Saturday, 12 September 2009
One of the most brilliant people I have ever met said that - had she been required to do war work - she would have happily spent it making tea for Alan Turing.
Turing was born in 1912, and so he could well have lived into our own times (he was born the day before Brian Johnston, the cricket commentator).
He could even be alive today, celebrated as a national treasure for his incredible contributions to the war effort, to mathematics, and to computer science.
However, Turing died in 1954. The circumstances pointed to suicide (though some disputed this). He was found dead with a part-eaten apple, laced it seems with cyanide. The choice of an apple may be significant, as it has been claimed that his favourite fairy-tale was Snow White.
Alan Turing's death in turn has become significant. In essence: he died because he was a homosexual; he died because of the vile laws against male homosexuality which were then in force; and he died because of the misconceived "treatment" which was then deemed appropriate (by some scientists and medical doctors, sadly) for the "illness" of homosexuality.
In 1952 Turing reported a burglary. In the investigation and case which followed the police became aware that Alan Turing had homosexual relationships.
Technically, homosexuality was not a crime - at least not directly.
Buggery was a crime, under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act (which is still actually in force for Grievous Bodily Harm, Actual Bodily Harm and - oddly - Bigamy, which the law also regards as an offence against the person). But few men were actually tried for or convicted of the crime of buggery.
And "gross indecency" was a crime.
Turing was prosecuted under the notorious section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885. This was the same offence under which Oscar Wilde was tried.
Under section 11, an offence of "gross indecency" could be committed by two male persons, either in public or in private. This was taken to mean by the police and the courts to mean all consensual intimate sexual behaviour between men.
Section 11 was not a deeply considered piece of legislation; indeed its enactment was almost an accident. In one late parliamentary sitting, a (so-called radical) MP proposed an amendment which was accepted almost on the nod by the frontbench. There was no debate, either in parliament or otherwise.
Nonetheless, section 11 would criminalise all meaningful male homosexual intimacy for eighty years. Rather than the remote threat of a prosecution under the buggery offence, any evidence or admission of physical closeness - even in private - would lead to prosecution, a sentence, and a criminal record. It was regarded as the "blackmailer's charter".
Alan Turing was charged; he admitted his guilt and was convicted. Instead of imprisonment, he was able to opt for "treatment". He was given hormones to suppress his libido; the side effects were breast development and depression.
In effect, Alan Turing was chemically castrated.
Alan Turing was a hero and a genius, but this "treatment" was also inflicted on many other gay men prosecuted under this legislation. Turing's awesome achievements do not by themselves warrant him receiving an apology for this shameful official conduct; there should be an apology for every gay man who was prosecuted.
All of them deserved better.
It was good that the person who wrote Gordon Brown's apology noted this, though only in passing:
"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."
[Emphasis added - and note how Turing becomes Alan in two sentences!]
Of course, a posthumous apology or pardon is always a mere gesture.
Nonetheless, the greatness of Turing - and the undeniable sheer importance of his work in the war and in computers and the appalling injustice done to him - must force anyone to reconsider using the law to criminalise homosexuality, or to regard homosexuality as to be treated as an illness.
Such people still exist.
The Prime Minister's apology - an official acknowledgement of official wrongdoing - makes it just that more difficult for such bigots to prevail again.
The apology also reminds us just how recent "modern" times are.