Tech inclusion has been described as “the most important drive for economic progress in black America,” by Van Jones, who founded #YesWeCode with the support of music icon Prince. Yet today, little is known about the contributions of tech pioneers from marginalized communities, like people of color and the LGBTQ+ community.
In the early stages of the internet, their names were synonymous with its development. CNN called Jon Postel, Vint Cerf, and Sir Tim Berners-Lee “Fathers and Gods” at the time. But In 1989, an unknown McGill student, Alan Emtage, was the first Black out gay man to create an entirely new technology category. In essence, making Emtage the Daddy of the search engine.
You likely already know the results of Emtage’s work intimately (Google) and use it daily, but the man’s contributions are prolific. As a founding member of the Internet Society, he chaired the Internet Engineering Task Force, including the one that established standard URLs (i.e., web addresses.) Serving on advisory panels for the National Science Foundation, Library of Congress, and the Online Computer Library Center, working alongside the Internet deities listed above.
Emtage recounted to LGBTQ Nation, “I was a young gay man of color, uniquely among this group of pioneers, which was simultaneously embraced and irrelevant to the task.”
However, identity is relevant in America, as the tech industry makes billionaires of those who can find family seed money, Black tech entrepreneurs make up a paltry 2.5% of Silicon Valley. Financial and economic barriers further complicate the situation; just one percent of venture capital dollars get invested into Black startups, according to a joint study between RateMyInvestor and DiversityVC. Venture capitalists tend to place their bets on the most popular choice or people that look like them.
Popularity was never high on Emtage’s list of priorities; being a geeky gay teen on a Caribbean island was isolating.
“I had few friends,” explained the Bajan-born tech guru one Sunday over a glass of Pinot, “I mean, my hobbies were amateur radio and keeping fish!”
Born in Barbados in 1964 to Sir Stephen Emtage and Lady Emtage, his earliest influences weren’t future tech industry giants, but his Aunt(ie) Connie, a science teacher. She encouraged the already gifted STEM student to listen to the BBC’s science radio shows.
After winning a scholarship to Montreal’s McGill University, he kept comically true to the Caribbean work ethic. While studying computer science and working on his master’s degree, he got a job in the IT department. Long hours and low pay were compensated by “access to the latest toys in the field,” he remembers. Around this time, the computer company NeXT sold 50 machines to McGill. Emtage used one for his invention. NeXT computer’s founder was Steve Jobs, who later founded Apple.
Although not a household name like Jobs, Emtage is to the Internet what Billy Porter is to fashion—nothing short of an icon. The world’s first Internet search engine led directly to Google now. Called “Archie,” its name wasn’t an ode to your favorite Riverdale character, but the word “archive” without the “v” (as it searched the “archive” servers for software.) After building this “simple program that allowed people to search for themselves,” within months, half the Internet traffic to Canada went through “the Archie.”
Emtage’s lack of recognition represents a more significant issue within tech, STEM, and media. Black and queer innovators are erased from textbooks, lessons, and curriculums, due to deliberately racist and anti-LGBTQ+ policies promoted recently by Republican politicians. This inevitably causes marginalized peoples’ contributions to be historically overlooked.
Black pioneers that accomplished history-making milestones, like Vivien Thomas, Granville Woods (the Black Edison), Shirley Ann Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughn, only sound familiar due to very recent movies or comparison to better-known white counterparts.
World War II hero Alan Turing’s story was only told in 2014 in the movie “The Imitation Game.” While he was the father of AI and computer sciences, unbelievably, his royal pardon for the “crime” of homosexuality was only issued one year prior. Edie Windsor is celebrated as a gay rights advocate, yet few know her as a pioneering coder. Her consulting firm, PC Classics, specialized in software development during the 70s. Windsor helped countless LGBTQ+ groups become tech literate.
There is a long lineage of tech pioneers using their marginalization as an impetus, paving the way due to necessity by dismantling barriers and finding alternative means to progress in their fields and everyday life. Their refusal to ask for permission is a binding intersectional trait. Also, it turns out that we wouldn’t have the software, apps, and AI we do today without them.
Their contributions get discovered during “specially designated” months or in memorandum when the public finally realizes they have unwittingly witnessed the eradication of entire groups. Yet today, according to the White House, only approximately 30 percent of STEM workers are ethnic minorities, with other studies estimating LGBTQ+ people are 20 percent less than first expected. Odd, considering historically, there seems no lack of talent, even if most of the country is unaware of who they are.
For the last 23 years, Emtage has continued to speak globally on the impact of the internet on society. The press seeks him out for his expertise; he is a partner at Mediapolis, Inc., the award-winning web development company that operated LGBTQ+ sites under ‘The Datalounge Network” (including old school sites Gayvote.com, HomoRama.com, and GayHealth.com). The network also won the 1995 GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding LGBT Interactive Media. Now Mediapolis advises and helps new start-ups that don’t have needed resources.
When not traveling internationally and working remotely, he lives with his long-term partner in an idyllic picture-perfect Cape Cod cottage, spending winter months at his second home in Barbados. In 2017, at a handsomely youthful 53, with little to no fanfare, the poster child for Black gay technologists was inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame, giving a permanent voice to the underrepresented through an organization he helped create.
The U.S. search engine industry alone is expected to earn approximately $348.8 billion in revenue annually by 2028. It is powerful enough to encompass anything we can digitize (images, video, music, personal data) or potentially swing an election. Often it’s still notoriously exclusionary in its practices – and funding – of marginalized groups, proving once again that a lack of visibility can be as damaging as erasure.
To some children of Silicon Valley, Emtage committed the cardinal sin of capitalism; he didn’t patent his product (the algorithm). He has “never regretted” the decision because, “when it comes to education, ideas,” and representation, “there needs to be accessibility for all, for us to progress.” It’s what drove his life’s work.
He’s not alone in the belief of paying it forward. Julia Collins, the co-founder of robot-making pizza company Zume, has been very vocal that she would “rather focus on paving the way for other women than limiting my choices to appease the heteronormative patriarchy.”
Despite a lack of recognition, Emtage’s mindset permeates the communities he represents. Kimberly Bryant’s Black Girls Who Code and Dr. Kortney Ryan Ziegler of Trans*H4CK continue to combat the lack of diversity. STEM students from marginalized communities are encouraged (e.g., Lesbians Who Tech, StartOut, TransTech Social Enterprises, etc.) as more industry gatekeepers resemble Tristan Walker and Angelica Ross than Steve Jobs.
Inspiring LGBTQ+ people like current Apple CEO Tim Cook are openly “queering up science spaces” by coming out and stepping forward. Hopefully, when our next Alan Turing or Alan Emtage comes along, they can see themselves reflected in the spotlight.