This article was authored by Olly Beswestherick
Despite mass cancellations of parades and events owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, the activism and collective sense of celebration for Pride month this year is as strong as ever. With many tuning in online to express solidarity, or opting for socially-distanced campaigns of support, the worldwide recognition of the LGBTQ+ community remains prominent.
According to a 2020 survey by the Solicitors Regulation Authority, law firms (including patent and trade mark attorneys) see a slightly higher-than-average representation of lesbian, gay or bisexual individuals (3%) than the general population (2%). And as a mixed bag of attorneys working with such a fantastic variety of inventions, we must also reflect upon the undoubtedly diverse spectrum of human beings responsible for such innovations.
The following is a far-from-exhaustive shortlist of noteworthy LGBTQ+ inventors, each of whom should be particularly acknowledged for their inspiring impact within science and technology:
Ann Mei Chang
As a leading expert on social innovation with a phenomenal reputation, Ann Mei Chang has experienced a high octane career that has seen her as: Senior Engineering Director at Google; Senior Advisor for Women and Technology in the US Department of State; and Chief Innovation Officer at USAID, to name just several positions on her roster.
Recognised as one of the “most powerful LGBTQ+ people in tech” by Business Insider in 2019, the Silicon Valley computer science expert and patent holder routinely speaks openly about her sexuality in the workplace; Chang has presented at conferences including TedX-MidAtlantic and Lesbians Who Tech.
Following his coming-out as gay in 2014, Apple’s Tim Cook became the first openly LGBTQ+ CEO of a Fortune 500 company.
Although Tim Cook is now consistently acknowledged for Apple’s continually staggering success, many initially predicted that the company was doomed following Steve Jobs’ passing to pancreatic cancer in 2011. Yet rather than expanding outwards like his predecessor as expected, Cook decided to focus his innovations inwards — specifically towards the iPhone.
Guiding the evolution of the iPhone through its now-famous iterative annual improvements, Tim Cook harnessed a “refine and perfect” approach to the company’s endeavours: identifying technical drawbacks and inventing new technical solutions, such as the addition of a patented touch ID system for increased user security on the iPhone.
American computer scientist Lynn Conway holds an impressive scope of notable innovations at a range of companies, including MIT, IBM, Xerox PARC and DARPA.
Conway is credited with the invention of generalised dynamic instruction handling, used by most modern computer processors today, as well as her work on VSLI microchip design which has revolutionised the industry. The patent holder was also significantly involved in videophone technology in the 90s, which has since become instrumental to the functioning of our world today – particularly during lockdown situations!
Lynn Conway completed her gender transition in 1968, and is now a leading transgender activist: named one of the “Stonewall 40 Trans Heroes” on the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots.
Recognised as LGBTQ+ Scientist of the Year 2020 by NOGLSTP (National Organisation of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals), Sean Whelan has made substantial contributions to the field of virology.
As a (fellow) graduate of the University of Birmingham, UK, Sean Whelan eventually moved to the United States, where he would make notable discoveries in Ebola and Rabies research, as well as innovations in antiviral therapeutics.
Acting as a granted patent holder for “methods and assays for treating Filoviridae infections”, which would include Ebola virus infections, Whelan continues to inspire and engage a diverse range of students-come-experts through his position as Chair of the Department of Molecular Microbiology, at Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis.
Following her graduation from the University of Puerto Rico: School of Medicine, openly LGBTQ+ Edith Perez has become recognised as a world-renowned translational researcher and cancer specialist, with over 25 years of breast cancer research to date.
As a previous patent holder herself, Perez has orchestrated a wide variety of pioneering clinical trials, including new breast cancer monoclonal antibody therapies: spurring the body’s own immune system to fight cancer cells.
As a Lifetime Achievement Award nominee at the EPO in 2013, and listed as one of “The 15 Most Important Women in Tech History” by Maximum PC, Sophie Wilson CBE has been consistently recognised for her contributions to the computer science field.
Holding an impressive total of more than 60 patents in electronic design to date, the British scientist, who underwent gender reassignment surgery in 1994, manages to dedicate her valuable time to a local theatre, and played a cameo role in the 2009 BBC television drama “Micro Men”.
Sophie’s ARM Processor patent has been heralded by the EPO as “the brains inside today’s smartphones”.
As subject of the feature film “The Imitation Game”, and confirmed to be the new face of the Bank of England’s £50 note, Alan Turing is now widely respected for his vital code-cracking success during World War II. This wasn’t always the case, however, as demonstrated by the 2013 announcement of a posthumous royal pardon for his 1952 conviction for “gross indecency” and chemical castration. The crime? Alan Turing’s sexuality.
Yet whilst the legacy of Turing took decades to be reborn, his substantial impacts on the fields of computer science and mathematics never once stalled. Despite not holding any patents himself, Turing’s work has served as a solid foundation for much of the modern world today.
The scientist’s ground-breaking 1936 paper exploring the theory of instruction-processing machines is arguably responsible for the birth of computers, whilst his thought-experiment behind testing a machine’s ability to show human-like behaviour has become a solidified cornerstone of artificial intelligence (AI) engineering: the “Turing Test”.
Indeed, Alan Turing’s input also became a core component of the widely used — and widely patented — “Completely Automated Public Turing Test” (CAPTCHA), for which we are all familiar.
PRIDE in Our Future
While it is right to celebrate our LGBTQ+ innovators of the past and present, the fact remains that there is clear under-representation of LGBTQ+ individuals within the science and technology arena. LGBTQ+ individuals have never been as openly accepted within the scientific community as within the arts; a 2015 American Physical Society survey found that LGBTQ+ students were less likely to pursue STEM subjects than their heterosexual peers.
As such, one is drawn to consider the future. It is encouraging to see the LGBTQ+ leaders highlighted above making a real impact in the sector, and we may hope that the ever-expanding outreach of Pride and increasing LGBTQ+ rights would result in an exponential rise of diversity within science and technology. A variety of perspectives can incubate creativity, and diverse teams are significantly more likely to reach high-quality breakthroughs and innovations. However, there is still a lot of work to be done, as highlighted by organisations such as Pride in STEM and Queer Stem. Discrimination against LGBTQ+ individuals clearly still exists, in the UK and elsewhere, and it’s time to tackle it head on. Spreading awareness is now more important than ever, in order to innovate a better and brighter future for the entire world.
Fortunately, love and acceptance require no invention.