Alan Turing | Tennesse Williams | Tony Kushner | Truman Capote

Alfred Nobel And The Gays

Andre_Gide_1930Nobel Week is over! Many congrats to the winners. But the question nags: Why are there almost no LGBT Nobel laureates?

This thought's been bugging HuffPo's Laurence Watts all month, and the resulting essay, "Where Are The Gay Nobel Prize Winners?", is worth a read. He writes:

Let me rattle off some names you should recognize, and hopefully you'll see my point: Marie Curie (physics in 1903, chemistry in 1911), T.S. Eliot (literature in 1943), Winston Churchill (literature in 1953), Ernest Hemingway (literature in 1954), Martin Luther King, Jr. (peace in 1964), Henry Kissinger (peace in 1973), Milton Friedman (economics in 1976), Desmond Tutu (peace in 1984), Mikhail Gorbachev (peace in 1990), Kofi Annan (peace in 2001), Jimmy Carter (peace in 2002), Harold Pinter (literature in 2005), Paul Krugman (economics in 2008), Al Gore (peace in 2007) and Barack Obama (peace in 2009).

Obviously I've only picked the famous names, so this is not a representative selection, but all of the above share one thing in common aside from being Nobel Prize winners: they were all married, and not to someone of the same sex ...

I've tried to go through the ranks of non-famous Nobel Prize winners, as well, the ones who won for discovering new elements or very small things, or for inventing Band-Aids. I found nothing, which leads me to conclude that either we don't know enough about the private lives of these sweater-wearing types or the Noble Foundation is a bunch of queer-bashers.

Laurence mentions two names that, you'd think, ought to appear on a list of Nobel laureates: the Englishmen John Maynard Keynes and Alan Turing. Turns out, there's good reasons these gayfolk never won. Keynes, who was at one time regarded as a brilliant conservative economist (and who has, for some reason, lately been written off as a socialist freedom-killer), did his work decades before the introduction of the Nobel Prize for Economics. Alan Turing, the freakish polymath who helped build advanced code-breaking computers for the Allies in WWII, and proceeded to do pioneering work on both artiicial intelligence as well as cellular biology, probably couldn't have won because his accomplishments were so diffuse. (Anyway, the Nobel committee prefers to award living people, and after being found guilty of sodomy by the English court, Turing committed suicide rather than submit to chemical castration.)

Laurence acknowledges that somewhere, deep in the bowels of Nobel history, one of the more obscure winners might've played for our team. And he's right, if you liberally interpret the word "obscure": Andre Gide, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1947, was quite gay and quite famous. Still, there are a lot of Nobel laureates, and especially when considering literature, one doesn't seem like enough. Perhaps Capote flamed out early; maybe James Baldwin didn't write enough; and yeah, Ginsberg was really inconsistent. But Frederico Garcia Lorca? Jean Genet? Tennessee Williams? Marcel Proust?

All ignored. Oversight? Happenstance? I've got no idea, but I hope the situation changes soon. At HuffPo, Laurence writes:

Why, then, is having a gay Nobel Prize winner important? Duh, why was having a black president important? It's about aspiration. It seems odd to me as a writer that I can interview gay Oscar winners (Dustin Lance Black), Olympic gold medallists (Greg Louganis), Grammy Award winners (Elton John), CEOs (Apple's Tim Cook), Prime Ministers (Iceland's Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir) and even billionaires (David Geffen), but not a Nobel Prize winner.

I think that sounds right. IMHO, it's about time that Tony Kushner walked away with the prize. That guy's magic.

What other LGBT folk deserve it? Do we have a bunch of brilliant chemists, physicists, biologists, economists, epic poets, novelists or dramatists waiting in the wings? Who are they, and why aren't they famous?

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  1. The answer is simple.

    The same reason an openly LGBT person has never won an Academy Award for directing or acting.

    Only a few years ago, nearly all gay men and women were closeted. I'm sure many LGBT people won both awards, the just weren't open publicly about their sexual orientation.

    As the collective social closet continues to self-destruct, openly gay men and lesbian women will emerge as Oscar winners and Nobel Laureates. Sooner rather than later.

    Posted by: Aaron R | Oct 16, 2011 11:38:31 AM

  2. During did take the female hormones to avoid a prison sentence. It significantly contributed to his subsequent depression and suicide

    Posted by: Steve | Oct 16, 2011 11:40:36 AM

  3. "Who are they, and why aren't they famous?"

    I think I made this point on Towleroad a few years ago after YAGAWME (Yet Another Gay Award With Mostly Entertainers) - sites like this rarely celebrate the scientists, engineers, technologists who are gay, even if they are out and proud.

    If you don't know any of them, then shame on you.

    Posted by: Mike | Oct 16, 2011 11:40:38 AM

  4. *Turing


    Posted by: Steve | Oct 16, 2011 11:41:37 AM

  5. BTW doesn't the very openly gay Patrick White, who won the Literature Prize in 1973 count?

    His bio on the Nobel site acknowledges "Manoly Lascaris, who has remained the mainstay of my life and work."

    Posted by: Mike | Oct 16, 2011 11:50:55 AM

  6. Selma Lagerlöf 1909

    Thomas Mann 1929

    Patrick White 1973

    Posted by: Johan | Oct 16, 2011 12:02:58 PM

  7. or Fernando Pessoa, generally acknowledged the greatest modern poet writing in Portuguese- or the 5 greatest poets if you consider his "heteronyms" or aliases-

    Posted by: entrepoid | Oct 16, 2011 12:02:59 PM

  8. Al Gore.

    Posted by: Dubya | Oct 16, 2011 12:35:47 PM

  9. I would say that it's because, even now, any person with a bit of noteriety will be known more as a gay individual than for the work they've done. But once it happens for the first time and the initial "shock" wears off, we'll see it be more feasible. It will be a great honor when it happens.

