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3 LGBTQ trailblazers among 2020 MacArthur 'genius grant' winners

This year’s class of prestigious MacArthur Fellows includes a queer anthropologist, econometrician and children’s book author.
Jacqueline Woodson, Isaiah Andrews, Mary L. Gray.
Jacqueline Woodson, Isaiah Andrews, Mary L. Gray.Julius Constantine Motal / NBC News, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Anthropologist Mary Gray, who said her research focusing on queer and other underrepresented communities often was seen as a "marginal topic" in some academic circles, never thought she would have access to a grant that would give her over half a million dollars with no strings attached.

All that changed when Gray was chosen as one of this year’s MacArthur Fellows, which will provide her with a $625,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation that she can use in any way she chooses. The fellowship, commonly referred to as the MacArthur “genius grant," counts essayist Susan Sontag, journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, filmmaker Errol Morris and playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda among its past recipients. This year, there are 21 fellows from fields as varied as astrophysics and choreography, and each will receive the same amount of money, which will be disbursed over five years.

Gray, 51, is one of three LGBTQ MacArthur “geniuses” in the Class of 2020 who spoke with NBC News about their work, their plans for the grant money and the diversity of voices in this year’s class. She is joined by writer Jacqueline Woodson and econometrician Isaiah Andrews.

“This is for every queer kid out there,” Gray said of her selection. “The last thing I would have thought was that the work I do would be acknowledged in this way.”

Gray’s recent academic work explores how the digital economy has transformed labor, identity and human rights. Driving this research is her past research on how queer people in rural America have used the internet to form communities around their identities, which stems from her upbringing in California’s rural Central Valley. She is currently a faculty associate at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, while also maintaining 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 grant money, but she said it will likely be used to help with her pandemic response network research, which is being run through Duke University’s health center to support the marginalized communities hit hardest by the Covid-19 health crisis.

The McArthur grant means Gray “can look at the projects I'm doing and the political activism I care about and feel like I can support that work and support myself at the same time.” She described the ability to pursue any direction she wants in her research as liberating, but also a reminder of the immense privilege being bestowed the grant means.

“If anything, it is galvanizing me to push people to think about who’s not supported right now,” she said. “This is a moment of solidarity. None of us really move forward if we're not holding each other together and moving forward together.”

Andrews, 34, is a professor in 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’s important for people to see people of color and LGBTQ people at the highest levels of his field.

“I hope that my getting this grant will help to demonstrate and show that there is room for success from a wide variety of folks in the economics profession,” the Massachusetts native said. “While the profession is not as diverse as it should be and has a lot of work to do, to its credit, is at least it’s trying to do some of that work.”

As he continues his research, Andrews said having a secure source of additional income for the next five years is thrilling. Like Gray, he does not have an immediate plan for what the money will be used, but he said he hopes it will put a “spotlight on the importance of thinking carefully about statistical methods” that are developed and can contain hidden biases.

Woodson, 57, said she already knows how her MacArthur grant money 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 author of numerous children’s books, a memoir and adult fiction novels, the Brooklyn resident was also one of the founding faculty members of Vermont College’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults.

The goal of the residency is to give writers and visual artists a community and safe space to invest in their work and the time to grow and create. The residency was started with a grant from the Swedish government and has slowly been expanding through personal contributions by Woodson. Now, with the grant money, the long-term, expanded dreams of the residency feel closer than ever, she said.

“I learned very young what it meant to be in a space where I felt 100 percent inside my body, and be around people I didn’t have to explain to,” Woodson said. “I think that a lot of us do know what we need, but can't even fathom it. A space like this would allow people to start thinking about the importance of self-care and this kind of attention to creation of their own art.”

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