Opinion: Merry Christmas, Mr Turing

Merry Christmas. What’s on your tree this year? Baubles? Tinsel? Some of that fake snow that looks a bit like candy floss and gets everywhere by New Year? Almost certainly some fairy lights.

However you decorate your Christmas tree, you would probably think it looked a bit bare if it only had the star on the top. You’d be right. Which is why, however big an achievement it is for those who have campaigned for it, I can only raise one-and-a-half cheers today at the news Alan Turing has at long last received a posthumous pardon for the conviction he received for being a practising homosexual in 1952, two years before his death apparently by suicide.

And Turing was a star. In any list of distinguished gay people of the last century – assuming your ISP still allows access to such a list – his name would feature prominently. He was a brilliant mathematician and inventor whose work was instrumental in winning the Second World War. After 1945 his work around artificial intelligence led to the concept of the “Turing Test” still used today.

But Turing was not alone in being persecuted – and prosecuted – for consensual and loving same-sex acts. In fact there were around 75,000 men convicted between the criminalisation of gay sex in private in 1885 and legalisation in 1967. Some of these people are still alive. Some are even still recorded and have their DNA stored as part of the Sex Offenders Register. When will these pardons come?

I don’t wish to detract from Alan Turing’s achievements in life or his suffering – and I offer congratulations to everyone who has been campaigning to rehabilitate the reputation of a great man. Special recognition goes to John Leech and John Sharkey who have been vocal on the issue. But this is one man. We can celebrate when pardons and legal restitution are handed out to all the men and women who were convicted and suffered because of homophobic laws.

It may seem symbolic and maybe it is – but symbols are important. Why else did you drag that 6-foot Norway Spruce into your living room and cover it in fairy lights?

* Ben Mathis is an agent and activist from Hackney

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9 Comments

  • Peter Andrews 24th Dec '13 - 3:29pm

    I agree anyone who was convicted underthis horrible illiberal and intrusive law should get a royal pardon not just those who happened to be a brilliant mathematician useful to the government in the war effort

  • Graham Evans 24th Dec '13 - 7:44pm

    Isn’t it time we got rid of the outdated concept of a royal pardon, which does not actually wipe out the “rightness” of the original conviction, but merely means that the individual does not have to suffer the consequences of the conviction. Whenever we repeal or significantly amend a law which we no longer think is just or appropriate surely all convictions under the earlier law should be automatically spent and eliminated from the public record.

  • I have mixed feelings over this. In some respects it is good that he has been pardoned and in others not so good.

    Thanks in part to the outing of Bletchley Park, Alan Turing has a much higher media profile and hence his conviction was a very visible reminder that things (in Britain) were different back then – England almost being a foreign country. I hope his pardon will also become part of his story so that in 60+ years people can look back and see just how much attitudes in Britain changed between 1952 and 2013.

  • I’m afraid the whole thing is misconceived. Giving somebody preferential treatment in relation to a criminal conviction because he was an eminent scientist is about as illiberal as you can get.

  • Christine Headley 25th Dec '13 - 12:55am

    I have quoted the 75,000 men figure on Facebook, and would like to know how it was calculated, in case of challenge.

  • Whenever laws that are clearly illiberal and discriminatory are repealed there should be a general statement of regret for what those laws did to people and a stat.ement of determination to continue seeking out and reforming any such laws that still exist. However it would be ridiculous to attempt to identify all individual cases from the past and go through formal procedures of pardon. Turing must be seen as a particularly special case which must not set a precedent in terms of individual pardon.

  • “In fact there were around 75,000 men convicted between the criminalisation of gay sex in private in 1885 and legalisation in 1967. Some of these people are still alive. Some are even still recorded and have their DNA stored as part of the Sex Offenders Register. When will these pardons come?”

    It’s worth noting that under the Protection of Freedom Act 2012 those convicted of or cautioned for such offences have the right to apply for the conviction or caution to be disregarded. Whether any such applications have been refused I don’t know.

  • Stephen Hesketh 25th Dec '13 - 4:03pm

    @Denis – I think you hit the right note. And Mr Turing, the free world, European libertarian democracy and countless merchant seamen and other second world war servicemen and civilians owe you a inestimable debt of gratitude. Thank you.
    The tragedy is that millions of gay and lesbian people have continued to be discriminated against in certain areas of the world and in some communities down to this very day. As a genuine mark of our gratitude and our sorry for Turing’s treatment in life, 2014 should be the beginning of our total intolerance of all discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. Now that would be a very powerful ‘pardon’.

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