Alan Turing, mathematician, and father of computer science & artificial intelligence, was a man far ahead of his time. He was an early atheist, having lost his faith in God after a close male friend at school died as a result of bovine tuberculosis. In 1936 he devised The Turing Machine, a hypothetical device which represented a computer and manipulated symbols on a strip of tape according to a table of rules.
During World War II, Turing worked at the British government’s codebreaking centre, Bletchley Park. Turing headed Hut8, which was responsible for analysing German naval codes. He was instrumental in breaking German codes, including finding a way to crack the notorious Enigma Machine by devising the bombe, a machine which was more effective than an earlier Polish version, and later enhanced by Gordon Welchman. The Turing-Welchman bombe was one of the most effective ways of cracking German codes. You’d think that for his services to Britain that he’d be living in a golden palace after the war, wouldn’t you? Think again.
In 1952, a man called Arnold Murray who had spent the night with Turing previously, broke in to his house with an accomplice. Turing reported the crime to the police and acknowledged his sexual relationship with Murray. Both were charged with gross indecency, and rather than going to prison, Turing agreed to be ‘chemically castrated’ by having injections of oestrogen. The hormones depressed sex drive, mental activity and caused him to grow breasts. In 1954 he was found dead by his cleaner, with an apple half-eaten by him. The cause of the death was cyanide poisoning and a verdict of suicide was recorded, although Turing’s mother maintained that the death was an accident.
Turing’s treatment now appears hideous (at least from a ‘western’ perspective – it’s doubtful there’d be much sympathy from the Ugandan government), a national disgrace and a source of deep shame. While many people have singled out Turing because of his contribution in helping Britain and its allies win World War II, it should be remembered that there were thousands of forgotten men who lived through the wars, who fought in them, and were also punished because of who they loved. In some ways, Turing has come to stand as a symbol for the spitefulness of the British government and its outdated, ignorant Victorian laws.
Yet how far have we really come? A petition was started in 2009, calling for a apology and the then Labour Prime Minster Gordon Brown responded with “we’re sorry, you deserved so much better”. In 2011 another petition asked the government to pardon Turing for the “gross indecency” conviction. But the request was denied by Lord MacNally, who argued that we can’t put things right but should instead ensure we don’t return to those times. Yet in 2006, more than 300 British soldiers who were shot for desertion during WWI were pardoned. We could argue that pardoning them didn’t put that right either, but at least it sent out the right message.
So… someone is at fault of a gross indecency here, and it’s not Alan Turing. That taint of homophobia which has helped earn the Conservatives the label of “the nasty party” lingers on.
Turing, along with all the gay men who “did their bit” in WWII are my heroes. Their service was too often repaid with ingratitude. And until the government pardon them all, the ingratitude remains to this day.