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An interview with two influential gay men

Recently, GTR was given the opportunity to interview two of the men who helped make the internet possible - Kirk McKusick and Eric Allman. Kirk is known for BSD Unix (its current incarnations run most of the servers on the internet, and make it possible for you to websurf); and Eric is the author of sendmail, a daemon (program which runs in the background) which allows email to go from point A to point B (without sendmail, you wouldn't have email).
They also happen to be a gay couple, and have been together for many years.

The interview was done Slashdot-style, in that we announced the interview over our discussion list, and people submitted, then voted on questions. The highest-rated questions were then forwarded to Kirk and Eric.

GTR's questions will be in italics, Kirk's answers will be in red, and Eric's will be in blue.

What was your motivation to raise children?

KM> The motivation to help raise children is much the same as that of anyone else. By being involved in their lives you instill in them some of your own values which you hope they will carry on into the future.

EA> Well, not _quite_ the same. We aren't raising kids full time, and we know that we won't have the same impact on their lives that their parents will. But often kids need some adult other than their parents to talk with, and they can often accept guidance from someone else more easily than they can their parents.

EA> I think my motivation stems from this. I went through a difficult time in my life, and there were a few people, all of them more experienced than I was, who helped me through that time. It's now time for me to give back, and maybe, hopefully, make the world a better place in the process.

Do you foresee a time when gay adoption will be commonplace?

KM> Gays and lesbians have generally been getting more and more of the rights of heterosexual couples over the last twenty years. I expect that trend to continue, and adoption will be one of those rights. Having said that, I do not expect these rights to be uniformly applied. There will continue to be places which will make life for non-traditional couples difficult.

EA> This is a political question, subject to political moods. Those moods seem to shift back and forward with time and context. In all fairness, I think we will probably see a backlash at some point, but then it will get better again, then worse, then better -- but all the time, the average will move in the proper direction. So yes, I do think gay adoption is likely to become more commonplace, but perhaps I'm more pessimistic than Kirk about when it will happen. And I agree that things will be different depending on where you are.

EA> This question reminds me of a cartoon we have up on our refrigerator. One guy is saying to the other, ``you homosexuals are unstable, promiscuous, flighty, bad role models.'' etc. The other one says ``actually, my partner and I want to get married.'' And the first one looks at him and says ``that's disgusting.'' When society gets over that reaction, gay adoption will become more commonplace.

Congrats on a 21 year relationship! How has your relationship changed over the years? What kind of rough times have you had, and how have you gotten through them?

KM> We are older and wiser now :-) When one first gets together, ones relationship is defined by infatuation. Hopefully by the time that dies down, you have managed to build up enough other ties to make it worth your while to continue living together. Eric and I are both very independent minded, and we had to learn to find parts of our lives that we could share while at the same time continue to nurture our own independent selves. Generally we get through the rough spots by letting each other know when something bothers up and then talking / working through a solution. A relationship is not a static thing. Rather it is something that requires continued care and feeding, though it does seem to get easier as time goes on. A certain amount of it is luck - finding someone with whom you are long-term compatible. My advice is not to expect to find the right person your first few times around. Get into a relationship. Figure out what works for you and what does not. Then as you learn what you like, try to find someone that is compatible with those goals.

EA> I'll be more blunt than Kirk: the sex diminishes with time. If you don't have more to the relationship than sex, then when that part changes you won't have a relationship left. I've had relationships where one day I woke up and realized that although we had spent months together, I had no idea of who that person in bed next to me was. Or worse, realizing that although the sex is good, you don't _like_ that person, as a person. That's not the basis of a long term relationship.

EA> Every person is different, and you shouldn't let someone else tell you what you and your relationships should be like -- not your parents, not society, not Kirk and I. But I agree that one of the more important things is to be flexible. People change -- they change jobs, they have a death in the family, their boss yells at them, whatever. If you are going to freak when they change, then I doubt that relationship will last. On the other hand, don't _depend_ on them changing either -- it's not likely that you can reform someone who has personality traits that are fundamentally incompatible with you. But conversely, if you wait for perfection, you will be waiting for a very ..... long ............ (Yes, Kirk isn't perfect. But what I can't figure out is why he still puts up with me.)

