Turing Another Corner of LGBT History

alan turing the universal machine

Wherever you live, wherever you grow up, have you ever wondered what the LGBT history of your town or city is? No? Well I can see why. You might live somewhere steeped in historical building, castles, Roman ruins or the part the town played in World War II. With LGBT history it’s not often obvious however. You don’t see a plaque commemorating the first gay solider killed in battle or first town to have a gay sexual health service.

Five years ago when I moved to Milton Keynes, I didn’t think there was any history in the modern town only famed for roundabouts, concrete cows and grid roads designed in the 1960s. But how could I forget the huge role that Bletchley Park, now part of the new town of Milton Keynes, played in World War II, to be more specific through the role of Alan Turing.

At school many of us will have studied Turing, the enigma machine, and the cracking of the code which was to assist Britain in winning WWII. Britain’s codebreakers, based at Bletchey Park,  used the machine as a way of intercepting  German signals during the war for interpreting. Turing helped crack the code using algorithms to depict the messaging.  These days though it’s not just his mathematical genius that makes Turing a hugely important figure in both my local history, but LGBT history globally. The alanturing.org.uk website gives him a glowing description;

“Founder of computer science, mathematician, philosopher, codebreaker, strange visionary and a gay man before his time.”

In 1952 Turing met Alan Murray, a 19 year old unemployed man from Manchester, the city Turing studied and later lived in. Later in the year, during a burglary at Turing’s house, during the investigation into the break in Police uncovered Murray and Turing’s sexual relationship. They had been a couple since meeting for lunch the previous Christmas.

Turing’s homosexuality resulted in a criminal prosecution of gross indecency in 1952 under section 11 of  the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885. This is unthinkable now that you, yes you reading this, lying on the sofa in the arms of your boyfriend before he takes you upstairs for a fondle, is an arrestable offence! This was at a time when homosexual acts were still illegal in the UK, a law which was not changed until the 1967 sexual acts law. His punishment was something unthinkable today: chemical castration, meaning he was given treatment with female hormones. This was as an alternative to spending the rest of his life in prison.

In 1954, just over two weeks before his 42nd birthday, Turing decided he could no longer live his life like this and soaked an apple in cyanide, took a bite, and then died. Not that it was noted back then, but his death would be one of the first high profile suicides as a result of being gay. Despite it being well known about his conviction, after his death his mother still refused to believe his death was anything other than accidental.

Back in 2009 an internet campaign brought Turing’s death back into the spotlight. Gordon Brown was put under pressure to give Turing an official pardon for the sentence put against him in 1952. The Labour Prime Minister made an official public apology on behalf of the British government for “the appalling way he was treated.” Last week, his death once again has been in the spotlight. As a result of the official public apology in 2009, a private member’s bill that was put before the House of Lords to grant Turing a statutory pardon has now gained government support. This is another huge step forward in LGBT rights, making a statement that this kind of punishment will never be tolerated again. Down with this sort of thing I hear you cry.

I found it amazing that such a sad story of gay love involving such an important historical figure is one that lived on my doorstep. It is a life that we can look back on and hold to show many a moral for future generations. Well done Milton Keynes for showcasing this history, next time you are out and about where you live, perhaps take a look round, you never know what went on in the past that may have shaped our LGBT future.

For more information on Bletchley Park and how to see Alan Turing’s life exhibited visit www.bletchleypark.org.uk