Tag Archives: Alan Turing

Gay History: Remembering the Gay Man Who Saved 17 Million Lives

The WWII hero saved millions of lives before being chemically castrated for being gay. He killed himself two years later.

“[Alan Turing] was and is a hero of all time…a man who is a gay icon, who didn’t deny his nature, his being, and for that he suffered. … This is a story that celebrates him, that celebrates outsiders; it celebrates anybody who’s ever felt different and ostracized and ever suffered prejudice.”

—Benedict Cumberbatch

I usually find movie award shows to project primarily fluff and silliness, and they rarely stir deep emotions in me. But listening to Benedict Cumberbatch accept the award for Best Actor at the American Film Awards for his portrayal of Alan Turing in the film The Imitation Game two years ago brought me to tears.

This stemmed from a sense of deep pride and an endless abyss of sadness. Cumberbatch’s commitment and passion shined through on stage as he talked about transforming Turing’s story, his brilliance, and his humanity to the silver screen, helping to give Turing the long-overdue wide-scale recognition he rightly deserves.

Alan Mathison Turing was a pioneering computer scientist, and he served as a mid-20th century British mathematician, logician, and cryptanalyst who, working during World War II at England’s Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park, succeeded with his team of scientists and linguists in cracking the “Enigma code” used by the Nazi command to conduct covert communication operations.

Because of Turing and his colleagues’ efforts, Cumberbatch said, there is now general agreement that they shortened the war by at least two years, saving an estimated 17 million lives. Prime Minister Winston Churchill singled out Turing as the person whose work contributed the most to defeating the Germans.

The Imitation Game also highlights the enormous obstacles placed in the way of women entering the sciences, especially mid-century. In this regard, Keira Knightley made an equally moving speech at the American Film Awards in accepting theBest Supporting Actress award for her portrayal of Joan Clarke, who worked with Turing in deciphering the code.

“Particularly now, when women are such a minority in all fields, her story and the fact that she really perseveres, and she had space and time and grace, is really inspiring,” she said.

Though initially considered a national hero in Britain, in 1952, government officials arrested and prosecuted Turing on the antiquated charge of “gross indecency” when he “admitted” to maintaining a same-sex relationship. Rather than serving time in prison, Turing chose to undergo estrogen injections then considered in men a form of “chemical castration” eliminating sex drive. Turing took his life two years later by swallowing cyanide just two weeks short of his 42nd birthday.

I find it deeply ironic that while Turing and his team helped defeat the Nazi war machine, a nation intolerant of any form of difference including same-sex relations (especially between men), the primary “allied” nations fighting Nazi Germany – United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union – all maintained laws criminalizing homosexuality.

Under King Henry VIII in 1533, England passed a “buggery” (or sodomy) law, doling out the penalty of death for “the detestable and abominable Vice of Buggery committed with mankind or beast.” Under the rule of Elizabeth I in 1564, death for same-sex acts between men became a permanent part of English law until the 1880s. British courts at the time concluded that sex between two women was impossible and, therefore, exempted women from the statute. By 1885, English Criminal Law punished homosexuality with imprisonment up to two years. This remained in effect until homosexuality was decriminalized in 1967.

In addition, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin criminalized homosexuality with eight years imprisonment or exile to Siberia. And in the United States, consensual same-sex relations were against the law at one time in all states, and remained illegal in some states as late as 2003, when the Supreme Court finally overturned such bans in its Lawrence v. Texas decision.

In 2009, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown officially apologized to Alan Turing on behalf of the people of his nation for “the appalling way he was treated.” Parliament finally brought up a bill of “pardon” in 2013, and on 24 December, 2013, Queen Elizabeth granted Turing a posthumous pardon.

Though the English government never actually forced a physical stigma onto Turing’s body, they branded the symbol of the outsider, the pervert, the enemy deeply into his soul. This branding seriously deprived the British nation and the larger world community of his continued genius, his generosity, and the many additional gifts he could have imparted.

I agree with Benedict Cumberbatch that Turing’s wide-scale recognition is long overdue.

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Gay History: Alan Turing: Gay Man who Saved the World yet Died in Disgrace

What do you do to a homosexual mathematician whose code-breaking genius saved the world during World War II? Not figuratively, but actually saved the world from Nazi domination? You put him on trial, of course! You convict him of gross indecency. You force him to choose prison or chemical castration. You strip him of all dignity and hound him until in shame and despair he swallows a cyanide pill and dies.

The story of Alan Turing is one of the most disgraceful episodes of modern civilization. A man who should have been a hero of the free world and idolized next to Einstein and Newton in the history books was instead hounded to death because of religion-inspired homophobia.

In World War II, Alan Turing’s genius at breaking Nazi secret codes was so successful that the Allies could have sunk almost every single U-boat and convoy that left Germany. Turing’s work was so good it was like cheating at cards: if you win every hand, the other players will quickly figure out that the game is rigged. The Allies had to employ all sorts of tricks to hide their success; if you want a fascinating account, I highly recommend Neal Stephenson’s semi-fictional Cryptonomicon, the story of the rise of modern cryptography.

Alan Turing literally saved the world from Nazi domination. Without his work, WWII would have ended very differently. The Nazi regime might have remained undefeated, still in control of Northern Europe and western Asia. The Japanese might have retained control of East Asia. Our world maps would look vastly different today. And even if we’d won the war, without Turing’s work it’s likely that millions more soldiers and civilians would have died in the fight.

And Turing’s work didn’t end with cryptography. Today he’s best known as the inventor of the modern digital computer, the one who laid down the mathematical foundation for all computer science. His name is even enshrined in two of the most important computer-science concepts, the Turing machine and the Turing test.

If Alan Turing hadn’t been homosexual, his name might be a household word like Einstein, Newton and Galileo. What home doesn’t have a computer? If you count the laptops, cell phones, digital TVs, iPods, digital cameras and microwave ovens in your home, I’ll bet you own more than a dozen computing devices. Every one of them works on the principles laid down by Alan Turing during WWII when he was trying to develop a computing machine to break the enemy’s codes even faster.

Turing’s fall from grace came at the hands of the religious commi-bashing right, the British equivalent of America’s McCarthyism. In 1952 a gay lover helped an accomplice rob Turing’s house. During the police investigation, it came out that Turing was a homosexual. He was arrested and convicted of gross indecency, and given a choice of prison or chemical castration. Turing choose castration.

On June 7, 1954, at just forty two years of age, Alan Mathison Turing killed himself by swallowing cyanide. One of the greatest minds in the history of humankind was lost forever, and one of the greatest heroes of World War II died in shame and disgrace.

But the real shame is on the rest of us, not Alan Turing. In spite of his sexual orientation and consequent hardships he must have experienced, he remained a true patriot and mathematician. He put his mind to work to save the very society that persecuted him. It is possible that he changed history and saved more lives than any other single person in the twentieth century.

On September 10, 2009, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown finally issued a public apology to Turing’s memory:

Thousands of people have come together to demand justice for Alan Turing and recognition of the appalling way he was treated. 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 … So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan’s work I am very proud to say: we’re sorry, you deserved so much better.

It is stories like Turing’s that keep me writing. It’s easy to have a live-and-let-live attitude toward the immoral “morality” of the Bible. It sounds nice to advocate tolerance and respect. But Alan Turing is dead, and the Bible is where it all started.

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