KM> Well, that makes two of us, I cannot figure out why Eric puts up with me!

What do you predict will happen in the next few years of computer science? What kinds of advances do you expect?

KM> I expect world domination for open source software :-) More seriously, I expect that the ever growing processing capabilities and storage capacities will allow us to write ever more sophisticated and compact systems. I will have room on my laptop to carry my entire music collection so that I can listen to it while jetting around the world even as I answer questions about the future of computer science (oh wait, I can do that now :-) I have been pretty lousy at guessing the future so far, and I do not see myself getting any better at it. So, I'll just duck this question and join the rest of you in sitting back and watching what happens.

EA> Yeah, I agree with Kirk: essentially everyone claiming to predict the future is lying (the honest ones write science fiction). Some things are easy: computers will be smaller, faster, cheaper, and draw less power (well, duh). ever more of ``computing'' will actually be networking, and networking will become more accessible -- for example, you shouldn't need a laptop to do simple network access. Whether that will mean WAP-enabled mobile phones or something fundamentally different is yet to be seen. Somehow my gut tells me that it will be something different.

EA> A lot of the next few years will come down to society, including how the legal system adjusts to technology. For example, will digital signatures really be incorporated into society? What kind of privacy rights will we have in cyberspace? I really am heartened by some of the trends: for example, I'm seeing greater demands of e-mail than physical mail, including things like ensuring that private information such as financial statements are encrypted (much safer than sealing them in an envelope). On the other hand, we have Carnivore and Echelon.

What about gay rights? In the past 20 years, you've got a much broader perspective on the issue than any of us have. What do you think we should expect?

KM> Gay rights are like the stock market. They zig-zag up and down. the general trend over the past twenty years is that they have been improving. However, in the day-to-day microcosm of events and laws, one can often get discouraged by the setbacks and the apparent slow pace of improvements. When I was a teenager, there was no thought of coming out. That was something that you would consider when you were through university and financially self-sufficent. Today, the typical age that people declare their sexuality is in their mid teens. This is not to say that they do not get ridiculed and tormented, but there is usually some sort of support group available in their school or community. While there are still large parts of the US and the world where my openly gay lifestyle would be taunted or ridiculed, for the most part people keep their attitudes to themselves rather than express what they know will be viewed as bigoted views. It is my hope that these trends will continue, however history tells us that they may not. Life for gay people improved dramatically in Germany between the end of World War I (early 1920's) and Hitler's rise to power (mid 1930's) at which point they took a dramatic turn for the worse. A protracted worldwide recession brought on by dwindling supplies and rising prices of oil and gas could lead to a fundamentalist backlash. However, I am generally optimistic that things will continue to improve.

EA> I agree with Kirk, and would like to add that I personally believe that we won't achieve gay rights by hiding in a ghetto. One of the hardest things I did, and one of the best, was to just be gay in my day-to-day life. A _lot_ of people have told me that I was the first person they knew to be gay, and in general they knew me as a person before they knew me as a gay man. This forced them to confront their own prejudices. This isn't to say that we have to assimilate, not by any means. be unique, by all means! but don't isolate yourself. Some of my best friends are heterosexuals....

When did you come out? If it was before graduation, did it hinder your abilities or debase your environment at school?

KM> I came out in my early twenties while a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley. My dormitory roommate was pretty weirded out and a couple of my friends began spending distinctly less time with me. Other than that, it was pretty easy going. My mother had died by that time, so I had only to tell my father. I sat him down and we talked calmly for about half an hour. As our discussion wound down, we sat in silence for a few moments at which point he stood up, walked over to me, gave me a big hug, and said he did not see any reason that it should come between us. In comparison to many of my gay friends, I count myself lucky.

