Columns

XXVIII.1 January - February 2021
Page: 21
Digital Citation

Your sexuality does not matter!


Authors:
Gopinaath Kannabiran

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Beginning with this column, as part of a three-part series, I will explore the entanglements between queer desire and the design of computer-related technologies. I will use the word queer in an intentionally ambiguous, playfully suggestive, and endlessly contestable manner. When referring to people's identities, I use queer as an umbrella term for those with historically marginalized gender, sex, sexuality, and reproductive identities, including but not limited to gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex, asexual, gender variant, gender nonconforming, gender fluid, post-gender, child-free, kinky, and polyamorous. Queer as an umbrella term is often contentious and multiply transitive, defying fixed universal definitions. Queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick formulates queer as "the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone's gender, of anyone's sexuality aren't made (or can't be made) to signify monolithically" [1]. In this context, "queer scientists are those who, living in conscious recognition of their sexual orientation, are influenced by this orientation in many facets of their lives, including the creative source and social matrix of their scientific careers" [2]. My goal in this series of columns is to explore the politics of knowledge production around how queer ways of being can inform the design of future technology and computing research.

Alan Turing, Sophie Wilson, Christopher Strachey, Lynn Conway, Mary Ann Horton, Audrey Tang, and Jon Hall are a few examples of queer people who have made pioneering contributions that have both benefited society at large and the field of computing. There are also several unrecognized queer people from different cultures who have made and continue to make important contributions through their research, practice, and service in computer-related fields. Sexuality is often assumed to be irrelevant to computing, relegated as a niche topic, and when acknowledged, included as an afterthought to the development of technology. Specifically, queer sexuality is seldom credited as a generative force within computing research and practice. Conceptualizing computing solely as a rational, logical, and technical knowledge project fails to acknowledge the social, material, and interpersonal relations involved in the production of such knowledge. Narratives of computing that are built on a staged divorce of abstract logic from embodied desire are problematic and entangled with queer people's struggle for their identities, well-being, and lives. For instance, Jacob Gaboury traces a queer history of computing through the lives of five gay men, arguing that "queerness is itself inherent within computational logic, and that this queerness becomes visible when we investigate those cleavages that partition the lives of these men into distinct technical and sexual spheres of existence" [3]. Feminist scholar Maria Puig de la Bellacasa argues for treating matters of fact as "matters of care" while studying science and technology, wherein caring "is connected with awareness of oppression, and with commitments to neglected experiences that create oppositional standpoints" [4]. Paying attention to how queer ways of being inform research on computing technology carries a "speculative commitment to think about how things would be different if they generated care" [4]. Formulating scientific rigor in terms of commitment to exploring neglected experiences and generating care necessitates critical engagement with the politics of knowledge production.


Queer sexuality is seldom credited as a generative force within computing research and practice.


Queer people's contributions to computing research can be traced only if queer computing professionals are able to come out about their sexuality while risking physical harm to their bodies, unfair discrimination at the workplace, emotional turmoil in personal relationships, and societal prejudices that alienate queer people. Queer computing professionals must often make complex decisions about when, how, and to whom to disclose certain aspects of their queer identities in the context of their professional lives, a process commonly known in Western countries as coming out. This ritual of coming out is never completed and always evolving for queer people, who live in a heteronormative world that is laden with the assumption that cis-heterosexuality is the only valid, normal, and natural expression of human sexualities. Even in countries with legal protections for queer people, coming out almost always has personal costs associated with it in terms of dealing with everyday heteronormative prejudices. There is emotional labor involved in having to explain, justify, and defend oneself repeatedly despite past painful experiences associated with coming out. It is not always possible or desirable to explicitly build one's professional identity with respect to sexual and gender identity. People may choose not to disclose their sexual identity for a variety of reasons, including fear of harm to their physical body, their family's well-being, and their livelihoods. Contrary to assumptions about developed nations being more tolerant of queer people, "issues of homophobia and transphobia are not defined by levels of development within nations" [5]. Apart from these issues, there is a two-tiered silencing of queer desire that hinders a faithful representation of queer people's knowledge contributions and how queer ways of being can inform the future design of technology.

