E. Winter Tashlin

Let Alan Turing's Conviction For Homosexuality Stand

Filed By E. Winter Tashlin | May 14, 2013 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Living
Tags: Alan Turing, criminalize homosexuality, gay history, LGBT history, pardon, UK, WWII

A bill has been introduced in the UK House of Lords to issue a statuary pardon for WWII hero and father of modern computing Alan Turing. For those of you who aren't familiar with Dr. Turing, allow me to provide a few highlights on his life and importance:
Dr. Alan Turing was a computer scientist and cryptanalyst whose work on decrypting German codes during the war earned him induction as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE), and contributed significantly to Allied successes. Much of his work during and after the WWII helped established the groundwork on which modern computing has been built. In 1952 he pleaded guilty to the charge of homosexuality, resulting in the loss of his security clearance, and court-ordered chemical sterilization via estrogen injections, which Dr. Turing had accepted in lieu of a prison term. His death via cyanide poising in 1954 is widely believed to have been a suicide, although there remain some questions on that point.

On the surface, pardoning Alan Turing would seem to be a no-brainer. He made critical contributions to saving Allied lives during the war, played a key role in bringing about the modern information age, and was convicted of a crime that hasn't existed in England and Wales since 1962, although the rest of the UK was slower to come around.

But in my view a pardon would do a disservice not only to Dr. Turing's memory, but also to the LGBT community.

As distasteful as modern sensibilities may find Alan Turing's trial, conviction, and chemical castration; his experiences at the hands of the law are a vital part, not only of his history, but of the history of the struggle for LGBT equality. While Dr. Turing may not have been alone in being tried and/or convicted of homosexuality during that period of time, he was, even in life, a renowned scientist and war hero. The fact that even someone who had been awarded the OBE by King George VI (note: this originally read "George the IV" I regret the error) himself, could be subjected to a loss of livelihood and physical/psychological torture, is powerful proof of the discrimination gay people have been forced to endure in Western nations within living memory.

In 2009 the Prime Minister issued an apology on behalf of the British government for the treatment Alan Turing received. This was an overdue and wholly right move to address a historical wrong.

But being dead, pardoning Alan Turing does nothing for the man himself, he is widely known today and his work remains highly influential and respected. Moreover, despite having plead guilty to the crime of homosexuality on his lawyer's advice, Dr. Turning did not see his homosexuality as a source of shame, and is said to have felt no remorse for his "crime." A pardon could be seen as a way of saying that his conviction was in error, it was not. Regardless of its fairness, the law made homosexual conduct illegal, and Alan Turing most assuredly "practiced" homosexuality. Pardoning Dr. Turing distances us and future generations from that distasteful truth.

Having already apologized, government of the UK should not now be allowed to retroactively attempt to ameliorate the wrong done to Dr. Turing. Today whenever people learn of his life and work, they come face to face with the reality that little more than sixty years ago, being gay was a crime punishable by prison or mutilation in what today is considered one of the more forward thinking nations of the world on human rights. It would be a betrayal of history, and of one of our community's most visible and important martyrs, to water down that hard truth.

5/14/12 12:35pm Ed. Note: This post has been edited to include the fact that the British government issued an apology for the treatment Alan Turning suffered at the hands of the UK legal system.

(image source: Allan [sic] Turing Statue, on display at Bletchley Park - photo by Sjoerd Ferwerda and used under Creative Commons license)

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