An apology for Alan Turing


Sometimes petitions work. A few weeks ago one such was launched by computer scientist John Graham-Cumming on the UK government website requesting a public apology for the terrible treatment accorded mathematician and wartime codebreaker Alan Turing in 1952. Turing was prosecuted after admitting a gay affair to police investigating another matter and given the choice of imprisonment or parole with chemical castration; in order to carry on working he took the latter choice but subsequent depression led to his suicide. The law used was the same which sent Oscar Wilde to prison in 1895, and Turing’s case was probably the worst treatment of a notable figure on the basis of sexuality since Wilde. During the Second World War Turing had saved countless lives by helping crack the Enigma code, and his early computer research led to the development of machines like the one on which you’re reading these words. In 1999 TIME Magazine put him in a list of the 100 Most Important People of the 20th Century.

Turing has always felt like a local hero to me even though he only lived in Manchester for a few years. The house where he died isn’t far from where I live, and he has a memorial statue (above) in Sackville Park in the city centre, midway between the gay village and the Institute of Science and Technology where he worked. The petition gained a lot of support—30,805 signatures—including endorsement from high-profile figures such as Richard Dawkins and Stephen Fry. I signed it although I was sceptical it would lead to anything; this government doesn’t have much of a record for paying attention to the wishes of its citizens. So colour me surprised now that PM Gordon Brown has issued an apology:

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 of conviction.

I am proud that those days are gone and that in the last 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. (More.)

I take a consistently dim view of the present administration when it comes to its diminishing of our civil liberties and its involvement in other people’s wars. But when it comes to gay issues, Blair and Brown have been the best Prime Ministers since 1967, when another Labour government overturned the law which killed Wilde and Turing. The best, bar none. This announcement is another plus in that direction.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Stonewall forty years on
Over the rainbow
Forty years of freedom after centuries of injustice

7 thoughts on “An apology for Alan Turing”

  1. Wow, I wondered if Turing would ever be counted as a casualty to Britain, not just the gay community. Glad to hear that Brown was mature enough to make such a statement, and glad for continued regard for Turing.

    Have you seen All the Queen’s Men? I think a few people need to apologize for that next.

  2. A cynic might say the government didn’t have anything to lose with this announcement but equally it’s rare for any government to acknowledge how oppressive the nation was within living memory.

    I haven’t seen All the Queen’s Men, and going by the descriptions I’m pretty sure I don’t want to! Looks like a good cast going to waste. Actors in drag is nothing special to Brits, it’s been part of our light entertainment heritage for years, back to the pre-TV days of music hall drag acts. Nearly every one of the Carry On films has a scene where one or more of the men have to drag up.

    For a far better film with Eddie Izzard, and copious amounts of queer culture (including Lindsay Kemp as a music hall drag act), I recommend Velvet Goldmine. But then you’ve probably seen it already…

  3. I think I first came across Turing while reading Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon. I was a bit cynical when I heard about the petition, but, at the end of the day, it’s an important gesture. I have to admit though, that Gordon Brown’s language sort of rubs me the wrong way (his statement is formulated as if Turing was his friend, which strikes me as a bit disingenuous). That’s just nitpicking though. He was a genius, a hero and he deserved better.

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