Alan Turing, the famous Second World War codebreaker, mathematician and computer scientist was convicted of ‘gross indecency’ under a law which criminalised homosexual acts in 1952, one of at least 50,000 men prosecuted under this law. The conviction caused him to lose security clearance for intelligence work and also forced him, after he rejected imprisonment, to undergo chemical castration. He was found dead two years later. Suicide by cyanide poisoning was judged to be the cause of death, which some dispute. Last week the government announced a royal pardon for Alan Turing, 61 years after his prosecution. Though I don’t doubt many of the petitions and individuals calling for the pardon were well-intentioned, I think this is profoundly wrong.
Legally, the pardon is not in keeping with the usual procedure, as the government’s press release acknowledges: “A pardon is only normally granted when the person is innocent of the offence and where a request has been made by someone with a vested interest such as a family member”. It goes on to say “uniquely on this occasion a pardon has been issued without either requirement being met, reflecting the exceptional nature of Alan Turing’s achievements”. It is this statement which highlights the underlying attitude of the pardon to Turing’s conviction and the history of the criminalisation of homosexuality; it is based on a justification of Turing’s exception talents and achievements, rather than on the appalling injustice of the legal system.
Indeed, the whole press release is adorned with references to Turing by Cameron and Chris Grayling, the Justice Secretary, as an “exceptional man”, with hardly any attempt to address the issue of the history of persecution. Thus the suffering of Turing himself, and the thousands of other victims of the oppressive law, not to mention the culture of fear and intolerance it helped create and sustain, have not been given due consideration.
Though it may seem cynical to identify the pardon with the pragmatism, self-promotion and patriotism of the government, their statements on the matter seem to be indicative of it. Cameron chose to emphasise Turing’s “key role in saving this country in World War 2” and his “remarkable national legacy through his substantial scientific achievements” rather than any moral sentiment about his prosecution. Through this rhetoric he is reclaimed as a national war hero of a nation whose representatives treated him like dirt; a figure whose achievements ensure that Britain should remember him with pride, rather than with shame at the way he was treated.
If anyone should be pardoned, then all should be pardoned. Turing’s conviction and treatment was not reprehensible because of his outstanding talents but because of its disgusting discrimination against men based simply on the gender of their sexual partners and the devastating impact it had on his life and the lives of so many others as a result. An individual pardon denies this important truth, and is empty unless it applies to everyone convicted.
Having said that, I don’t believe a royal pardon is the best way to approach the history of criminalised homosexuality. The language of ‘pardon’ still implies a need for forgiveness, and the power of the government to give it, and implies a crime on the side of the prosecuted rather than the persecutor. It offers a polite gesture in the face of a cruel injustice. The government press release repeatedly mentioned an attempt to help ‘clear the name’ of Turing, as if it was in their power or right to do so. Surely we should recognise that in the minds of all of those of us who believe in gay equality, Turing’s name was always crystal clear, and the government that now proclaims to clear it with a noble gesture was in fact the party in need of forgiveness. The power of the government to define sexualities and discipline them was what made this law a disaster, and the pardon in some small way just reflects this tendency.
A full and open understanding of the cruelty and persecution of the past should motivate and inform us to strive for social change, rather than be glossed over. I’m sticking a metaphorical two-fingers up to a government which seems to want a good news day so they can bask in the glory of a war hero, whom they can claim credit for ‘pardoning’, sweeping the oppression of him and many others under the rug and not doing enough to tackle LGBTQ discrimination in the present. Words and the way we view history mean so much, but for me, these are the wrong ones and they shouldn’t distract us from the fact that more of Cameron’s party voted against equal marriage than for it, or that UK government is still deporting LGBTQ asylum seekers facing similar discrimination and worse abroad back to their home countries where they are likely to face severe persecution. If we really want to do something positive for LGBTQ liberation, it should be about changing the future, not revising the past.