Alan Turing was gay, but we forgive him

calendar 24 Dec 2013

Alan Turing is regarded by many as one of the parents of computing (I don't say fathers as not all of those that gave birth to the things that power this Internet machine were dudes). During World War II he was a codebreaker at Bletchley Park and helped crack the infamous Enigma machine.

In 1952 he was convicted of "gross indecency" due to a sexual relationship he'd struck up earlier in the year with a man, homosexuality being illegal before 1967. He was booted out of his job, and in 1954 he committed suicide.

Earlier this morning news of Alan Turing's royal pardon dropped, and it made me a little tetchy. Here's why:

A pardon is the forgiveness of a crime and the cancellation of the relevant penalty; it is usually granted by a head of state or by acts of a parliament or a religious authority.

Pardon, Wikipedia entry

While I massively celebrate that someone caved to public pressure, to my mind this doesn't go far enough. Forgiving someone for something that's neither illegal nor - more importantly - immoral isn't the same as overturning a conviction and recognising that the law was wrong to begin with. It's like saying "you did a bad thing, but it's all water under the bridge now".

Just because, prior to 1967 we thought it was OK to tell people where to put their penises, doesn't make it a valid law, so I don't see why those convicted of homosexuality before the decriminalising act passed should still have been counted, in the eyes of the law as criminals.

If this were about alcohol prohibition or a declassification of a previously illegal substance, I think that would be a different matter, but we never had the right to tell consenting adults who they were permitted to love. As humans we understand that this law was wrong, but the law has never been about people or about morals, but about adhering to a doctrine.

There was a scene in The West Wing where an odious but fiercely intelligent Republican woman shot down Sam (Rob Lowe)'s argument about over a discriminatory bill, saying that she didn't want to pass a bill that enshrined her gender's equality, as it insinuated that for the hundreds of years prior, she was deemed to be an inferior person. There are of course counter-arguments about that and I'm not smart enough to be able to understand all nuances, but that argument struck a chord. As a people, we have to help right our history's wrongs.

From what I understand, the Sexual Offences Act stopped homosexuality from becoming an offence, but it didn't stop it from being valid retroactively. In those times that seems understandable; that act would have been difficult to get through Parliament and the House of Lords even if the will of the people was behind it - and I don't know whether it was or wasn't. But I'd like to think, nearly 47 years on that we can all agree that it wasn't a valid law, and that those people who were deemed to be criminals should have their convictions quashed , not forgiven.

There's a long piece by David Allen Green which outlines an alternative to the pardon, and will probably state a lot more coherently some of the potential objections against this pretty empty gesture.

I don't have a dog in this fight. This isn't coming from an experience, a gay friend or anything like that (not that that should alter the validity of what I've said). I'm not politically active or particularly engaged, but human injustices rankle me and I wanted to get this off my chest.

That Alan Turing is no longer deemed a criminal is something to rejoice over, but I think we can, and should go further.