Alex Blaze

Gordon Brown apologizes to Alan Turing

Filed By Alex Blaze | September 11, 2009 11:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Politics
Tags: Alan Turing, britain, Gordon Brown, LGBT people

Alan Turing, a gay mathematical genius from a half-century ago, finally got an apology from the British government after a petition gathered 30,000 signatures for it.

Alan_Turing.jpgWithout Turing's work, the computer age would have looked quite different. His work on the Turing machine was a theoretical fore-runner to the modern personal computer and came up with the basic concept of software, getting him cited as one of Time's 100 most influential people of the 20th century.

More famously, he also worked as a cryptologist and cracked the code Nazis were using to communicate, bringing World War II to an earlier end. What he did was nothing short of heroism, putting his mind to work to save countless lives.

But, proving the idiocy of discrimination, he was put on trial for "gross indecency" because he admitted to having a relationship with another man. Here's how Wikipedia puts it:

In January 1952 Turing picked up the 19-year-old Arnold Murray outside a cinema in Manchester. After a lunch date, Turing invited Murray to spend the weekend with him at his house, an invitation which Murray accepted although he did not show up. The pair met again in Manchester the following Monday, when Murray agreed to accompany Turing to the latter's house. A few weeks later Murray visited Turing's house again, and apparently spent the night there.[31]

More after the jump.

After Murray helped an accomplice to break into his house, Turing reported the crime to the police. During the investigation Turing acknowledged a sexual relationship with Murray. Homosexual acts were illegal in the United Kingdom at that time,[5] and so both were charged with gross indecency under Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, the same crime that Oscar Wilde had been convicted of more than fifty years earlier.[32]

Turing was given a choice between imprisonment or probation conditional on his agreement to undergo hormonal treatment designed to reduce libido. He accepted chemical castration via oestrogen hormone injections,[33] which lasted for a year. One of the known side effects of these hormone injections was the development of breasts, known as gynecomastia, something which plagued Turing for the rest of his life. Turing's conviction led to the removal of his security clearance, and barred him from continuing with his cryptographic consultancy for GCHQ. At the time, there was acute public anxiety about spies and homosexual entrapment by Soviet agents, possibly due to the recent exposure of the first two members of the Cambridge Five, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, as KGB double agents. Turing was never accused of espionage but, as with all who had worked at Bletchley Park, was prevented from discussing his war work.

He committed suicide two years later.

Gordon Brown took to the Telegraph today to apologize on behalf of the British government to Turing:

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.

In 1952, he was convicted of "gross indecency" - in effect, tried for being gay. His sentence - and he was faced with the miserable choice of this or prison - was chemical castration by a series of injections of female hormones. He took his own life just two years later.

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 in conviction. I am proud that those days are gone and that in the past 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.

And as much as we think we're advancing on this front, this same sort of discrimination occurs all the time. When will we accept, as Americans, as Westerners, and as human beings, that someone's sexual inclinations don't affect how they work on the job? When will we move beyond saying that X, Y, or Z group is a threat, and nothing a member of that group can do will prove otherwise?

Acknowledging the problems of the past is one step. But in the US, and the UK, where homophobia and sexophobia and transphobia do still exist, people are being held back from their full potential because of irrational discrimination. If we take a moment to think about all the more that Turing could have contributed to modern technology, and then multiply that by the millions of other people, women, people of color, religious minorities, held back because of something that doesn't affect their ability to contribute to society, the material cost of job discrimination and prejudice is overwhelming.

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I am so glad to finally see this --- I didn't know whether it would take place within my lifetime, or if ever.

The silver lining here is that through the comments on social software like Facebook and Twitter, on blogs like the massively popular Boing Boing and in face-to-face conversations, I have become very clear that the technology community is a very strong ally of GLBT's. I hope others in the movement will join me in strengthening our relationship with the tech community, working together for equality.

This is an outstanding move for the British, but I must say, we beat them there. President Obama gave the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Harvey Milk posthumously, and handed Frank Kameny his pen when he signed the Federal benefits order. I must say that for all that I'm still waiting for from this administration, our President has led in many areas for the LGBT community.

NO, that doesn't mean I'm satisfied, there's a lot more that he MUST do. But in these two acts, I am very proud of him.

On the other hand, we got same-sex partners parity with other-sex partners in immigration and in company benefits some years ago. Queer and trans people can openly serve in our forces, and have done since 2000; they have served openly in our police forces for years. Civil partnerships were made legal across the entire nation 5 years ago (the Quakers decided to record same-sex unions in exactly the same way as other-sex marriages this year, and explicitly set themselves up to challenge the law in doing so, this year). Same-sex couples have been allowed to adopt in the UK by many agencies for some years, but anti-discrimination legislation made it illegal to prevent adoption by couples on the basis of gender, gender identity, and orientation in 2007 (the legislation also protects us from discrimination in terms of employment, goods and services, health care, family law, prison, etc.).

So we're not doing quite so badly on this side of the Pond, even though we've miles to go before we sleep.

you're right. Now I'm depressed again. Oh well, for a few seconds I felt good about living over here.

Never surrender - never give in!

Seriously, America is an amazing country. Never fails to surprise. I'll lay odds on that America beats us to nationwide actual same-sex marriage, rather than civil partnership.

David Fierstine | February 12, 2010 9:50 PM

Sir, I agree. However I believe we can help take it a step futher. I am a 30 veteran of cryptographic equipment repair. The first model I was taught was the KL-7 Adonis. It was a very close cousin of the Enigma. I didn't know the connection between Dr. Turing and my life until early this year. I presented his biography in a recent IT managers course. The final slide was a request to support (by signing an e-petition) awarding (posthumously) Dr. Alan Turing The Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. His work on the Navy American Bombe and Bell Labs secure voice systems greatly affected America's national security during WWII. The American Bombe became the fastest machine at breaking Enigma codes.

Please sign and let's start our grassroots movement to recognize one of the great geniuses of the 20th century.

Too little, way too late. He was one of the most brilliant minds of the last century, and he was persecuted to death. If they've really learned from their mistakes, they'll do everything possible to make sure this NEVER happens to anyone, ever again.

The Apple logo is a reference to Turing. ;)

This may or may not be true. If it is true, it's kind of morbid, considering he committed suicide by eating an apple laced with cyanide. The half eaten fruit was found lying next to his dead body. An homage that highlights the means by which the honored died is kind of weird. If it isn't true, then it is an amazing coincidence. The official story according to Apple is that the company's name and subsequent logo were inspired by Isaac Newton's legendary apple that sparked his thinking on gravity.

Turing's story is one that always gets to me. Every time I hear about it, I tear up. I'm a high school math, physics and engineering teacher, and it was this story that inspired me to start a GSA at my school, to help ensure that all kids have the opportunity to live up to their full potential.

It's a well deserved gesture to a gay man who suffered horribly despite the fact that he was key to winning the Second World War. His efforts were worth a dozen divisions.

But a gesture is all it is.

Actually what GLBT folks in England need is a blanket pardon and compensation for everyone convicted under the harsh anti-gay laws sponsored by the anglo and roman catholic cults.

I have no doubt that we shall win, but the road is long, and red with monstrous martyrdoms. Oscar Wilde

Also, perhaps, the people in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland? And, though it's legally been an English Duchy for centuries, many Cornish don't consider themselves English. The Isle of Man, of course, didn't legalise same-sex sex until 1994.

Certainly. Wherever English Law holds sway. Until that changes.