EA> It was somewhat uglier for me. I was an undergraduate, deeply in love with one of my classmates, who was (of course) straight. In fact, I was suicidal. That ended me up at the Student Health Service in psychiatric counseling with a guy who assured me that I could be cured. At that point I came to my senses and made an appointment with a gay "peer counseling program" that I had been surreptitiously glancing at ads for. I got a counselor who said ``as long as you hang out with straight men, you'll be falling in love with straight men -- go to the Berkeley Gay Mens' Raps.'' I had about fifteen excuses for why I couldn't do that, and he wasn't buying any of them. That Friday I found myself walking back and forth in front of a house in south Berkeley, much to the amusement of several men standing on the porch. Finally one of them called out and said something like ``it's OK, you've found the right place'' and I went inside. About a week later I was out to my mother, my co-workers, and anyone else who would listen.

EA> I have to admit that I felt that my advisor cooled toward me when I came out. I was the first person he had ever known to be gay, and I think it was hard for him. But he never did anything to sabotage my education, or anything like that -- it was a far more subtle, personal thing. Other people actually liked me better -- I got out of the self-loathing mode that I now see must have been horrible to deal with. And I think at least one of my professors respected it -- she was later my supervisor, and remains a good friend.

How difficult is it to be out in the business world? Do most people not care about your personal lives and just want the software, or do problems come up ever?

KM> Usually it is not an issue. My first job was at Hughes Aircraft doing design on a proximity radar for the space shuttle. The job required me to have a US security clearance. In the late 1970's it was possible to be gay and get a security clearance provided that you were out and could not be blackmailed. When Ronald Reagan was elected and took office in 1980 he issued an executive order forbidding gay people to hold a clearance of the level that I needed. Hughes was willing to give me a job on a less classified project, but I could see that upward mobility in that company was going to be severely limited, so instead changed gears and decided to pursue an academic career. In retrospect, I feel lucky to have been pushed in that direction. I have had no discrimination that I am aware of since that time.

EA> To a certain extent, Kirk and I can afford to be arrogant. Our reputations are already established (in fact, we use our positions to try to create a safe space for other people). And after all, it's not like Sendmail is likely to fire me.

EA> But things aren't perfect, by any means. We've had people interview at Sendmail who declined a job because they said they wouldn't feel comfortable working at a company where one of the founders was as out as I am (and hey, I thought I was subtle). It's rare of course, but it happens.

EA> Basically, my sexuality is not part of my work life. I'm out; I talk about Kirk openly, but I don't think it's appropriate to be too (how shall I say?) explicit about your sexuality in a business setting, whether you are straight or gay. I actually talked to a gay employee and suggested that he take a poster of a naked man that he had up in his office home. My metric was simple: if a straight man had a picture of a naked woman up in his office, I would think that was inappropriate for an office setting. The same guy still has his rainbow flag on his wall, his pink triangle on his bulletin board, and his HRC logo on his door, and that's fine -- in fact, I think it's great.

What were your original plans for Sendmail and were you surprised when it took off as it did? When did you realize you had hit on something big?

EA> Originally, as in before the Internet craze, or as in originally, when I started the company? I didn't have a clue that the Internet would be as big as it is, even though I loved e-mail myself and even then knew that I wouldn't want to live without it. But by the time the company started, I was pretty clued in.

EA> Sendmail was originally implemented as a hack to solve a local problem at Berkeley (that was when it was called delivermail). I didn't originally plan to release it outside of Berkeley, but other people shared the problem, so of course I shared the code. The conversion from delivermail to sendmail came about because of the realization that the network world was becoming much larger; after all, we were moving from 8-bit to 32-bit host addresses, and some people predicted that someday there might be as many as a million hosts on the network. I certainly didn't expect the sort of explosion we have today (remember: sendmail was designed before the Internet, before TCP/IP, before the PC, before workstations -- well, OK, Xerox PARC had the Alto).

