Today, the Bank of England announced that it would be bestowing the honor of putting Alan Turing on the county’s £50 banknote. The first notes bearing his face will appear late 2021.
There has been much debate over who should appear on banknotes. The great majority of figures to appear on British notes have been male and white.
Some people have expressed disappointment at the Turing announcement. Jane Austen will continue to the the only woman – besides Queen Elizabeth II on the reverse – to grace a note. Besides the push to see Turing featured, others campaigned for a BAME (black and minority ethnic) face to grace the £50 note.
I too would like to see more women and/or a person of color on a note, but as gay person, I couldn’t help but feel an immense feeling of pride when I heard the news today about Turing.
He is the first openly gay person to feature on a note. Furthermore, the state persecuted him over his sexuality in the worst way possible while he lived.
The life of Alan Turing
Alan Turing was a mathematics genius. His work helped break the Nazi Enigma code during World War II. This was instrumental in hastening the Allied victory. His work also laid much groundwork in the development of modern computing.
He was years ahead of his time in his thinking. Even today, scientists apply the ‘Turing Test’ to judge a machine’s level of artificial intelligence (AI).
However, his achievements counted for little when, in 1952, police arrested Turing and charged him with gross indecency.
The mathematician struck up a relationship with a young man, Arnold Murray. An acquaintance of Murray’s burgled Turing’s home. Turing contacted the police to report the crime. However, when the police investigated, they were more interested in the fact Turing admitted to being in a relationship with Murray than the theft he’d suffered.
Arrest and death
Arrested and facing prosecution, Turing was given two options of punishment: jail or undergoing ‘chemical castration’ in an attempt to cure him of his homosexuality. He opted for the latter.
The hormones he was given prompted physical changes. He grew breasts. They also clouded his thinking, blunting his once brilliant mind.
Two years after he started the treatment, he killed himself. He was 41 years old.
Subsequent re-discovery of Alan Turning
In the immediate aftermath of his death, Alan Turing’s name all but vanished into obscurity. His work during the war was classified as top secret until decades later. In fact, it wasn’t until the publication of a Turing biography, Enigma, by Andrew Hodges, in 1983, that his achievements – and death – began to enter popular conscience.
Since then his life has been dramatized on screen (most recently by Benedict Cumberbatch in 2014’s movie The Imitation Game) and statues in his honor have been erected in several spots in the UK.
In 2013, the UK government issued a posthumous pardon for the gross indecency charges Turing faced. It followed this up by the passing of an ‘Alan Turing Law’. This allowed other gay and bisexual men to apply to have their historical convictions for now-abolished gross indecency charges pardoned.
And now Alan Turing is once again honored, with the news he will feature on the £50 banknote.
Regardless of his sexuality, it is a fitting tribute to one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century, one to whom everyone who uses a computer or smartphone owns some debt of gratitude.
But it’s also further acknowledgement by the British establishment of the horrendous way it treated one of its most gifted sons: one who perhaps would have gone on to even greater achievements had his career not been ruined by his fall from grace and the homophobic attitudes of the time in which he lived.
Persecution still exists
We have come far in the UK with regard to LGBTI rights. However, we mustn’t forget that some still face persecution.
This is particularly true to those seeking asylum here from homophobic and transphobic regimes abroad. Violence against LGBTI people is also worryingly on the rise. Outside primary schools, parents protest against their kids learning that LGBTI people even exist.
I’m also not sure you can ever right a historical wrong when the victim is no longer with us. Some damage cannot be undone.
However, at a time when the British political system is tearing itself apart over Brexit, and news broadcasts prompts daily embarrassment and dismay, putting Turing, a persecuted, gay genius, on to a banknote, is something to celebrate.