Luca's preface (June 2012): I solicited essays from gay and lesbian colleagues on the occasion of the Turing centennial, and I was (pleasantly) surprised when Oded Goldreich offered a contribution too. Oded's essay is not very specific to the academic or computer science community, and he talks about topics that are probably obvious to gays and lesbians. On the other hand, maybe they are not so obvious to some readers, and so Oded's piece might be a good introduction to the posts that will comes later.
I decided to contribute to this discussion of gays and lesbians (or rather LGBT) in academia (or rather in TCS/TOC) nowadays, because I think it will be wrong if only gay and lesbian colleagues will write about it. While I agree that this topic has a more immediate implication on their life, it is a central social issue and as such it affects the life of each human and each human should be interested in it. The latter claim can be phrased in several ways including nothing that is human is alien to me and no one is free while others are oppressed.
I wish to address three related aspects of the topic, which I will call the personal (or practical/life) aspect, the cultural aspect, and the political aspect. I consider all that I am about to say quite obvious and well-known (at least in some circles), but still believe that obvious things ought to be stated too.
While it is true that attitudes towards LGBT have improved significantly in some societies and in some social groups, it is important to remember that (1) they improved less in other societies, (2) softer forms of oppression are still existing even in more progressive societies, and (3) the shadow of past centuries of oppression is not easy to brush off overnight.
The queer culture has great emancipatory potential because it is rooted in central aspects of its members lives and it couples these personal aspects with a rejection of some "dead" and dysfunctional aspects of the mainstream culture (e.g., the domination of instrumental rationalism (*) and the total division between life, beauty, and ideas). In other words, I am talking about a combination of a form (or culture) of life and a revolt against the existing order (and in particular its oppressive aspects). Indeed, this combination is a bridge between the personal and the political.
(*) By instrumental rationality I refer to confining rationality to low-level calculations of ends, while forgetting that a deeper sense of rationality calls for a critical reflection of the ends and purposes (rather than the non-critical and absent-minded conforming and adoptation of ends suggested by others). This is not unrelated to accepting a total division between real life on one hand, and ideas and beauty on the other hand, which makes life poor and the ideas and beauty deteched.
The second possibility is to focus on promoting its own interests, and remain neutral with respect to other forms of oppression. This is the easy choice, since the dominant social groups encourage the creation of various special interest groups that attempt to promote specific issues while not challenging the basic structures of society.
Clarifications (from June'12):
Back to Oded's page of essays and opinions or to Oded's homepage.