3 LGBTQ trailblazers among 2020 MacArthur 'genius grant' winners

Anthropologist Mary Gray, who said her research, which focuses on queer and other underrepresented communities, was often viewed as a "marginal topic" in some academic circles, never thought she would have access to a scholarship that she was about half a million dollars with no strings attached would give.
All of that changed when Gray was selected as one of this year's MacArthur Fellows. She is receiving a $ 625,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation that she can use as she likes. The fellowship, commonly referred to as the MacArthur Genie Fellowship, has included essayist Susan Sontag, journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, filmmaker Errol Morris, and playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda among its previous recipients. This year there are 21 fellows from fields as diverse as astrophysics and choreography, and each will receive the same amount of money, paid out over five years.
Gray, 51, is one of three LGBTQ MacArthur geniuses in Class of 2020 who spoke to NBC News about their work, their plans for the scholarship, and the diversity of voices in this year's class. She is joined by the writer Jacqueline Woodson and the econometrician Isaiah Andrews.
"This is for every weird kid out there," Gray said of her selection. "The last thing I would have thought was that my work would be recognized that way."
In his most recent academic work, Gray examines how the digital economy has transformed work, identity and human rights. The basis for this research is her previous research on how queer people in rural America have used the internet to form communities around their identities, which can be traced back to their upbringing in rural California's Central Valley. She currently serves on the faculty at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University while holding faculty positions in the Anthropology and Gender Studies departments at Indiana University.
Gray said she doesn't know exactly how she'll use her MacArthur scholarship, but she said it will likely be used in support of her pandemic network research, which is done through the Duke University Health Center, to help the hardest hit groups from the Covid-19 health crisis.
The McArthur Fellowship means that Gray "can look at the projects I do and the political activism that matters to me and feel like I can support that work while supporting myself." She described that Ability to pursue any direction she wants in her research, as liberating but also as a reminder of the immense privilege granted by the scholarship.
"If anything, it makes me want people to think about who's not being supported right now," she said. “This is a moment of solidarity. None of us really move forward if we don't stick together and move forward together. "
Andrews, 34, is a professor at Harvard's economics department whose work explores new statistical methods to counter potential biases in the field of econometrics. Andrews, who is black and gay, said it was important that people of color and LGBTQ be at the highest levels in his field.
"I hope my grant helps demonstrate and show that a wide variety of economists have room to succeed," said the Massachusetts-born native. "Although the profession isn't as diverse as it should be and has a lot to do, at least it tries to do some of that work."
As he continues his research, Andrews said it was exciting to have a secure source of additional income for the next five years. Like Gray, he has no immediate plan for how the money will be used, but he hopes that this will put "an emphasis on the importance of careful thinking about statistical methods" that may be developed and contain hidden prejudices.
Woodson, 57, said she already knew how her MacArthur grant will be used: to expand an artist residency program she runs in Brewster, New York, for people of color called Baldwin for the Arts. The Brooklyn-based author of numerous children's books, memoirs, and adult novels was also a founding member of Vermont College's MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults.
The aim of the residence is to give writers and visual artists a community and a safe space to invest in their work and to have time to grow and create. The residency began on a grant from the Swedish government and was slowly expanded with personal contributions from Woodson. Now, with the grant money, the long-term, expanded dreams of the residence feel closer than ever, she said.
“I learned at a very young age what it means to be in a room where I felt 100 percent in my body and with people I didn't have to explain,” said Woodson. “I think a lot of us know what we need but can't even understand. A space like this would allow people to ponder the importance of self-care and that kind of attention to creating their own art. "
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