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?

Comments

  1. Aaron R says

    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.

  2. Mike says

    “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.

  3. Mike says

    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.”

  4. entrepoid says

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

  5. says

    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.

  6. Kevin says

    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.

  7. cls says

    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.

  8. Brandon K. Thorp says

    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

  9. Chris says

    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.

  10. TSG says

    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.

  11. Mike says

    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 …

  12. jeem says

    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.)

  13. says

    Mike:

    Yep, Randis guy. But he wouldnt claim to be a scientist. Hes an entertainer — another humanities guy — who just happened to spend the second half of his career stumping for the beauty and sanity of the scientific method.

    – BKT

  14. simon says

    There is no Nobel prize for mathematics. Therefore Turing no way can win the Nobel prize. Another even greater mathematician :
    Kolmogorov is rumored to be gay. He is one of the greatest mathematicians of the twentieth century or may even be the greatest.
    http://tulsagrad.ou.edu/statistics/biographies/kolmogorov.htm.
    Even if there were National Enquirer or People Magazine at that time, the public was not interested in his life. Unless we can find something in the KGB archives,it is difficult to verify the rumor.

  15. cls says

    The author said: “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.”

    in fairness there was more than one missed, as numerous other posters have mentioned. There were several. And there are valid reasons for the number of gay recipients to be small. The number of total recipients in all of history is a bit over 500, so it is not a huge number. Most of them were given out prior to the rise of the gay rights movement. So many of them would have been closeted.

    And, if a scientist wins a prize, very, very few people immediately want to check out his/her sexual orientation. In fact I’ve never heard of any recipient mentioned as heterosexual or homosexual at all. People made presumptions but I’ve never seen people reporting on the prize mentioning this sort of inconsequential fact.

    We are trying to reach a world where sexual orientation doesn’t matter, yet condemn people for not making a big deal of it. In fact, there are numerous gay recipients that we know about and probably many more we don’t know about.

  16. LincolnLounger says

    If Barack Obama can get one ten minutes after he was elected for “peace”, then the Nobel Prize doesn’t mean much anymore anyway.

    Clearly, we need a quota system to ensure that there are more gay winners in the sciences.

  17. Paul R says

    John Nash (“A Beautiful Mind”) won for economics in 1994, and there’s substantial evidence that he’s (at least) bisexual. And for all the commenters saying that Turing wasn’t eligible because he was a mathematician, note that Nash is considered a mathematician, not an economist (though his work is widely used in economics).

    And there have always been rumors about T.S. Eliot and even Churchill (referring to “naval tradition” as nothing more than “rum, sodomy, and the lash”–a quotation he didn’t say, but reportedly wished that he had) and Hemingway. Of course rumors don’t count and all four of these men were married. But as others have noted, times have changed, and it’s impossible to know what kind of lives they’d lead or work they’d produce today.

  18. Sancho says

    I believe that Lorca might well have won if he had not been murdered during the Spanish Civil War. Remember that he was only 38 when he died, and the literature Nobel usually rewards a lengthy career; Thomas Mann won in his middle 50’s, a much more typical age. If Lorca had kept on producing plays as good as Yerma and Casa de Bernarda Alba through his 40’s, he’d have had a strong chance of winning the big prize.

  19. Sancho says

    As far as Tennessee Williams goes, he did deserve the prize. But it’s widely speculated that his well-publicized troubles with alcohol and drugs in later life, and his frequent – and sad – public appearances when he was obviously out of control and totally unpredictable, scared the committee off.

    I’d personally like to see Edward Albee win, but right now American literature isn’t in high favor.

  20. simon says

    Yes, John Nash should be included here. There was police record of him arrested by an officer while cruising public toilets. He was even fired from his job because of it. Unfortunately he never admitted the facts in interviews. He won the Economics prize for a certain work on a minor branch of mathematics called game theory which became well known in Economics. Actually it was his Doctoral thesis if I remember correctly. Turing’s work is different. It may be well known in computer science but not in Economics.

  21. BABH says

    “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.”

    It’s hardly subtle. The hard sciences are wildly misogynistic, and women’s liberation is a prerequisite for gay liberation. When women are better represented in the sciences, LGBTs will be too.

  22. Clif3012 says

    “It’s hardly subtle. The hard sciences are wildly misogynistic, and women’s liberation is a prerequisite for gay liberation. When women are better represented in the sciences, LGBTs will be too.”

    I’m not disagreeing with the your main point- I don’t work in the sciences so have no idea- but more that the humanities by their very nature discover more personal introspection than the sciences, so it doesn’t surprise me that we know more about authors’ personal lives, and ergo their sexuality, than we do scientists.

    In analyzing the work of a scientist, sexuality usually doesn’t come into it (nor should it). But its pretty hard to analyse literature without an understanding of who wrote it.

  23. Alan says

    Since there’s a lot of talk about Turing, it should be mentioned that the “The ACM A.M. Turing Award, is an annual award given . . . to ‘an individual selected for contributions of a technical nature made to the computing community. The contributions should be of lasting and major technical importance to the computer field’. The Turing Award is recognized as the ‘highest distinction in Computer science’ and ‘Nobel Prize of computing'” (from Wikipedia).

    The award has been given annually since 1966. Fewer than 10 award recipients have spouses mentioned in their Wikipedia entry. Sexuality and personal lives just don’t come up in these things.

  24. Vikram in Mumbai says

    I think there are possibly systemic reasons for the lack of queer Nobel science laureates which are beyond any possible prejudice on the part of the Swedish academies that decide the winners.

    But one way to look at it is to look at other minority groups underrepresented in the lists -blacks, for example (are there any? Several Asians, but can’t instantly recall science winners who were black) or women – some recent winners, but the percentage is low.

    If any prejudice with the judges existed in the past, its a bit unlikely it still does – this is Scandinavia after all. But prejudices have definitely kept many members of the minorities out of scientific advancement in the past.

    It starts with education, which admittedly is one factor that shouldn’t apply to gay men. But a career is science often depends on collaborations and being mentored by the right people and managing to survive the politics of academic and research institutions. Its easy to see how this can have blighted the careers of many scientists from minorities. In particular, I can imagine how many gay scientists might have got married just to deal with such factors in the past.

    And lets not forget AIDS, which took such a toll on a generation of gay men. Many of the scientists today are winning for work done in the ’80s, which is just when many promising gay scientists must have died. Given all that I think its possible to see why there’s been a lag in queer laureates – and why hopefully this might change in years to come.

  25. ct says

    The correct question would be: “why the Nobel Peace Prize Committee has still not recognised people who are fighting for the human rights of LGBTs around the globe?”

    A case in point is this year’s award: Three ladies from Africa and the Middle East honoured for their work regarding the human rights of women in their regions.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/oct/07/johnson-sirleaf-gbowee-karmen-nobel

    Women fighting (and risking their lives) to save LGBTs in Kameroon or Uganda on the other hand: completely overlooked.

    http://rodonline.typepad.com/rodonline/2011/01/cameroon-pro-lgbt-activist-and-attorney-alice-nkom-fears-arrest.html

    http://www.pinknews.co.uk/2011/05/04/ugandan-lesbian-honoured-for-human-rights-work/

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