Alan Turing: It Is Ok to be Gay Provided You Helped to Defeat the Nazis

by George_East on December 24, 2013

Alan TuringToday has brought the news that the brilliant mathematician and father of computer science, Alan Turing is to be granted a royal pardon some 59 years after his suspected suicide at the age of 41.   Chris Grayling in announcing the pardon described it as a ‘fitting tribute to an exceptional man’, citing his extraordinary work in breaking the Enigma code in the Second World War.   David Cameron, in his usual PR Dave mode, described Turing as a ‘remarkable man’.

Before considering the implications of the pardon, which at first sight feels like something we should welcome, we need to understand what it is that Turing is being pardoned for.      Turing was a gay man.   He reported a burglary at his house to the police in January 1952.  As part of the investigation into the burglary, Turing admitted to being in a sexual relationship with a man called Arnold Murray, who had told Turing that the burglary had been carried out by an acquaintance of his.     The police promptly charged Turing with gross indecency under s11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, which outlawed male homosexual acts.  Turing pleaded guilty.    As a result Turing was chemically castrated.

Not only was Turing rendered impotent as a result of his consensual sexual acts, he also as a result lost his security clearance, which prevented him from continuing his work in cryptography for GCHQ and was barred from entry from the USA because of his conviction.

Having lost both his sexual life and his career, within two years he was dead, having consumed a cyanide covered apple.  The inquest found that he had committed suicide, though his family have always argued that the death was accidental.

Turing was undoubtedly, as both David Cameron and Chris Grayling have said, an extraordinary man.  His death was the likely result of the state’s prosecution of him for consensual personal acts that harmed nobody.

But  the statements put out by the government have linked his pardon with the fact that Turing was a remarkable man.   This seems to me to be missing the point by some huge distance.

What is wrong and what the state needs to apologise and make amends for, is not that it chemically castrated and ruined the career of an exceptional individual but that it prosecuted an estimated 80,000 men for  consensual sexual acts.    To suggest that somehow Alan Turing should be plucked from amongst the number, is to make his pardon somehow a reward for his contribution to defeating the Nazis.    This in some ways is worse than not pardoning Turing at all, as it is to pardon him for the wrong reason.   Turing was a great man, but all men who found themselves at the mercy of police snoopers and moralistic prosecutions for no more reason than their sexuality ought to be offered the same pardon.    To not do so is to suggest that somehow all the other lesser ordinary men were rightly prosecuted and rightly condemned by society at the time.   By making an exception of Turing, the state is re-condemning all of those other men (some of whom are still alive) for their harmless private acts.  The message it sends is appalling.

The issue is not that Turing helped to defeat the Nazis, for fuck sake, but that he was gay.

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