    Posted by: Ste | Oct 16, 2011 12:37:41 PM

  10. I think you'll find that Alan Turing had no choice but to submit to hormone 'therapy' in the form of estrogen which caused him to develop feminine breasts. He then killed himself by poising an apple with cyanide and eating it. However, I'm hesitant to call it suicide, it would be more accurate to call it murder by self-proxy, the responsible party, the murderer, being the British government.

    Posted by: Kevin | Oct 16, 2011 1:07:03 PM

  11. Within minutes of being posted readers started correcting the ahistorical view of the author. He assumed that because he and one friend couldn't think of gay Nobel prize winners that he uncovered something. He didn't. There were numerous posts listing Nobel prize winners who were gay. Ignorance of information does not make a good column. What is more bizarre is that you hype this badly researched column.

    Posted by: cls | Oct 16, 2011 1:08:05 PM

  12. Dag Hammarskjöld, Nobel Peace Prize, 1961

    Posted by: Fernando | Oct 16, 2011 1:14:07 PM

  13. There is no Nobel Prize for mathematics. Alfred's wife ran off with a math teacher.

    Posted by: Brucci | Oct 16, 2011 1:16:22 PM

  14. Kudos to those who filled in some of the blanks.

    Tony has done some very good things, but did you see "Caroline or Change?"

    Posted by: Alan | Oct 16, 2011 1:52:49 PM

  15. One other overlooked person: W.H. Auden.

    Posted by: charles | Oct 16, 2011 1:53:55 PM

  16. Brucci: Really? Is that why there's no prize?

    CLS: Hey, I pointed out that the HuffPo missed one. I'm embarrassed that I didn't think of Thomas Mann, and I admit to having no knowledge of the others. When Cambridge scholars say they can't think of any at all, I assume they're looking at, at least, a serious gayness deficit.

    I notice that the exceptions posted here are pretty literary. The sciences still seem lacking.

    On that point, Mike wrote:

    "I think I made this point on Towleroad a few years ago after YAGAWME (Yet Another Gay Award With Mostly Entertainers) - sites like this rarely celebrate the scientists, engineers, technologists who are gay, even if they are out and proud."

    Mike: It's a valid criticism. But I've spent most of my life involved in science popularization, most recently at the James Randi Educational Foundation, where I worked for two years. We'd put on big conferences that brought together a whole mess of scientists of varying degrees of fame -- Richard Dawkins, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Steve Novella -- as well as a lot of science writers, like Jennifer Ouellette. And there just weren't many LGBT folks in that crowd.

    It sometimes made me wonder if there wasn't some kind of subtle cultural pressure directing LGBT's towards the humanities and away from the sciences.

    - BKT

    Posted by: Brandon K. Thorp | Oct 16, 2011 1:56:14 PM

  17. Did a little deeper in to Henry Kissinger.

    Posted by: Danny | Oct 16, 2011 1:56:53 PM

  18. Alan Turing was a 'freakish polymath'? Why, because he was smart? I really don't appreciate that.

    Posted by: Wilberforce | Oct 16, 2011 2:07:08 PM

  19. What about Dag Hammarskjöld?

    Posted by: Kenton | Oct 16, 2011 2:41:37 PM

  20. Andre Gide, as mentioned, though married, is gay.
    Daniel Carleton Gajdusek who won the 1976 prize in medicine went to jail for molesting boys. It is always controversial whether we should identify him, the Greeks or those boy-molesting priests as gay. Not to mention that some of the lovers and sex partners in Northern Africa of Gide are underage boys.

    Posted by: simon | Oct 16, 2011 2:48:44 PM

  21. Most of Turing's most impressive and Nobel worthy work was concealed by the official secrets act until well after his death. It wasn't that Turing was in the closet, just a great deal of his work was. The British government broke up his bombs and and the computer as well to maintain their perceived edge in code breaking thereby giving up a nearly 10 year lead on the Americans in computing.

    Posted by: Chris | Oct 16, 2011 3:33:27 PM

  22. It can take decades for your work to be recognized by the Nobel committee. I suspect a lot of queer scientists have probably stayed carefully closeted to avoid upsetting grant boards that funded their research. Maybe some of them will come out of the closet in the future or not even enter as being queer becomes less of a social issue.

    Posted by: TSG | Oct 16, 2011 3:39:35 PM

  23. It's worth pointing out that Randi himselfis gay.

    "It sometimes made me wonder if there wasn't some kind of subtle cultural pressure directing LGBT's towards the humanities and away from the sciences."

    - again reinforced by gay award after gay award promoting very transient pop media personalities. You end up with very narrow models for behaviour. As Gandhi said "You must be the change you want to see in the world."

    Turing was more of brilliant poly-mathematician than polymath, but in this day and age when you can get called a Renaissance man for being able to chew gum and drive ...

    Posted by: Mike | Oct 16, 2011 4:06:01 PM

  24. It isn't that the Nobel committee prefers to honor the living; it's that Nobel's will does not allow them to consider the dead for any prize. That's why there was a minor problem with one of this year's winners in medicine, who passed away a few days before the big announcement. (The Nobel committee didn't know he had died until after the announcement, though, so they're going to honor him anyway.)

    Posted by: jeem | Oct 16, 2011 4:11:06 PM

  25. The Nobel for Economics is relatively new, but I'd be surprised if Deidre McCloskey (who is "famous" within the realm of academic economics) isn't considered in a few years, and that would be big for transgender persons :

    Posted by: Barry | Oct 16, 2011 4:31:34 PM

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