Rediscover STEAM
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Rediscover STEAM

LGBTQ+ Hidden Figures in STEM

Happy Pride Month! This June, let’s honor LGBTQ+ pioneers in science, technology, engineering, and math.

Image Credit: WIRED

Sally Ride

In 1983, Sally Ride became the first American woman in space and the youngest American astronaut to have traveled to space, at age 32. Her eulogy revealed that she was lesbian, making her the first known lesbian astronaut! After leaving NASA, Ride took a fellowship with Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Arms Control, was a physics professor University of California, San Diego, and served as the Director of the California Space Institute. She received the NASA Space Flight Medal, NCAA’s Theodore Roosevelt Award, and places in the National Women’s Hall of Fame and Astronaut Hall of Fame. Ride’s legacy also included Sally Ride Science, an educational program that works to inspire girls and young women to pursue science and math.

Alan Turing

Alan Turing was an important code breaker during World War II, who cracked the German enigma code. It is estimated that Turing and his colleagues cut the war short by 2 years and saved millions of lives. He also pioneered the Turing Test, or imitation game, to determine whether a computer could think like a human, a foundation for artificial intelligence today. Despite recognition as one of the greatest minds of the 20th century, Turing was persecuted for his sexuality. He was convicted as a homosexual and forced to undergo chemical castration and live under police surveillance. It was not until 2009 that the government apologized for his cruel treatment.

Sophie Wilson

An influential transgender computer scientist, Sophie Wilson helped design the BBC Micro and ARM architecture. Most recently, she serves as Director of IC Design at Broadcom. Wilson was ranked eighth in a list of the “15 Most Important Women in Tech,” elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and Computer History Museum, and made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE).

George Washington Carver

George Washington Carver was an agricultural scientist and inventor. He was born into slavery a year before it was outlawed then left home to pursue an education at Iowa State College, where he would become the first Black faculty member. As crop yields in the South suffered, he introduced crop rotation and nitrogen-fixing plants, including peanuts, soybeans, and sweet potatoes that could replenish nutrients in the soil. Carver earned the nickname “The Peanut Man” for his invention of over 300 products using peanuts. Although he did not make any conclusive statements about his sexuality, he was rumored to have relationships with male students and lived the last decade of his life with his assistant Curtis Austin Jr. After his death, he received his own monument and was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Audrey Tang

Audrey Tang is known as one of the ten greatest Taiwanese computing personalities, and they are the first non-binary and transgender individual to be appointed as a minister in Taiwan, as the country’s first Digital Minister. Tang’s work focuses on social innovation, open government, and youth engagement through all means digital.

Magnus Hirschfeld

Magnus Hirschfeld was a German physician, sexologist, and LGBTQ+ activist. He maintained that sexual orientation was innate, not a choice one made, and believed that scientific understanding of sexuality would promote tolerance. Hirschfeld launched the Scientific Humanitarian Committee, the first gay rights organization, and campaigned for the decriminalization of homosexuality. He also founded the Institute for Sexual Science, which provided gay and transgender people advice and counseling, hormone therapy, and sex reassignment surgeries. Being gay, Jewish, and a champion of sexual liberation, Hirschfeld became a target of the Nazi campaign and fled Germany to Switzerland then France.

Lynn Conway

Lynn Conway is a woman of many hats: a computer scientist, electrical engineer, inventor, and transgender activist. She worked at IBM but was fired when the company learned about her plans to transition. Conway took on a new name and identity to restart her career in “stealth mode.” In the computer science world, she is known for the Mead-Conway VLSI chip design revolution. Conway is an advocate for equal opportunity and employment for transgender people and broke barriers in her field as a transgender woman.

Alan L. Hart

Alan L. Hart was a physician, radiologist, researcher, and writer. He pioneered the use of x-rays to detect the early signs of tuberculosis, which helped stop the spread of the disease and improve recovery, especially in rural areas. Hart was assigned female at birth and in 1918, had a hysterectomy, becoming one of the first transgender people in the U.S. to transition through surgery. He was also a novelist and wrote The Undaunted (1936), a semi-autobiographical story of a gay radiologist who faced discrimination in the workplace.

Mary Ann Horton

Mary Ann Horton is a Usenet and Internet pioneer, and she created the first email attachment tool uuencode. She successfully requested the first transgender-inclusive language added to the Equal Employment Policy at Lucent. Horton broke barriers in the workplace and fought for inclusivity and equal opportunity.

Ben Barres

Ben A. Barres was a neurobiologist who studied glial cells and advocate for gender equality and equal opportunity in science. He made important discoveries about how synapses form in the developing brain and studied signals affecting damaged neurons, optic nerve and spinal cord regeneration, and the blood brain barrier. In 2013, Barres was elected to the US National Academy of Sciences, becoming its first openly transgender member!

Edith “Edie” Windsor

Edith “Edie” Windsor was the lead plaintiff in the 2013 SCOTUS case United States v. Windsor, which overturned Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, which was a landmark legal victory for same-sex marriage. She worked at IBM on systems architecture and implementation of operating systems and natural language processors as a Technology Manager. Windsor also helped many LGBTQ+ people become tech literate.

Nergis Mavalvala

Nergis Mavalvala is a Pakistani-American and queer astrophysicist. She was an important contributor to MIT and Caltech’s Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), which set the stage for direct observation of massive dark matter, large-scale nuclear matter, and a test of strong-field gravitation. Mavalvala was a physics professor at MIT before being named the first female Dean of Sciences in 2020. She is openly queer and an advocate for LGBTQ+ people in STEM. Her honors speak for themselves: she received a MacArthur Fellowship in 2010, was recognized as LGBTQ Scientist of the Year in 2014, and earned the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics and the Gruber Prize in Cosmology with the LIGO team in 2015. Read Rediscover STEAM’s article on her.

Organizations & Initiatives to Support

References

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Natasha Matta

Natasha Matta

Interested in all things health equity, social justice, and empowerment.