Journalists and academics the world over focused on Stockholm earlier this month as the Nobel Foundation announced the 2011 Nobel Prize winners. These prizes are the most prestigious awards in the respective fields of physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, peace and economics.
I love what I have come to call "Nobel Prize Week." It comes around every year, and like all good weeks, it actually lasts for eight days. For me it's up there with the Grammys and Oscars -- until, that is, the other day, when something occurred to me: I can't think of a gay Nobel Prize winner. Not even a dead one. This led me to a very important question: is the Nobel Foundation homophobic?
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. Hemingway actually managed to find time during his life to write and work his way through four wives. Of course, marrying someone of the opposite sex doesn't make one heterosexual. Oscar Wilde married, but no one in their right mind would describe him as anything other than a card-carrying gayer. Nevertheless, in the above instances, I take it as read that, in these cases, married equals straight.
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.
What else can one think? Are gays simply too pretty to be clever? Surely not. John Maynard Keynes and Alan Turing were two of the 20th century's finest minds, and each of them was more than just a bit poofy. Keynes provided the foundation for modern economics, while Turing is regarded as the father of computing. Alas for the gay community, Keynes died 22 years before the Nobel Prize for Economics was introduced in 1968. Turing was unluckier still: despite being a candidate for a Nobel Peace prize (for his work cracking the German Enigma machine in World War II) or a Nobel Prize for Medicine or Chemistry (for his work on morphogenesis), he was a mathematician by training, and of course no Nobel Prize for mathematics exists.
To be certain I'm not overlooking anyone, I emailed my former Director of Studies at Cambridge University, Dr Murray Milgate. While he might not know about the other fields, as an editor of The New Palgrave: A Dictionary of Economics, I trusted him to be an authority on the economics Nobel Prize winners. Did he know of a gay Nobel Prize winner? He did not.
So why aren't there any? One answer would be that there are, they just keep their private lives private. Another option has to do with the backlog of candidates the Nobel Foundation has.
During two of the three years I studied economics at Cambridge, the university won Nobel Prizes in my subject. Much as I tried to take some of the credit for these wins, the work that James Mirrlees (1996) and Amartya Sen (1998) won their respective prizes for took place many years before I was born. It had just taken the Nobel Foundation a while to get around to recognising their work.
Every year there's a long list of deserving winners for each prize, representing the important discoveries of the past 50-odd years. Often it seems like the Nobel Foundation is fighting a battle against time as it tries to honour academic pioneers before they die, and not always successfully, in the case of this year's medicine prize for Dr Ralph Steinman, who died just days earlier. Winners tend to be fairly old.
With homosexuality decriminalised in Britain in 1967 and across the whole of America in 2003 (thanks to Lawrence v Texas) any gay Nobel Prize winner today might well have completed his or her research when it was illegal to be gay. Might this affect judges' views of their work? Might this affect the predisposition of a winner to come out? These are possibilities. Peace Prize winners tend to be politicians, so I very much doubt we'll seen any gay winners in that category until the public elects more gay politicians.
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.
Have I discovered a game harder than "Name Five Famous Belgians"? If I have, does that qualify me for a Nobel Prize? That would be awesome. If you happen to be a gay Nobel Prize winner, please get in touch; I would very much like to interview you. That's not meant to sound like a chat-up line.