Too little, too late: The pardon of Alan Turing

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In 1952, a man was charged with gross indecency. He was found guilty. He was given the option to serve time in prison or to go on probations and receive hormone treatment intended to lower his sex drive—treatment which left him chemically castrated. Two years later, he was found dead from cyanide poisoning. His death remains controversial in certain quarters—some call it an accident and some call it suicide.

This man, a professor and mathematician, held a universe of secrets in his head. During World War II, he had been a member of a select circle of code-breakers who had gathered together to crack the German ‘Enigma’ Code—providing critical information to the Allied Forces which helped end the war. His name was Alan Turing.

Just over 60 years after his death, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II recently issued an official pardon to Turing—one of only a handful granted in the history of the monarchy. Then Prime Minister Gordon Brown had earlier made a public apology following a massive online campaign to make the government acknowledge the cruelty of the way Alan Turing had been treated.

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There are two serious problems with these apologies and pardons. Firstly, these apologies cannot bring Alan Turing back, cannot undo the damage that was done to his reputation or his person, and cannot reverse the callus and ungrateful treatment he received in life. More interestingly though is the fact that these apologies and pardons arrived through public pressure; not by a personal sense of moral necessity.
These factors make me question if the apologies and the pardon actually mean anything. Are these words the same kind of fluff that we’ve grown used to taking as gospel in the LGBT+ community? There always seem to be certain people who take any small token acknowledging the sufferings of LGBT+ people as a form of reparation—something to celebrate. The life and death of Alan Turing represents a particular kind of LGBT+ experience.

Rather than being happy about the pardon, we should be furious that there was an offense to pardon in the first place.

It is imperative for our survival that we remember that the decriminalization of homosexuality is a fairly recent phenomenon, even in what some of us would call ‘advanced’ societies. In the United States, it wasn’t until Lawrence v. Texas that the Supreme Court ruled that laws prohibiting same-sex activity in thirteen states—including laws that held different age of consent regulations for same-sex encounters than heterosexual encounters—were unconstitutional. That ruling came down in 2003. Even with this ruling, three justices issued scathing dissents, headed by Justice Antonin Scalia.

In England, the age of consent laws were only made equal for both same-sex and opposite-sex encounters in 2001. In 1988, Section 28 prevented the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ in England and was also repealed across the United Kingdom in 2003. Turing had been prosecuted under the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885—the law by which Oscar Wilde had also been prosecuted in 1895. The Act outlawed acts of ‘gross indecency’—acts which were never legally defined. In 1965 the law was repealed and same-sex acts were partially decriminalized. It would not be until 2000 that the final restrictions would be overturned by the European Court of Human Rights.

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The death of Alan Turing at the too-young age of 41 is just one of countless examples of lives ruined by prejudiced laws. The callousness of his treatment by the British government along with the thanklessness he encountered should never be forgotten. It is shameful how few people actually understand the importance of his life and his work.

There is to be a film of his life coming out in the very near future, with Turing being played by Benedict Cumberbatch. My best hope is that this film will help bring Turing into the forefront of public consciousness. His papers have been digitized and put online. Websites about him have been popping up more and more frequently over the last few years. It seems as though my hope might just very well come true.

I wish that I could take some semblance of joy from the recent interest in Turing’s life, but I simply can’t. The spectre of his demise can’t be wished away by a pardon or an apology—no matter what governing power is responsible. The best way that we can remember Alan Turing; the best way that we can do justice to his life and to honour him in death, is to push forward in the battle for liberation. No matter what token might be passed along to us, we must never forget the shadow of homophobia that looms over our heads—the shadow that consumes. We must do our best to ensure that the shadow never claims another.