Alan Turing was a genius, a brilliant mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst, and considered the father of computer science and artificial intelligence. He helped crack the Enigma Code used by Nazis and, many historians argue, is responsible for shortening World War Two by two years, saving countless lives and ensuring victory for the Allies. So, why was this man, who should have been hailed as a hero, disgraced and sentenced to chemical castration?
Born in London, on June 23, 1912, Alan Turing studied mathematics at Kings College, Cambridge before getting his PhD in mathematics from Princeton University, NJ. Returning to Cambridge in 1938, Turing started working at the Britain’s Government Code and Cypher School, where his research was crucial in breaking the Nazi code.
But Alan Turing was a “criminal.” Because Alan Turing was gay. And, in England, until 1967, homosexuality was a criminal offense. In 1951, Turing started seeing a young man named Arnold Murray. Shortly thereafter, in 1952, Turing walked into his apartment and found it had been burglarized. It turns out the robber knew Murray and used homophobia and the reasonable fear of being outed, persecuted and prosecuted, to advance his larceny: Confident that gay men would not risk having their sexuality discovered, the burglar would break into the homes of Murray’s lovers. But Turing went to the police to report the crime. Sadly, when he admitted that he was in a relationship with Murray, the police deemed Turing the criminal. He was convicted of gross indecency and had his security clearance revoked, which meant an end to his cryptology work. In order to avoid jail, Turing “chose” to under go experimental hormone treatment to “fix” his homosexuality. He suffered side effects including the enhancement of breasts and impotence. In 1954, at the age of 41, he was found dead in his apartment. The autopsy revealed cyanide, most likely from the half-eaten apple found near his body.
This is a stark example of how homophobia can cause people to act against their own self-interest and nations to act against their own perceived national security. In the midst of the Cold War, Turing would have been extremely useful working at Government Code and Cypher School. But keeping the country “safe” from what was deemed unnatural and deviant sexual behavior was, to the powers that be, more important than defending the country, and perhaps the world, from perceived foreign enemies.
In 2009, British computer scientist John Graham-Cumming started an online petition demanding that the British government ”recognize the tragic consequences of prejudice that ended this man’s life and career.” The petition, which gathered over 30,805 signatures, prompted then Prime Minister Gordon Brown to issue an apology, saying,
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….
…. It is thanks to men and women who were totally committed to fighting fascism, people like Alan Turing, that the horrors of the Holocaust and of total war are part of Europe’s history and not Europe’s present. So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan’s work, I am very proud to say: we’re sorry. You deserved so much better.
Yet a petition for an official pardon for Turing fell on deaf ears. The government argued that since Turing admitted to committing an act that was, for better or for worse, officially a crime, a pardon could not be issued.
But this changed Tuesday, December 23rd, when Justice Minister Chris Grayling announced that the Queen would, under the Royal Prerogative of Mercy, pardon the man whose ”later life was overshadowed by his conviction for homosexual activity, a sentence we would now consider unjust and discriminatory and which has now been repealed… Dr Turing deserves to be remembered and recognised for his fantastic contribution to the war effort and his legacy to science. A pardon from the Queen is a fitting tribute to an exceptional man.” The pardon reads, ”Now know ye that we, in consideration of circumstances humbly represented to us, are graciously pleased to grant our grace and mercy unto the said Alan Mathison Turing and grant him our free pardon posthumously in respect of the said convictions.”
LGBT and human rights organizer Peter Tatchell said that “another 50,000-plus men who were also convicted of consenting, victimless homosexual relationships during the 20th century” deserve a pardon as well. And Dr Andrew Hodges, an Oxford University mathematician and author of Alan Turing: The Enigma, is more critical:
Alan Turing suffered appalling treatment 60 years ago and there has been a very well intended and deeply felt campaign to remedy it in some way. Unfortunately, I cannot feel that such a ‘pardon’ embodies any good legal principle. If anything, it suggests that a sufficiently valuable individual should be above the law which applies to everyone else. It’s far more important that… LGBT rights movements have succeeded with a complete change in the law – for all. So, for me, this symbolic action adds nothing.
Liberal Democrat Lord Sharkey, who introduced the original failed pardon bill in the House of Lords, agrees, in part, and offers a solution: ”It’s a wonderful thing, but we are not quite finished yet. I will continue to campaign for all those convicted as Turing was, simply for being gay, to have their convictions disregarded. That will be a proper and fitting and final end to the Turing story.”