GCHQ apologises to gay people


The boss of GCHQ has apologised for banning gay people from working for the organisation right up until the 90s. Robert Hannigan was speaking at a conference run by Stonewall, when he referred to a spy called Ian who was sacked in the 1960s for being gay.

After seven years of exemplary service, with very strong prospects for the future, he was interrogated on suspicion of being homosexual, he was summarily dismissed and escorted out of the building. He got no support from anyone in authority at all, even his union, and no-one ever followed up to check on his well-being or to show any compassion. Not surprisingly, his health suffered and the psychological effects of that humiliation were long-lasting.

… Their suffering was our loss and it was the nation’s loss too because we cannot know what Ian and others who were dismissed would have gone on to do and achieve.

Whenever a group of people are excluded from areas of employment and expertise for reasons that have nothing to do with their competence, then we have to ask what could have been achieved if they had been included in the pool of talent. There is always the question about ‘what might have been’ if the organisation had been completely free to choose the best candidates for a job.

What caught my eye, though, were the references to Alan Turing in Hannigan’s speech:

But in our building he is revered as a genius, as a problem-solver who was not afraid to think differently and radically – an example to others. And in the horrifying story of his treatment, a small ray of light is that he was not abandoned by all of his colleagues at GCHQ – many stood by him and our then Head of Cryptanalysis – chief code breaker – testified at his trial.

… We did not learn our lesson from Turing.

I was initially rather puzzled by this, as like many others I had assumed that Turing’s work on cryptography had come to a natural conclusion at the end of the war when he left Bletchley Park (the fore-runner of GCHQ). So what was his connection with GCHQ after the war ended?

In 1945 he was headhunted by the National Physical Laboratory, and he later went to work at Manchester University’s groundbreaking Computing Laboratory.

And this is where Vince Cable steps in. In a post in 2014 he wrote:

For many people Alan Turing is associated with Manchester but he was also for an important period of time a resident in my Twickenham constituency. Between 1945 and 1948 he lived in Hampton and worked at the National Physical Laboratory at Teddington.

It seems that in 1950 Turing was approached in a very secretive manner by GCHQ who wanted to offer him some consultancy as tensions were rising with Russia.

Two years later he was arrested for homosexual acts and sentenced to one year of ‘organo-therapic’  (that is, hormone) treatment.

The University continued to employ him after he pleaded guilty. The BBC report claims that Turing was ‘hounded by GCHQ because of his sexuality’, but one of his colleagues at GCHQ appeared as a character witness at the trial. However he did lose his security clearance because he was gay and hence any future consultancy work with GCHQ.

A couple of years after his conviction Turing was found dead. In the past his death has been assumed to be suicide – apparently he ate a cyanide-laced apple just before going to bed. But more recently his mother’s theory that his death was an accident has been gaining credence. Turing had been gold-plating items at home using cyanide for electrolysis, and it is highly possible that the poison had remained on his hands. There was no warning and no suicide note, the apple was never examined for traces of cyanide, and the inquest (which returned a verdict of suicide) was not conducted according to the standards we would expect today.

But whether it was suicide or not, we do still have a ‘what might have been’ question about Turing. He is revered for having developed new abstract theories which he then re-imagined in a concrete form; for using his technology to solve highly complex problems with important social consequences; and for recognising the long-term significance of his work and the possibility of artificial intelligence. What if Alan Turing, who was arguably one of the world’s greatest computer scientists, had lived – and had continued to do dazzling work – beyond 1954? What if, in addition, GCHQ had not sacked him because he was gay but had continued to draw on his expertise throughout the Cold War?

As Vince Cable wrote:

…  his death was not just a personal tragedy and horrific injustice, it was also a loss of talent and brilliance in mathematics and computing. All of us would have benefited further from his talents, if he had lived his life in full. If he had worked for twenty or thirty more years his further discoveries would have enriched us all.

* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames, where she is still very active with the local party, and is the Hon President of Kingston Lib Dems.

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  • Graham Evans 18th Apr '16 - 7:00pm

    What is good about the GCHQ apology is that it meets the criteria for a proper apology, i.e you radically change your behaviour and attitudes. It’s a pity the “apology” of the Archbishop of Canterbury on a similar subject fails to fulfil this condition.

  • @Graham I agree, however, it was more than ‘just’ an apology, it was a celebration of diversity (at GCHQ) and an invitation to people with a different take on life to seek work at GCHQ.

  • Lorenzo CherinSuperb 19th Apr '16 - 12:11am

    This is poignant ! What a terrible blot on history is the treatment of gay people,men in particular , in Britain .Shamed and shunned , their voice heard only from the sixties onwards !

    We must never forget that what makes for progress in human rights are also , allies .We would have had Mandela in prison longer , without De Klerk , Soviet Communism longer, without Gorbachev, and draconian laws longer in the 1960s without Roy Jenkins!His contribution to society and to our party was massive .

  • This story reminds me of my time in the RAF when I witnessed first hand how cruel the law on gays in the armed forces was. I saw three men, all NCO’s and well on their way to their 22 year point – when you qualify for an immediate pension and gratuity – and with years of excellent service behind them dismissed for being homosexuals. That was their only “crime” and for that and no other reason they lost their careers, financial security and a way of life they loved. The procedure at that time – late 70’s and 80’s – was an immediate psychiatric referral followed by a dishonourable discharge. All three men were given support and understanding by their immediate officers and fellow NCO’s, but the system wouldn’t budge and they were out within days. I’m not really big on the “apology” culture, I find much of it insincere, but the way homosexuals were treated in the Security Services and Armed Forces was disgraceful. Well done to Robert Hannigan he was right to apologise.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 19th Apr '16 - 6:08pm

    A technical error added superb to my name , apologies for the absurdity !

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