March 3, 1998
What a connection
One helped develop E-mail,
and the other fine-tuned the PC.
Americans' lives are easier because
these guys click.
By Steve Friess
Judging from the national opinion polls on same-sex
marriage, many Americans seem intent on keeping gays apart.
Yet it is a gay couple who can be credited for bringing the
entire nation - indeed the world - closer together.
Without the technological
contributions of Eric Allman and Kirk McKusick, a simple day
of office work, such as sending E-mails and storing information
on a personal computer, would be much more complicated. "There
is some sort of perverse pleasure," Allman says, "in knowing
that it's basically impossible to send a piece of hate mail
out through the Internet without its being touched by a gay
program. That's kind of funny."
About 15 years ago Allman was preparing the
widespread release of Sendmail, a program that enables users
to send documents from one network to another without any expeisnve
leasing. A vastly improved version of Sendmail, refined
by Allman over the years, remains the premier E-mail software
used by most major systems today. Without it, for instance,
America Online users could send mail only to other America Online
McKusick's contributions are a bit more complex
but no less significant. The Wilmington, Del., native spent
most of the 1980's toiling with other programmers in a laboratory
at the University of California, Berkeley, writing and implementing
a new computer code for Unix, the basis for the software that
now runs network computer systems.
Among the innovations created under McKusick's leadership as
project manager at Berkeley is the computer's ability to easily
locate and recall files after they've been saved and closed.
Such elementary tasks, taken for granted by computer users now,
were heralded as major breakthroughs not so long ago.
Both men, who are now computer
consultants, are featured prominently in Casting the Net: From
Arpanet to Internet and Beyond (Unix and Open Systems Series),
a history of telecommunications by Peter Salus. In an interview
with The Advocate, Salus refers to McKusick, 44, and Allman,
42, as a "power couple" and notes that their impact reaches
far beyond the on-line world. "There are a lot of straight people
who have changed their opinions of gay people because of them,"
says Salus, who is straight and lives in Boston. "They serve
as a good example of a variety of things."
As compatible as McKusick and Allman seem now,
it was hardly love at first byte. Back at Berkeley in 1976,
when Allman first tried to interface with McKusick about a date,
McKusick's closeted response included a menacing look. Three
years later McKusick finally scrounged up the courage to cope
with his sexuality by attending a gay rap session at Berkeley
and found shaggy-haired Allman tossing smug "I knew it" grins
from across the semicircle. They bonded over a lengthy chat
about computers later that evening and began building a relationship
in which each would stake a claim for a piece of cyberspace
Technology has been key to their lives. The
pair may be the only wine buffs whose 2,000-bottle collection
is inventoried on-line and who can check on the temperature
of their wine cellar from any modem in the world. "Most people
would describe us a computer geeks," Allman admits, proudly
noting that their Web page automatically selects a wine of the
day from their list. "And yet as computer geeks go, we're fairly
normal people. We don't completely dominate our conversation
with geek talk."
Neither partner has ever hidden their relationship,
a fact McKusick says cost him a prestigious programming job
with Hughes Aircraft Co. in Los Angeles in 1981. McKusick worked
for the U.S. Air Force contractor for three summers until an
executive order signed by President Reagan barred gay men and
lesbians from receiving security clearances to work on military
projects. (Prior to that order, a Carter administration policy
intended to thwart attempts to blackmail gays required McKusick
to declare his homosexuality in a newspaper advertisement.)
Still, both men insist that instances of homophobia
have been otherwise rare and inconsequential. That may be partly
because the computer industry developed in Silicon Valley, just
down the coast from the gay mecca of San Francisco. The couple's
success made an impact too. Says Salus: "They have created things
for users that probably won't get superseded, period. And they're
both very nice people."
McKusick and Allman say they have never profited
in any large way from their innovations. Rather, they gave away
their advances and took satisfaction in aiding in the development
of the medium. McKusick in the mid 1980s even passed on joining
Berkeley colleague Bill Joy in a start-up programming company
- now the multi-million-dollar Sun Microsystems. "One reason
Eric and I have stayed together for 18 years is that we've both
had the same attitude about money," McKusick says. "It's nice
to have some, but it's not what we build our lives around."
Other aspects of their accomplishments satisfy
them instead, such as knowing that young gays and lesbians can
use the technology they created to access information about
sexuality regardless of geography. That's enough for Ben Cottrell,
an 18-year-old programmer who noticed Allman's openness as he
hung out at the Berkeley computer lab in the early 1990's. Struggling
with his own sexuality at age 14, Cottrell E-mailed Allman to
tell him he was gay and in need of someone to talk to about
The teen now regards Allman and Kirk as his
"adopted dads," recalling, "When I walked into their house for
the first time, it felt like I was going into a safe space.
I felt wanted, accepted. They've produced that feeling for a
lot of people."
Allman and McKusick are aware of their role-model
status and take its responsibilities seriously. They take credit
for starting a practice of pinning pink triangles to their name
badges at programmer conventions many years ago, encouraging
others to follow their lead. Yet they don't get involved in
gay politics much because, they say, they feel constrained by
political correctness in the gay movement. "I just decided I
had more value to the cause just being known to be gay," Allman
says. "We do more just by being ourselves."
It would be difficult to shut down that argument.
Their 1993 commitment-ceremony reception brought together a
diverse group - hotshots from the computer world, body-pierced
gay men and lesbians, suit-and-tie-sporting connoisseurs - all
for the sake of toasting one of the most influential duos in
computer history as they committed to each other for life.
When two straight computer programmers who had
worked together in the 1970s spotted each other at the celebration,
one was overheard saying to the other, "You know, if someone
had told me 20 years ago that the next time we saw each other
would be at a gay wedding in Berkeley, I would've told you you're
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