EA> I think the ultimate realization that sendmail was really big was when it became increasingly difficult for me to support it with just the small team of volunteers at sendmail.org. That's when doing the company came together.

What are your opinions of Darwin and MacOS X, which are based on your work?

KM> I am of the opinion that the more people that use BSD the better. I am thrilled to have BSD become the basis for Apple's operating system.

EA> I go even further than Kirk: _finally_ there is an end-user, commodity operating system out there that is based on real technology. And the more Open Source, the better.

Can you think of one piece of software which you admire so much that you wish you had written it yourself? Conversely can you think of one thing that is so hideous (proprietary operating systems aside) that it should never have been allowed to exist?

KM> I am generally impressed with large software projects that have managed to build big and reliable systems. Ones that come to mind are those of the Apache project and the X11 windows system. These are not things that I would have wished to write myself but I am very glad that someone took the time to write and maintain them. I tend to get very frustrated with software for which I cannot get the source code, and hence for which I have to way to fix bugs or what I view as misfeatures. My current hot button is the Purify tool suite. I would very much like to have their tools available on BSD, but it seems unlikely that they will make them available in the foreseeable future.

EA> The programs I wish I had written myself are the ones that I _don't_ admire, as in ``I could have done better,'' but for various reasons I have to use the damn things anyway. I'm more than happy that other people wrote lots of cool code.

EA> To this day, the most impressive thing I've seen in terms of sheer expressive power is the ability to combine programs trivially -- think pipes and the general Unix model that ``everything is a file.''

Has being gay been hindered acceptance of your software at any time, and how did you deal with it?

KM> Generally it has been a non-issue. I get an occasional piece of hate mail, usually from someone quoting bible scripture. It actually seems to be triggered more by my copyright on the BSD Daemon than on my being gay. I choose not to engage these folks as they seem uninterested in the facts having made up their minds already.

EA> Well, there was the Jesux system, which turned out to be a hoax, although the guy who perpetrated it said that someone ought to do it. They said they were going to use qmail instead of sendmail because sendmail was written by a ``prominent homosexual.''

How did you get started in the technical business?

KM> I enjoyed playing with electronics when I was growing up, and got hooked on computer programming beginning with my first programming class as an undergraduate.

EA> Ditto. I was always playing with switches and wires and lights when I was a kid, and I got a chance to program a real computer (an IBM 1401 -- think substantially less powerful than a Palm Pilot, but filling a room) when I was 13 and was completely hooked. I did both for many years (I worked on building my own computer for several years, but never did get it working) and finally had to choose one or the other when I got into college. I liked the way that software was more malleable than hardware.

EA> I've always thought it was interesting that Kirk and I both started in hardware and moved to software. I think that's why we both like systems software.

How do you feel about the ongoing GPL vs BSD license argument; do you prefer one over the other, or do you think the whole thing is pointless bickering?

KM> I am a very strong advocate of the BSD license. I want to see my software used as widely as possible, and the BSD license allows it to be used in places where the GPL simply does not work (typically embedded systems that need to hack the kernel). I encourage companies to give their code back to the BSD developers by convincing that doing so is not only good public relations, but also makes future releases much easier to integrate. Most companies do make most of their work available to the BSD developers, so the end result is similar to what GPL'ed code gets anyway without scaring the companies and their lawyers to death.

EA> I'm inclined to agree with Kirk, although the success of Linux shows that at least some companies have gotten used to the idea of the GPL. I'm fascinated by what this whole Open Source revolution means for intellectual property -- if you can use something, modify it, and redistribute it, all without owning it, what does ``ownership'' mean? I'm writing this on my way back from Linux Expo in Paris, where one of the big topics has been patents. Does patent law make sense any more, at least in its current form? I don't have an answer

Interview is Copyright © 2001 by GayTeenResources, and may not be reprinted outside the gayteenresource.org domain without written permission.

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