October 14, 2009
On Alan Turing and Gordon Brown
I wrote the following for Gay City News, New York's largest queer weekly:
Gay mathematical genius Alan Turing (left), considered the father of modern computers and a national hero in Britain for breaking the Nazis’ Enigma code and other German military ciphers and thus shortening the war, has received an official apology from British Prime Minister Gordon Brown for being prosecuted and chemically castrated for his homosexuality. The unspeakable torture drove the brilliant scientist to suicide in 1954 at the young age of 41.
Turing’s gay martyrdom was movingly recounted in the prize-winning play “Breaking the Code” by Hugh Whitemore, which had a long run in London’s West End before coming to Broadway for six months, where it received three Tony Award nominations in 1988. The play was later made into a 1996 BBC film seen on American television on several occasions. Noted Tony Award-winning actor Sir Derek Jacobi starred as Turing in all three productions.
In 1999, Time magazine named Turing one of the 100 Most Important People of the 20th Century, saying of his seminal role in computers, “The fact remains that everyone who taps at a keyboard, opening a spreadsheet or a word-processing program, is working on an incarnation of a Turing machine.”
In a September 10 statement posted on his official website, Prime Minister Brown said of Turing, “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.”
Brown went on to say, “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,” adding, “This recognition of Alan’s status as one of Britain’s most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality, and long overdue.”
Brown’s statement came in response to an online petition campaign earlier this year demanding a posthumous pardon for Turing. Initiated by computer scientist Dr. John Graham-Cumming, the petition was signed by tens of thousands, including a host of well-known Britons — among them the openly gay actor and TV personality Stephen Fry, the biologist and best-selling author Richard Dawkins, and the Booker Prize-winning novelist Ian McEwan.
The political editor of the Sunday newspaper the Observer wrote, “What had persuaded a man so famously uninterested in gay rights that he has regularly failed to vote in Parliament on key gay issues to intervene?” The newspaper reported that Sarah Brown, the prime minister’s wife — who has been outspoken in support of gay rights, hosted gay activists and intellectuals at the prime minister’s official residence at 10 Downing Street, and made headlines when she marched in this year’s London Gay Pride parade — played the key role in persuading Brown to issue the apology. She was also responsible for initiating the Gay Icons exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery, where Turing’s image now hangs.
British gay historian and journalist Neil McKenna — whose must-read, critically acclaimed revisionist biography “The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde” I reviewed in 2005 (“Wilder Than We Knew,” Aug. 25-31, 2005) — was asked by this reporter to put Brown’s apology in perspective, and responded in an angry e-mail worth quoting at length.
He wrote: “Gordon Brown has said that he is ‘sorry’ that Alan Turing was persecuted, that his treatment was ‘appalling,’ that thousands of other gay men were persecuted and that millions live in fear. Sorry? Is that it? Is that all? Twelve measly lines in an official Downing Street press release to say how sorry the British state is that for 21 years, from 1945 to 1966, it did everything it could to extirpate homosexuality from the British. That thousands, probably tens of thousands, of men were surveilled, stalked, arrested, and sent to prison, or offered — as Turing was — chemical castration, or aversion therapy consisting of electric shock torture or the administration of emetics to ‘correct’ homosexual behavior. That tens of thousands, probably hundreds of thousands, of gay lives — including mine — were warped, twisted, damaged, and destroyed by the British state’s blithe belief that it knew best.
“The most insulting part of the press release is the party political point Brown cannot resist making. It is, according to Brown, entirely down to New Labour that LGTB people have any rights at all. How dare he patronize us. Twelve measly, miserable, weasel-worded lines in which Brown fails to acknowledge the half-century-long journey of gay activists who struggled to try and right these wrongs, to try and achieve justice for gay men. I can remember the late 1980s and the early 1990s when Labour was far from friendly towards gay men, when it writhed in a sea of lies, half-truths, and half-promises about reforming the law. I can remember the time was Brown was as silent and as sullen on these issues as the grave.
