Alan Turing, a gay mathematical genius from a half-century ago, finally got an apology from the British government after a petition gathered 30,000 signatures for it.
Without Turing's work, the computer age would have looked quite different. His work on the Turing machine was a theoretical fore-runner to the modern personal computer and came up with the basic concept of software, getting him cited as one of Time's 100 most influential people of the 20th century.
More famously, he also worked as a cryptologist and cracked the code Nazis were using to communicate, bringing World War II to an earlier end. What he did was nothing short of heroism, putting his mind to work to save countless lives.
But, proving the idiocy of discrimination, he was put on trial for "gross indecency" because he admitted to having a relationship with another man. Here's how Wikipedia puts it:
In January 1952 Turing picked up the 19-year-old Arnold Murray outside a cinema in Manchester. After a lunch date, Turing invited Murray to spend the weekend with him at his house, an invitation which Murray accepted although he did not show up. The pair met again in Manchester the following Monday, when Murray agreed to accompany Turing to the latter's house. A few weeks later Murray visited Turing's house again, and apparently spent the night there.
More after the jump.
After Murray helped an accomplice to break into his house, Turing reported the crime to the police. During the investigation Turing acknowledged a sexual relationship with Murray. Homosexual acts were illegal in the United Kingdom at that time, and so both were charged with gross indecency under Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, the same crime that Oscar Wilde had been convicted of more than fifty years earlier.
Turing was given a choice between imprisonment or probation conditional on his agreement to undergo hormonal treatment designed to reduce libido. He accepted chemical castration via oestrogen hormone injections, which lasted for a year. One of the known side effects of these hormone injections was the development of breasts, known as gynecomastia, something which plagued Turing for the rest of his life. Turing's conviction led to the removal of his security clearance, and barred him from continuing with his cryptographic consultancy for GCHQ. At the time, there was acute public anxiety about spies and homosexual entrapment by Soviet agents, possibly due to the recent exposure of the first two members of the Cambridge Five, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, as KGB double agents. Turing was never accused of espionage but, as with all who had worked at Bletchley Park, was prevented from discussing his war work.
He committed suicide two years later.
Gordon Brown took to the Telegraph today to apologize on behalf of the British government to Turing:
Turing was a quite brilliant mathematician, most famous for his work on breaking the German Enigma codes. It is no exaggeration to say that, without his outstanding contribution, the history of the Second World War could have been very different. He truly was one of those individuals we can point to whose unique contribution helped to turn the tide of war. The debt of gratitude he is owed makes it all the more horrifying, therefore, that he was treated so inhumanely.
In 1952, he was convicted of "gross indecency" - in effect, tried for being gay. His sentence - and he was faced with the miserable choice of this or prison - was chemical castration by a series of injections of female hormones. He took his own life just two years later.
Thousands of people have come together to demand justice for Alan Turing and recognition of the appalling way he was treated. While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time, and we can't put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair, and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him. Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted, as he was convicted, under homophobic laws, were treated terribly. Over the years, millions more lived in fear in conviction. I am proud that those days are gone and that in the past 12 years this Government has done so much to make life fairer and more equal for our LGBT community. This recognition of Alan's status as one of Britain's most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality, and long overdue.
And as much as we think we're advancing on this front, this same sort of discrimination occurs all the time. When will we accept, as Americans, as Westerners, and as human beings, that someone's sexual inclinations don't affect how they work on the job? When will we move beyond saying that X, Y, or Z group is a threat, and nothing a member of that group can do will prove otherwise?
Acknowledging the problems of the past is one step. But in the US, and the UK, where homophobia and sexophobia and transphobia do still exist, people are being held back from their full potential because of irrational discrimination. If we take a moment to think about all the more that Turing could have contributed to modern technology, and then multiply that by the millions of other people, women, people of color, religious minorities, held back because of something that doesn't affect their ability to contribute to society, the material cost of job discrimination and prejudice is overwhelming.