Updated: Saturday, 4th April 2020 @ 10:16am

The battle to pardon Alan Turing: One step ahead, two steps backwards in the fight against homophobia?

The battle to pardon Alan Turing: One step ahead, two steps backwards in the fight against homophobia?

By Mihaela Ivantcheva

The government has rejected calls for wartime code-breaker Alan Turing to be granted an official pardon of his conviction of homosexuality from the 1950s.

“To get a pardon for Alan Turing will open the door for all people who have been convicted for the same offence to be pardoned in the future,” said John Leech, MP for Manchester Withington.

The battle to pardon Alan Turing is not an individual fight, it is an apology to a whole generation of people who might have suffered, and to underline the issues of the law. However, the government dismissed the request of more than 23,000 people.

Alan Turing was convicted in 1952 for having a homosexual relationship. Under Section 11 of the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act, any sexual act between two men was an illegal offence. The clause foresaw imprisonment not exceeding one year, for any man found guilty of ‘gross indecency’.

Convicted of gross indecency himself, Mr Turing was left with two options – jail or chemical castration. He chose the latter and was given oestrogen hormone injections, widely believed to have led to his death. Two years after the conviction, aged just 41, the great mathematician died of cyanide poisoning. A bitten apple was found lying next to the dead body.

The British ‘father of the computer’ and mathematical genius had to suffer humiliation. Instead of glory, his life ended in tragedy.

According to the London-based lesbian, gay and bisexual charity Stonewall, Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act was the first specifically anti-homosexual act, also known as the ‘blackmailer’s charter’.

Homosexual acts between men were decriminalised in 1967 when the Sexual Offences Act came into force in England and Wales.

We will never know how many suffered in the period between 1885 and 1967 for being homosexual. Thousands of gay men were blackmailed, prosecuted, sentenced to prison, branded and humiliated.

Since then UK law and social attitudes about homosexuality have evolved to guarantee equality and non-discrimination. Same-sex relationships have been decriminalised and efforts have been made to ensure that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender enjoy equal rights.

However, Alan Turing’s conviction and tragic end was not lightly taken and forgotten by his future colleagues. Fifty-five years after his death, in August 2009, John Graham-Cumming, computer scientist, started a petition demanding a formal apology from the British Government for prosecuting Mr Turing.

Mr Graham-Cumming wrote at that time: “There is no doubt in my mind that if Turing had lived past age 41 his international impact would have been great and that he likely would have received a knighthood while alive.”

The petition received thousands of signatures and prompted former Prime Minister Gordon Brown to issue a statement apologising and describing Mr Turing's treatment as ‘appalling.'

Mr Brown said: “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.”

However, this was not sufficient. In December 2011, a campaign was launched urging the government to pardon Mr Turing for his conviction of gross indecency. William Jones set up an e-petition that has currently attracted wide publicity and more than 23,000 signatures.

The campaign was strengthened by Mr Leech putting down an Early Day Motion (EDM) that sought political support across parties in Westminster. Following the submission of the EDM, Mr Leech received thousands of emails from all over the country thanking him for the motion.

Mr Leech said: “The most important thing that Alan Turing did was his work during World War Two and he should be remembered for that and that only, not for what went on in his private life.”

Even after 58 years and an apology from the Prime Minister, there is a common feeling that Mr Turing’s issue has not been resolved. Campaigners want to see the conviction of gross indecency wiped out from the record of the great mathematician.

“People want a closure on the issue. While an apology was made, it is still on his record as having been convicted of gross indecency. For one of our national heroes, I think this is a crying shame,” added Mr Leech.

The setback - two steps backwards?

Despite the efforts and nation-wide support, the government rejected the request made by more than 23,000 in an e-petition on Downing Street website.

Justice Minister Lord McNally said: “A posthumous pardon was not considered appropriate as Alan Turing was properly convicted of what at the time was a criminal offence. He would have known that his offence was against the law and that he would be prosecuted.”

Lord McNally used the precedent argument to discourage the notion in the House of Lords by saying that we could not alter that past and the historical context.

However, Mr Leech did not share the same opinion: “I don’t want to overstate this campaign but the fact that people still have convictions on their record for gross indecency, for being homosexual, suggests to me that if we eradicate these convictions, we would be taking a giant leap forward.

“We would be accepting, the nation would be accepting, that those decisions that were made perfectly legally within the law were actually wrong.”

National and global signficance

The petition has a wider scope and carries a deeper significance than simply a battle for the rights of a single individual. It seeks to acknowledge the severity of past perceptions and the suffering those attitudes can lead to.

The life and reputation of a great scientist have been ruined because of his sexuality. And while we have made giant strides in the right direction when it comes to the rights lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, there is still a long way to go before eradicating prejudice and homophobia in the UK and globally.

Mr Leech believes that Mr Turing’s case has not only a national but also an international significance and can set an example for many countries that still consider homosexuality a criminal offence.

“If we wipe these convictions off our record and do pardon people who have been convicted, this gives a stronger voice in tackling homophobia, in tackling unfair treatment of homosexuals, whether in his country or abroad,” Mr Leech said.

According to Stonewall, over 70 countries still criminalise same-sex relationships.

Although the campaign has suffered an initial setback, the number of people signing the petition continues to rise with every hour. If the e-petition attracts more than 100,000 supporters, the issue will be eligible for debate in Parliament.

Currently, more than 24,000 people have signed the e-petition on Downing Street website. You can view and sign the petition here.