Okay, if you don’t know who Alan Turing is, you should crawl out from under your rock and look him up. He’s one of the largest pioneers of what would later become the field of computer science, as the Turing Test (for computer intelligence) is named after him. The Turing Machine is one of the earliest electronic computing devices. He is largely credited with breaking with the German Enigma code in World War II, which allowed the Allies to decode classified, encrypted German military communication. Many believe the intelligence gained from this shortened the war by a matter of years. Unfortunately for Turing, he was also gay, and any form of homosexual sex was illegal at that point in history. In 1952, after admitting to having a relationship with a young man over the course of an investigation into the burglary of his apartment, Turing was charged, tried, and convicted of “gross indecency,” which was nothing more than homosexual sex. Turing was forced to undergo a treatment known as “chemical castration” to render him impotent and destroy his sex drive, or face a significant prison sentence. He lost his security clearance, and his position with the British government. In 1953, Turing took his own life with cyanide.
Turing wasn’t the only man forced into inhumane medical treatment, or who had his life destroyed by the rampant homophobia of the time. Almost 50,000 men in the UK shared his fate during that period. But the tragic loss of such a brilliant, celebrated young scientist and war hero for having the audacity to be gay and unashamed sheds stark light on just how recently our world treated the LGBT population as little more than vermin to control. Turing saved countless lives through his efforts in cryptology, but even that didn’t grant him a bit of leniency in the face of the widely-held notion that being gay is evil and immoral. The fact that Turing’s conviction stood for 60 years is just a further testament to how deeply entrenched those ideas are. Even just last year, there wasn’t enough positive sentiment for Parliament to pass such a pardon. Finally, it appears that later this summer, Alan Turing, father of modern computing and hero of WWII, will be pardoned for his crime of nothing more than being gay.
While I’m sure that for some of the remains of Turing’s family, the pardon is a meaningful act that may give them some peace about the memory of the this extraordinary man. But in the grand scheme of things, it feels like a hollow gesture to me. It makes great press, but little else. Turing is still lost to us, as are all of the contributions he had yet to make. 50,000 other men were still humiliated and subject to horrific medical treatment, and they haven’t received pardons. If this is Parliament’s way of proving it’s commitment to the LGBT community, then they have a long way to go. I recognize that the UK has comparatively progressive attitude towards LGBT rights, especially compared to the US, but some compensation for those subjected to the same treatment, some concrete action on improved services for the queer community, or recognition for current queer leaders would have a great deal more meaning than a shallow correction of a horrible mistake that was left to fester too long, and tarnished the memory of one of the most important scientists of the 2oth century.