“We deserve more than twelve measly, miserable, weasel-worded lines. If Gordon Brown was really, truly, feelingly, passionately sorry he should set up a Royal Commission to document and enquire into the holocaust of gay men that took place in Britain. And while we are about it, when is Gordon Brown, on behalf of the British Government, going to apologize for returning those ‘pink triangle’ prisoners liberated from the concentration camps to German Prisons with the foul and twisted logic that these men had been convicted of criminal offences and as concentration camps were not prisons, they had to serve their sentences?
“Brown’s statement means nothing to the LGTB movement. It probably means nothing to Brown himself. It has no historical significance. There has been a change in establishment attitudes towards gay men, but this change has come about over the last fifteen years, beginning with John Major’s invitation to Ian McKellen to Downing Street to talk about a gay rights agenda. I very much doubt whether Gordon Brown even wrote it himself. The statement was only issued in response to an e-petition which thousands had signed. The real question to ask is: would Brown have issued this statement without the e-petition? The answer is quite clearly no. Labour has had twelve years in power. Ample time to apologise. But, curiously, no apology has come forth, until now.
“If Gordon Brown really cared about gay men rather than about saving his miserable political skin in the face of a potential electoral defeat for Labour that will make Dunkirk look like a Sunday School outing, then he would set up compensation schemes for those gay men who were victims of state persecution. Many are still alive. Many more have died. I grew up in a provincial city where I got to know many of these men. I feel their pain. I feel my pain. They were angry, but not angry enough. I am still angry. Furious. Outraged. Disgusted. Twelve measly, miserable, weasel-worded lines to wash away 50 years of pain. It’s not enough. Not anything like enough,” McKenna concluded.
Turing’s persecution came at the height of anti-gay Cold War hysteria provoked by the defection to Moscow of the diplomats Guy Burgess, a notorious homosexual, and Donald Maclean, and in the climate of the day homosexuality was virtually equated with treason in the minds of the police. (For more on what is known as The Great Purge of the early 1950s, which ensnared some 5,000 British gay men, see this reporter’s September 6-12, 2007 article, “Free the Buggers.")
In a way, Turing, who had never made a secret of his same-sex orientation, was a victim of his own candor. In January 1952, Turing — who had received an OBE, or Order of the British Empire, for his war work and been made a Fellow of the Royal Society for his mathematical achievements — picked up an unemployed 19-year-old, Arnold Murray, outside a cinema in Manchester and began a brief relationship with him. Turing took a liking to Murray because of their shared interest in the sciences, but after a few meetings, it was clear that their relationship would never go anywhere. Murray was stealing money from Turing, and Turing broke off the relationship, asking the younger man never to return to his home. When Murray and an accomplice broke into his house, Turing reported the crime to the police. During the investigation, Turing off-handedly acknowledged a sexual relationship with Murray. Homosexual acts were illegal in the United Kingdom at that time, and so both were charged with gross indecency under Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, the same crime that Oscar Wilde had been convicted of more than 50 years earlier (the law remained on the books until 1967).
Turing was given a stark choice — imprisonment or probation conditional on his agreement to undergo hormonal treatment designed to reduce libido, a form of aversion therapy. He accepted chemical castration via estrogen hormone injections, as a result of which he became impotent and his breasts grew larger. More damaging, however, were the effects on his nervous system. The treatment caused waves of depression and despair. After his conviction, Turing also had his security clearance removed and his work consulting for Britain’s intelligence service ended.
A year after his coercive and barbaric chemical castration began, Turing killed himself by eating a poisoned apple he had laced with cyanide. Urban legend has it that the Apple Computer logo of an apple with a bite taken out of it is a tribute to Turing, the father of computers, although the company has officially denied this.
For more on Alan Turing, see the articles on him in the GLBTQ encyclopedia online http://www.glbtq.com/social-sciences/turing_a,2.html and on Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alan_Turing. David Leavitt’s biography, “The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer” (Norton, 2007), provides a complete account from a queer point of view of Turing’s persecution.