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. 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

    Posted by: Brandon K. Thorp | Oct 16, 2011 4:37:29 PM

  2. 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.
    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.

    Posted by: simon | Oct 16, 2011 4:38:37 PM

  3. 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.

    Posted by: cls | Oct 16, 2011 4:49:43 PM

  4. Hell, I believe the prize was named after a gay man, that's something.

    Don't think so? Try proving Alfie was straight.

    Posted by: victorian closet case | Oct 16, 2011 5:21:13 PM

  5. 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.

    Posted by: LincolnLounger | Oct 16, 2011 5:34:28 PM

  6. 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.

    Posted by: Paul R | Oct 16, 2011 6:21:13 PM

  7. 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.

    Posted by: Sancho | Oct 16, 2011 6:35:30 PM

  8. 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.

    Posted by: Sancho | Oct 16, 2011 6:44:37 PM

  9. Maybe it will be one of the guys from the A-list to make us proud. :-|

    Posted by: PrayerDidn'tWorkforMe | Oct 16, 2011 6:51:45 PM

  10. John Nash of Beautiful Mind fame is bi, though Opie preferred to sweep that under the rug. Gee, Pa!

    Posted by: candide001 | Oct 16, 2011 8:29:20 PM

  11. 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.

    Posted by: simon | Oct 16, 2011 8:29:21 PM

  12. "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.

    Posted by: BABH | Oct 16, 2011 9:48:41 PM

  13. "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.

    Posted by: Clif3012 | Oct 16, 2011 11:05:56 PM

  14. 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.

    Posted by: Alan | Oct 17, 2011 3:27:14 AM

  15. 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.

    Posted by: Vikram in Mumbai | Oct 17, 2011 5:59:39 AM

  16. 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.

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

    Posted by: ct | Oct 17, 2011 11:15:56 AM

  17. In the next decade, look out for:

    Carolyn Bertozzi, Chemistry
    MacArthur Fellow
    Lemelson-MIT Winner

    Jay Keasling, Chemistry or Medicine

    Posted by: berzerkeley | Oct 17, 2011 1:44:42 PM

  18. oh citing Dustin Lance Black as a gay oscar winner -- coughing up a hairball here!

    Posted by: David B. | Oct 17, 2011 7:36:27 PM

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