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Alan Turing: World War II hero, social disgrace, gay icon

Alan Turing: World War II hero, social disgrace, gay icon

Sandwiched in between a Ladbrokes bookmaker and a Greggs bakers on a pretty ordinary street in Manchester, England is a theater. It’s called the Dancehouse these days but back in 1951 it was known as The Regal. It was outside The Regal that British mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst, and computer scientist Alan Turing met Arnold Murray, a 19 year old gay man who would ultimately play a huge part in Turing’s suicide just a few years later.

I feel slightly ashamed to admit that until last year (which was the 100th anniversary of his birth) I didn’t know who Alan Turing was. In my defence I’m pretty sure there were a lot of people who up until 2012 weren’t aware of his fascinating life and heartbreaking death either. As Britain marks LGBT History Month it’s only right that we remember the life of this hugely important man.

For those who still don’t know him, Turing was a British mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst, and computer scientist. During World War II he worked at Bletchley Park, Britain’s codebreaking center. There he cracked German ciphers, most famously breaking the Enigma machine – this allowed the Allies to understand Nazi codes, ultimately helping win the war.

His Turing machine is the model for a general purpose computer and he is widely considered the father of computer science and artificial intelligence.

Bletchley Park now has a working replica of his bombe machine, used to find the Enigma settings.

In 1951 when Turing met Murray outside the theater, it was illegal to be homosexual in Britain. It would be another 16 years until being gay was legalized in England and Wales (Scotland followed in 1980 and Ireland 1982) with the introduction of the Sexual Offences Act. (It’s worth noting that the act did not apply to the Armed Forces).

Turing and Murray began a sexual relationship which was exposed to the police just a few months later, after Turing’s house was burgled. There has always been some confusion surrounding the exact nature of the break in and robbery but many people close to Turing and involved in the criminal case believe that Murray knew the burglar and was even involved in the crime itself.

Whatever the exact details of the burglary were, what we do know is the resulting police involvement and questioning led to the spotlight being shone on the nature of the two men’s relationship. Turing decided he had no choice but to admit he was involved in a sexual relationship with Murray and, as would have been standard procedure at the time, he was subsequently arrested (alongside Murray) and charged with gross indecency.

Although homosexuality was illegal at the time of Turing’s arrest, any man who was found guilty of carrying out sexual acts with another man was not necessarily jailed.

Whereas typical sentences for those who were jailed were under six months, the majority of those found guilty of homosexual acts were given, or sometimes offered, an alternative punishment; chemical castration.

It is important to remember that Alan Turing pleaded guilty to the charges because, as he saw it, he had nothing to hide. He could have decided to deny all accusations put to him throughout the case but he decided he would admit what he’d done, show no remorse and accept his punishment. The fact Turing made the brave decision to stand up for who he was, knowing what the consequences would be and not simply deny the charges is one of the reasons why he remains such a well respected gay figure.

Turing knew what kind of life he would face if convicted of the crimes he was accused of. As well as losing his government security clearance and being stopped from continuing his work with his cryptographic consultancy, Turing was subjected to the inhuman punishment of chemical castration rather than face prison. This unsavoury procedure resulted in him becoming impotent and growing breasts; not a fair reward for a man who helped Britain win the war.

It is very easy for us to look back to the 1950s with a sense of arrogant moral and ethical superiority, distancing ourselves from the hideous laws and punishments that faced men like Turing. However, when put in some context this period of our history doesn’t seem that far back. When Turing’s sentence was handed down, Queen Elizabeth ll was already on the throne. The fact the practice of chemically castrating gay men is still within living memory for some people is a shocking reminder at how recent our country’s move towards LGBT acceptance and equality actually is.

Recently there has been a very loud and very concerted effort form various individuals (Professor Stephen Hawking being one of the most well known), groups and organizations to encourage the British government to pardon Alan Turing.

The main argument supporting this suggestion is Turing played a fundamental role in ending the Second World War and made a significant contribution to the world of computing, mathematics and artificial intelligence and yet he died a convicted criminal.

Not only was he found guilty of a crime that is no longer recognized but he was also subjected to a sickening form of punishment which resulted in him becoming so depressed that he apparently took his own life by eating an apple laced with cyanide.

Now there is no question that the way gay men (and indeed women) were treated in past decades was appalling, disgusting and unimaginable in today’s more liberal and inclusive society. However, my issue with the call to get Turing pardoned is the fact it seems people are offering up the man’s achievements in his various fields as some kind of ‘get out of jail free’ card. Actually the only justification needed to justify a pardon is we now recognize as a society that being gay is not criminal.

Of course I feel for Turing, his family and supporters for what he had to endure but there were many other gay men who were also arrested, charged, found guilty and punished for being gay at that time. Some would have been chemically castrated like Turing while others would have faced jail time. Most of these men would not have been exceptional mathematicians or pioneers of the computer age. I imagine that none of them helped to crack Nazi codes or begin work on the early theories of artificial intelligence, but this doesn’t matter.

There is an argument Turing and men like him should not be pardoned. The argument is based on the fact that the law, of which they were found guilty of breaking, was a law that once stood and at that time they were indeed guilty of their crimes.

Should the fact we have moved forward as a society mean these men should be exonerated?

Many argue the real issue here should be the men who were found guilty of underage gay sex before the age of consent was reduced to 16 in England and Wales.

Many of these men still have a criminal record that prevents them from getting jobs. Turing of course did not deserve to be treated in the way he was and although an apology by Prime Minister Cameron was a nice gesture, a pardon would be well received by many.

However, by focusing on the life, death and downfall of one man risks many thousands of others being forgotten. Being gay isn’t something that needs counter-balancing with an invention, helping to stop a war or some other great achievement.

This year’s LGBT History Month has a theme of maths, science and engineering and it’s from its website I’d like to quote now:

‘We are emperors and peasants. We are conservatives and revolutionaries. We are actors, artists, bricklayers, bookies, cab drivers, cooks and clowns. We are employed and unemployed. We raise our children and we bury our dead.

‘When we can, we attend school, college and university. When we can, we go out into the streets. We read the papers and watch the TV. We attend church, synagogue, temple and mosque. We are free and confined. We celebrate and we hide. We are happy and sad. We are supported and alone.

‘Our lives are both ordinary and extraordinary.’

Turing is now widely remembered. A building at Manchester University is named after him, The Science Museum in London is currently running an exhibition in tribute to him (until June 2013). And, during the 2012 Olympics, the torch passed in front of the sculpture of him in Sackville Gardens, Manchester, the park adjoining the city’s thriving gay scene.

Alan Turing was a great man, there’s no doubt about that. However, he was not a great man because he was gay or in spite of being gay. He was a great man because of what he achieved in his relatively short life.

For that he will always be remembered as one of the greatest minds of his time.

The fact he was gay, like thousands of other men at the time, meant he was punished, humiliated and called a criminal. Let’s not forget those other men. Let us please celebrate their lives and their courage to stand up and accept their fate rather than hiding away or denying their true selves. We should be thankful that as a society we have moved on but we should also be careful not to forget people simply because their life did not result in a statue or Wikipedia entry.

Wayne Dhesi is founder of RUComingOut.Com. You can follow him on Twitter here.