this column serves as a critical reflection for designing technology-mediated inclusive futures.


Alan Turing's 1950 work "Computing Machinery and Intelligence" is often viewed as a milestone in the field of artificial intelligence. It begins with a suggestive imitation game played with three people: a man, a woman, and an interrogator, who may be of either sex. A heteronormative reading of Turing's paper can offer only a myopic understanding of his logic, de-eroticized, sanitized, and removed from his sexual life as an openly gay man who lived in a violently homophobic society. But even when Turing's sexuality is acknowledged, it is often cast as an incidental side note to his intellectual achievements. Homay King brilliantly argues that Turing's ability to code-break Nazi-encrypted signals at Bletchley Park cannot be separated from Turing's lived reality of having to use "cryptic channels through which gay men in World War II—era England were obliged to interact with one another" [2]. King declares that Turing's "interests in cryptic communication, the limits of computational thinking, and the relationship between humans and machines were driven by a queer, romantic, and deeply sociable sensibility" [2]. Drawing inspiration from Alan Turing's life, Zach Blas and Mica Cárdenas state that "the drives and assumptions of a heterosexual sexuality produce certain ways of producing and knowing that can be embodied in objects created by heterosexual scientists, whether they are conscious of this or not. Similarly, homosexual desires can inform and help to materially construct the technicity of objects" [3]. While it important to give credit where it is due, I also feel compelled to note here that it is problematic for multiple reasons when queer people's struggles and experiences are narrated through an ethnocentric privileging of white gay men's lives in technology-related discourses.

Diversity and inclusion are neither ancillary concerns nor optional niceties for research and innovation in computer-related fields.

As I was attempting to compile a list of queer people who have made significant contributions to computational research as a part of my background research for this series, I found it puzzling and troubling that it included no lesbian or bisexual women. In a key feminist text, Adrienne Rich argues that "women's choice of women as passionate comrades, life partners, co-workers, lovers, tribe, has been crushed, invalidated, forced into hiding and disguise," underscoring how "lesbians have historically been deprived of a political existence through 'inclusion' as female versions of male homosexuality" [4]. While I cannot responsibly speculate about the absence of lesbian and bisexual women's voices and contributions to computer research here, it is worth noting that heteropatriarchal discursive norms present different challenges, impose different restrictions, and require different amendments through the rhetoric of inclusivity for different queer populations. Therefore, it is necessary to pay attention to queer identities and experiences that are not accounted for and often ignored within existing heteronormative discourses of technological progress.

One of the fundamental skills that students must learn in introductory computer science courses is abstraction. Learning to abstract helps students decide a) what to pay attention to and, by extension, what to ignore, and b) how to generalize based on specific instances. This seemingly mundane activity carries enormous significance in matters of political representation, especially in technical discourses whose goal is designing inclusive future technologies. In his book The Reflective Practitioner, design theorist Donald Schön puts forth the notion of design frames as underlying structures of belief, perception, and appreciation that allow us to see and conceptualize things in a specific manner. Schön approaches problem framing as a creative design response for opening up innovation possibilities. Establishing meaningful differences (toward diversity) and engendering valid generalizations (toward inclusion) are core challenges that we face while: a) teaching abstraction for computational problem solving, b) framing a design problem for a particular user group, and c) posing research questions and positioning research contributions through a specific epistemic orientation. Therefore, diversity and inclusion are neither ancillary concerns nor optional niceties for research and innovation in computer-related fields. Focusing on queer identities and experiences that are often ignored within existing heteronormative discourses of technological progress, I will briefly articulate two intersectional issues concerning disability and caste.

Vectors of oppression such as homophobia, transphobia, sexism, racism, classicism, and ageism operate intersectionally but also vary depending on cultural context. Examining intersections of queer desire amid heteronormativity and disability amid ableism brings forth several challenges. Disabled people's sexual needs and sexual desire are seldom considered as human rights issues or given priority while determining quality-of-life concerns. Robert McRuer points out that "little notice has been taken of the connection between heterosexuality and able-bodied identity" and puts forth a crip-theory perspective [5]. McRuer asserts that "critical queerness and severe disability are about collectively transforming (in ways that cannot necessarily be predicted in advance)—about cripping—the substantive, material uses to which queer/disabled existence has been put by a system of compulsory able-bodiedness, about insisting that such a system is never as good as it gets, and about imagining bodies and desires otherwise" [5]. Young queer people with physical or developmental disabilities are more likely to be at higher risk of sexual abuse compared with their able-bodied peers, who may better defend themselves against unwanted sexual advances or bullying. More research is required that examines the intersection of queer desire amid heteronormativity and disability amid ableism while designing inclusive spaces and speculating technology-mediated futures.

Understanding human sexuality as a multidimensional, culturally bound experience that involves touch, emotions, relations, and values, among other things, presents several pragmatic challenges for researchers interested in designing technologies with marginalized groups. Two adult men holding hands in public invokes different reactions with varying consequences in different countries. Different cultures parse sexuality in different ways contingent upon multiple factors; therefore, Western conceptualizations may not always be appropriate or sufficient across contexts. For instance, Aniruddha Dutta argues that while "the globalization of transgender as a form of political identity has promised greater rights and governmental inclusion for gender variant persons," within the Indian context "various expressions of lower class/caste gender/sexual variance are rendered illegible in this rubric, delegitimizing associated subjects who are left without access to constitutional rights and protections and/or treated as exploitable populations" [6]. Grace Banu, a Dalit transgender activist and founder and director of the Trans Rights Now Collective, highlights the intersections of queer rights and caste privilege in India. Banu has noted that many lower-caste queer people in India do not have government identification, which excludes them from receiving important social and economic benefits during the Covid-19 pandemic. In order to effectively assist the most vulnerable groups of society through the design of technology-mediated futures, it is crucial to pay attention to these ignored intersections of queer peoples experiences in STEM-related fields.

back to top  References

1. Kannabiran, G. Where are all the queers? A research blind spot in gender and HCI. The Second International Symposium on Culture, Creativity, and Interaction Design, 2011.

2. King, H. Keys to Turing. In Virtual Memory: Time-Based Art and the Dream of Digitality. Duke Univ. Press, 2015.

3. Blas, Z. and Cárdenas, M. Imaginary computational systems: Queer technologies and transreal aesthetics. AI & Society 28 (2013), 559–566.

4. Rich, A. Compulsory heterosexuality and lesbian existence. Signs 5, Women: Sex and Sexuality 4 (1980), 631–660.

5. McRuer, R. Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability. New York Univ. Press, 2006.

6. Dutta, A. Legible identities and legitimate citizens. International Feminist Journal of Politics 15, 4 (2013).

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Gopinaath Kannabiran is a design educator, HCI researcher, and sexual rights activist currently working as a postdoc at IT University of Copenhagen.

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The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2021 ACM, Inc.

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