Sunday, October 15, 2006

Don't ask, don't tell

When I was an undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame in the 1950s, we heard plenty about Doctor Tom Dooley, a ND grad who distinguished himself in medical service to Southeast Asian refugees of the French Indochina War. Dooley was presented to us as a role model and saint of sorts, and after his death from cancer in 1961 at age 34 there was an unsuccessful movement among Catholic admirers to have him canonized.

Dooley seemingly had everything going for him. Young. Good looking. Charismatic. A U. S. Navy doctor who served the poor and needy. A gifted writer. An anti-communist.

At least, those were the things we heard about. It turned out that Dooley -- and some of his admirers -- kept a few things under wraps.

We never heard, for example, about his homosexuality. In 1956 Dooley was outed while on a book tour of the United States, and forced to resign from the Navy. At that time, gays were forbidden to serve in the American armed forces. And so it was to remain for several decades.

In 1993, Bill Clinton campaigned on the promise to allow all citizens regardless of sexual orientation to serve openly in the military. That was not to be. The best he was able to achieve by compromise with Congress was a policy of "don't ask, don't tell," a way of having our cake of social justice and chewing our prejudices too. The policy remains in effect today.

Let me recall a sad episode of "don't ask, don't tell" from the history of science, recounted in Andrew Hodges' 1983 biography of Alan Turing.

Turing was one of the best scientific minds of the 20th century, sometimes called the Founder of Computer Science, a gay man whose personal "if you ask, I'll tell" policy had tragic consequences. His experience tells us something about how science works. And it tells us something about our very unscientific prejudices.

Science projects an image of cool, impersonal objectivity. Read an article in any science journal and you might think the work was done by a machine. You will find no reference to the emotions or motivations of the researcher, no mention of the researcher's age, gender, nationality, politics or religion. No mention of sexual orientation.

Scientific communication is impersonal by design. It is a way to ensure the objectivity -- insofar as objectivity is possible -- of scientific knowledge. Good science shouldn't depend upon who did it, or why. It should be measured only by standards of logic and experiment.

Alan Turing's scientific publications are masterpieces of logical thought that laid out the foundations of modern computer science and the science of artificial intelligence. The papers are profoundly and aseptically mathematical. The story behind the papers, however, is thoroughly human.

As a schoolboy in England in the late 1920's, Turing was a dreamer. His exasperated teachers did not always recognize his talent, and he garnered his share of negative reports.

In 1928, at the age of 16, he fell powerfully under the spell of a slightly older school chum, Christopher Morcom. There was nothing explicitly sexual about their relationship. The boys were friends and intellectual comrades. Nevertheless, it seems clear that Turing was deeply in love.

In 1930, Morcom suddenly fell ill and died. Turing was shattered. He turned his attentions to the question of how the human mind -- and Christopher's mind in particular -- was embodied in matter. Could there be any way in which a mind might survive the death of the body?

According to his biographer, Turing's longing for his dead friend sparked a lifelong interest in the mechanical embodiment of thought. Turing's first important work, "On Computable Numbers with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem," laid out a theory of computation that all subsequent work has built on. "Entscheidungsproblem" refers to the question of "decidability" -- how do we know something is mathematically true, and how can we know for sure?

During World War II, Turing turned his considerable genius to cryptoanalysis, the breaking of codes. He was a leader of the British team at Bletchley Park that broke the famous "Enigma" code, which the German high command used to communicate with its Atlantic U-boat fleet. The breaking of the code is generally credited with turning the Battle of the Atlantic in favor of the Allies, and perhaps deciding the outcome of the war.

During all of this time, Turing's tacit position within the military establishment was "don't ask, don't tell." By now he was leading an actively gay life, at a time when homosexuality was a criminal offense in Britain, punishable by imprisonment.

After the war, Turing's brilliant theoretical and practical work on the use of mechanical and electronic machinery for breaking complex codes led directly to the first electronic computers.

Always in the background was the issue of his sexuality. In early 1952 the police came to his house to investigate a burglary. They discovered something that turned out to be far more serious -- Turing's sexual relationship with another man.

He did not deny the relationship. It was inconceivable to Turing that his private life might be of interest to Her Majesty's government. He was arrested, brought to trial, and convicted. As an alternative to prison, which would have interrupted his scientific work, he agreed to a course of hormone injections to neutralize his libido -- a kind of chemical castration. He chose, says his biographer, "thinking" and sacrificed "feeling."

No one knows exactly what or how he suffered in the period that followed. On June 8, 1954, he was found dead by his housecleaner, a half-eaten, cyanide-spiked apple at his bedside. The coroner's verdict was suicide. He was 41 years old.

Don't ask, don't tell. The man who helped invent the Digital Age, who served tirelessly and effectively to end a terrible war, was asked. He told -- and one of the most rational scientific minds of our time was sacrificed to irrational intolerance.

The hypocrisy of "don't ask don't tell" continues to afflict the American body politic, the Roman Catholic Church, and especially the evangelical churches and de facto party of the Christian right. Within the scientific community there is a different sort of "don't ask, don't tell," at least when it comes to scientific communication -- not because there is anything unacceptable with a gay person's sexual orientation, but because sexual orientation simply doesn't matter.

Further Reading

As befitting the great American institution that it is, the University of Notre Dame has moved a long way from the "don't ask, don't tell" policy of the 50s. Gay and lesbian students now have their own organization and a film festival, and they are acknowledged without predjudice in the university's magazine (scroll down for related links). The institutional Church, however, continues to cultivate the ancient prejudices with breathtaking hypocrisy.

James T. Fisher, Dr. America: The Lives of Thomas A. Dooley (University of Massachusetts, 1997).

Andrew Hodges, Alan Turing: The Enigma (1983).

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