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OUT in IT: Jon “maddog” Hall opens up about being in OUT

In this interview, maddog talks about how "coming out" in a recent blog post quickly led to a photo shoot for the annual OUT100 list, and how members of the LGBT community working in the computing industry can contribute to a follow-up OUT magazine article.

In June 2012, Jon “maddog” Hall, a former USENIX board member and long-time, active community member, wrote a blog post in honor of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Alan Turing. “I have made no bones about the fact that Alan Turing is a hero to me,” maddog wrote. Although he has other heroes, maddog says that Turing stands out. “... I, too, am homosexual,” maddog explained.

What does maddog's blog post have to do with computing?

“Many computer companies were the first to enact 'diversity' programs, and the USENIX organization had a special interest group that was made up of LGBT people,” maddog says. “That is not to say that all computer science people are homosexual, or even non-homophobic, but for the most part the CS community and companies have been more accepting and accommodating than others.”

The same day maddog came “out” online, OUT magazine ran an article about maddog's announcement: Gay Computer Geeks Unite!

Fast forward to a few weeks later, and maddog is sitting in a photo shoot for the 2012 OUT100 list, OUT's annual list of 100 notable men and women in the LGBT community.

In our interview with maddog, he talks about the response his June blog post received, the photo shoot for the OUT100 list, and how LGBT members of the computing industry can contribute to a follow-up OUT article about LGBT people in computing.

maddog's blog post is long, but I encourage you to read it. One point he makes is that members of the LGBT community are active in computer science, and many of them are openly “out.” Perhaps by being public about this formerly private part of his life, maddog will help more people feel welcome in our increasingly diverse community.

[Full disclosure: maddog's blog post appeared on the Linux Pro Magazine site. As the former associate publisher of Linux Pro, I've had many opportunities to work with maddog over the years. I'm thankful to know maddog, honored to have worked with my former Linux New Media colleagues (who supported maddog's decision to share his story), and I'm also grateful to be a part of the USENIX community.]

And now for the interview:

Rikki: You were recently asked to participate in the OUT magazine 2012 OUT100 list — what was that experience like? And when will that issue of OUT be out?

maddog: I was first contacted by the editor of the magazine through a contact at the Linux New Media, publishers of Linux Pro Magazine.

I had heard of OUT magazine before, and so I went to their web pages to find out more about the OUT100, and how they picked 100 "Out" people from all walks of life for this special issue, which will be the November/December issue. I talked with Jerry Portwood, the Executive Editor, and we arranged to meet for a photo shoot.

I went into Boston early on the morning of September 10th and took a bus to center city Manhattan. The bus had both electric outlets and wireless, so the trip — about four hours — went quickly.

I traveled to the photo shoot and everyone made me feel right at home. I talked further with Jerry as well as Jason Pamphier, another editor. They had makeup applied to me to cut the glare from my balding forehead, and they started shooting. After a series of single shots they did some group shots with a couple of entrepreneurs who also arrived that day.

Rikki: You've long been a role model in the field of computer science, but only recently came "out" publicly. What kind of response have you received since your blog post this summer?

maddog: 99.99 percent positive. Linux New Media was very supportive, and even had an editorial addressing "diversity" the month after.

Most of the comments to the blog post were positive also. I did have one that told me I was going to go to Hell, and another that questioned why I was talking about my sexuality in a blog about Linux, but I explained that there were a lot of young geeks that are going through the same thing and I wanted to let them know they were not alone, and that it gets better.

Rikki: LGBT people have always played a huge role in computer science, and USENIX has many active "out" members. Why do you think this field has been more welcoming of LGBT people than many others?

maddog: First of all, computer science has been a relatively "young" industry. It really got started in the 1950s, as opposed to the steel industry, the petroleum industry, and the automobile industry.

Secondly, it tended to be made up of mathematicians, engineers, scientists, etc. that tended more toward the physical sciences and "show me" or "prove to me."

Third, many computer science people have "quirks" in their ways, and tend to be forgiving of "quirks" in others … a "live and let live" philosophy.

Fourth, much of computer science developed in urban areas rather than sub-urban areas or rural areas. Urban areas tend to be more "open" to diversity, having dealt with influxes of various immigrants, and computer science departments in universities have always had a mixture of many different cultures.

Finally, computer science is typically a highly technical, highly trained profession, and I think the managers of these groups realized that in order to get the best talent, they had to hire from a diverse pool of people.

I do remember when Sun Microsystems started actively talking about diversity in their hiring practices. While a lot of it was oriented toward GLBT people, the diversity arguments "flowed over" to women, African-Americans, and other groups too. And management was serious about it. Sun might not have been first, but they were one of the first as I remember it, and others quickly followed.

Rikki: What steps could members of the computing industry take to make this field even more inviting and diverse?

maddog: I think the computing industry is doing a good job now, but if I would ask them to do any more it might be to have some of their GLBT employees reach out to GLBT youth groups at Universities and high schools to show them there is a great career path open to them in the computing industry.

Visibility of others like you is the greatest comforter when you feel all alone.

Rikki: You'd like OUT to do a follow-up story on the diversity within the computing industry. How can members of our community help you with this?

maddog: Again, visibility is key. Before Stonewall Inn in 1969, GLBT people were more or less invisible. But as more and more people "came out", it became harder and harder for most people to think of GLBT people as that different from other people. They are your brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, friends and co-workers.

OUT serves a diverse audience and perhaps a story about how the computer industry embraced people of all types ("show me the code") and benefitted from it would both encourage other industries to do the same and other LGBT people to join the computer industry.

Rikki: Do you have other thoughts you'd like to add?

maddog: Besides the USENIX membership, perhaps we can reach out to the HR departments of some of the Silicon Valley companies, and also reach out to the Computer Museum for some historical context.

Rikki: I'd like to thank maddog for helping increase diversity in the computing industry, and for inviting other members of the community to contribute to the discussion. If you would like to participate in the OUT follow-up article about the roles LGBT community members play in computer science, please let us know by emailing me (rikki AT usenix DOT org). Please include your contact information and a brief bio to pass along to the OUT editor.

Links:

  1. LISA'11 video: Jon “maddog” Hall talks about Project Cauã

  2. USENIX 2002 Election for Board of Directors: Jon “maddog” Hall

  3. Diversity '12: Workshop on Supporting Diversity in Systems Research

  4. Women in Advanced Computing Summit (WiAC '12) video: Strategies for a Successful Career in Computing