Heterosexuality as default. Contributions of those who choose not to disclose their queer identities are often assumed as achievements of heterosexual individuals because of existing heteronormative assumptions. In scenarios where coming out may be risky for an individual due to queerphobic prejudices, silencing queer experiences further perpetuates heteronormativity. Queer people have to explicitly and repeatedly declare their identity in order for a queer history of computing to exist amid heteronormative narratives of technological progress. Fear of queerphobic repercussions reify and normalize heterosexuality as the only valid, valuable, and visible sexuality in professional contexts. Unfortunately, overcoming societal and systemic prejudices against queer people is framed in terms of an individual's responsibility of coming out, thus condemning those who cannot disclose their sexuality as closeted and leading inauthentic lives. As they say, damned if you do, damned if you don't!

Your sexuality does not matter. When queer people explicitly claim their sexuality, their intellectual contributions are often positioned as separate from their sexual identity—accepted despite their queerness, but their queerness is rarely attributed as a generative force. In other words, acceptance of queer people in STEM-related fields is premised on the faulty assumption that embodied sexual desire should not matter for rationally objective science. A bogus framing of equality for all through erasure of differences is deceptively alluring and conveniently adopted because it does not require the questioning of heteronormative assumptions. In such instances, inclusivity is reframed in terms of the magnanimity of heterosexual individuals who may choose to look past the queerness of their colleagues, thus bypassing the uncomfortable task of having to repeatedly examine their own prejudices and take affirmative action toward policy-level changes for addressing systemic inequities against queer people.

As a person of color, when someone tells me that they do not see color (however well intentioned they may be), I gently remind them that they can afford to not see color. The cost of "your sexuality does not matter" is not the same for heterosexual and queer individuals working in a heteronormative professional context. A feigned scientific objectivity that refuses to acknowledge the real-life struggles of individuals is both ethically inhumane and politically negligent, since it circumvents the social responsibility of fighting injustice in favor of maintaining neutral appearances. As if abstract computing logic floats as disembodied ahistorical universal truths untethered from messy power cables and devoid of human power struggles!

Tracing the contributions of queer people living in a heteronormative world that punishes disclosure of queer desire poses a difficult methodological dilemma: How does one uncover what has been historically rendered invisible and muted out of context as irrelevant under the guise of neutrality? Trying to establish universal causal relations and declare fixed meanings are fundamentally antithetical to queerness as intentionally ambiguous, playfully suggestive, and endlessly contestable. Then why bother examining the entanglements of queer desire and computing? Paul Giladi argues that "the failure to properly recognize and afford somebody or a social group the epistemic respect they merit is an act of injustice in the sense of depriving individuals of a progressive social environment in which the epistemic respect afforded to them plays a significant role in enabling and fostering their self-confidence as rational enquirers" [6]. By acknowledging the contributions of queer people, we can begin to seek some form of restorative justice for the violence and injustice committed against queer people all over the world. Having visible queer role models can help other queer computing professionals to gain a sense of belonging and confidence in their own abilities, pave the way for structural changes through collective action, and serve as inspiration to uplift other marginalized people in computing-related professions.

back to top  Acknowledgments

I would like to thank Tuck Leong, Jean Hardy, Os Keyes, Katta Spiel, and Alex Taylor for their timely and valuable feedback.

back to top  References

1. Sedgwick, E.K. Tendencies. Duke Univ. Press, 1993.

2. National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals Inc. (NOGLSTP) resource. Queer scientists of historical note; https://www.noglstp.org/publications-documents/queer-scientists-of-historical-note/

3. Gaboury, J. A queer history of computing. Rhizome. Feb. 13, 2013; https://rhizome.org/editorial/2013/feb/19/queer-computing-1/

4. de la Bellacasa, M.P. Matters of care in technoscience: Assembling neglected things. Social Studies of Science 41, 1 (2011), 85–106.

5. Out Now Global. International LGBT2020 Homophobia Report, 2020; https://www.outnowconsulting.com/media/1332/idaho-discrimination-report-global-v7.pdf

6. Giladi P. Epistemic injustice: A role for recognition? Philosophy & Social Criticism 44, 2 (2018), 141–158.

back to top  Author

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

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Copyright held by authors

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

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