The shameful treatment of Alan Turing
Alan Turing is something of a patron saint for my field. He is also well-known for his prosecution for homosexuality, and his more recent pardon. So when I saw that my local theatre was performing Breaking the Code, a 1986 play about his life, I made sure I went along. I expected to be both moved and upset by the treatment he received, and I was.
In Computer Science, Turing is probably best known for Turing machines and for the Turing Test. The Turing Test is still one of the best known assessments of whether a machine possesses intelligence, while Turing machines were an important part of our Theory of Computation subject. There is also the Turing Award, named in his honour and widely considered the Nobel Prize of Computer Science.
It’s easy now to treat general purpose computing devices as obvious. For example, the computer I type this post on is one such device, the phone I carry as a clock is another, and my day job requires writing programs for such devices. But the concept was radical when Turing introduced the Turing machine in 1936. His machine could run any program, including a program which ran other Turing machines. Which he then used to prove that not all mathematical problems could be decidable.
After the war he worked with early stored program computers in the UK (including writing a chess program which was more complex than any computer then could execute). And I still like this quote from him I saw in London’s Science Museum:
The idea behind digital computers may be explained by saying that these machines are intended to carry out any operations which could be done by a human computer.
To the general public, he is probably better known for his role in decoding vital German messages during World War 2, under secrecy at Bletchley Park. I even made the pilgrimage to Bletchley Park when I was last in the UK, and it was a fascinating place (at its peak, it had 9,000 people working there).
The play began with him reporting a relatively minor burglary, and ended with him biting into an apple before the stage went dark. In between, there was the developing story of his homosexuality and the consequences he faced, but there was also a lot of mathematics.
Of course, while the events of the play are based on Turing’s life, the specifics of the dialog are fictional. But I found it captivating, particularly when the stuttering and socially awkward Turing began to talk about mathematics and computation and turned into the excited, eager Turing. It really meant something to him, and he was much more at home in that world of formal systems than in the real world of arbitrary rules, procedures, and egos.
For example, he talked about Bertrand Russell’s formalisation of mathematics, about the Hilbert program, and about how he, Gödel, and others had wrecked it (describing Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem as “the most beautiful theory he knew”). And he gave a speech to students at his old school about general purpose computing and the possibility of machines thinking, even having a soul. But he also talked about how he had been inspired by the death of a childhood friend: he felt he carried a part of his friend’s mind with him, and that his life purpose was to carry on the work that his friend could have done.
One of the pivotal moments in the play was when Turing was being quizzed by a policeman about inconsistencies in his burglary story, and admitted that he was having an affair with a man and was trying to protect him. Instantly the mood changed, as the policeman tried to draw out the details of this new and much more serious crime that Turing had confessed.
Later this led to him making a formal statement and being charged with “gross indecency”. Not for anything done in public, but for happenings in his own home and in his own bed. As Turing justly asked, “How can it be a crime if it was in my own house?”
So yes, Turing’s report of a crime ended up with him being charged with a crime. And in the play the policeman strongly hinted that he should never have reported the burglary, as that had made it only a matter of time before he himself was found out.
A disgrace to the family?
So what was his mother’s first response when he stammeringly broke the news that he was homosexual and was to be brought to trial for it?
“I’m glad your father is dead. He was so proud of you.”
Even as an impartial audience member those words felt like a slap in the face (it is not for nothing that coming out as an atheist is sometimes compared with coming out as gay).
Yes, it would have been a shock to her, and presumably a much greater shock in an era when his behaviour was considered criminal and deviant. And yes, for the rest of the play she supported him as much as she could, and even showed him that she cared more about him than he had ever realised. But those kind of responses still make me angry.
They are responses that say the facade is the thing that is important, not the person behind the facade. It may be a shock, but the truth is that that person hasn’t changed - only your image of them has changed. Turing’s parents had every right to be proud of their son for his achievements, and none of those achievements were changed by revealing this core part of his identity.
Previously, he had been counselled by his boss to avoid being too open about his homosexuality, because it might cause pain to others. And again, in that era that was probably true. But the flip-side of that is that having to constantly conceal an important part of your life can also cause considerable pain.
The war hero
During the war, Alan Turing had been one of the key members of the team decoding German Enigma messages. He took on problems no-one else would take on and succeeded. This gave vital intelligence to the Allied war effort and was specifically supported by Churchill as priority work. He was also sent to the US to assist their war efforts. Fittingly, he received the OBE in 1946 for his role during the war.
All this was forgotten in 1952. The play presents a security establishment that got involved - but only to make sure that its precious secrets were kept safe. After all, it was the McCarthy years, the Lavender Scare was on, and protecting the relationship with the US was considered far more important than rewarding past successes.
And so it was only near the end of the play that the policeman pursuing him discovered that he had an OBE for services during the war, while his mother knew of the award but didn’t know what it was for.
The value of a high profile example
Alan Turing provided a high profile example of the problems caused by an unjust law. And that can be good for raising awareness. But the important thing is that the law was unjust.
I don’t think we want people like Alan Turing to be above the law. We don’t want them to get special treatment because they are war heroes, or because they are brilliant thinkers. Instead, we want it to be recognised that this is normal, acceptable behaviour which should never have been treated as a crime. It shouldn’t just be unthinkable that a war hero be trapped by this petty law - it should be unthinkable that the most annoying person you can imagine would be trapped by this petty law.
A law change, an apology and a pardon
In 1967, English laws were amended so that actions like Turing’s were no longer considered a crime. In subsequent years, the other parts of the UK similarly amended their laws.
In 2009, Prime Minister Gordon Brown apologised on behalf of the British government for Turing’s conviction. He acknowledged that the effects of the conviction could not be reversed, but said “we’re sorry, you deserved so much better.” A few years later Turing received a royal pardon. Of course, none of this can change the treatment that Turing did receive during his life, but it served as recognition the treatment was unjust.
However, the question still remained: What about the many other people who were not war heroes, but had been convicted under the same unjust laws? And so in 2017 a pardon was issued for all men who had been convicted for homosexual acts which were no longer offences. This became known as the “Alan Turing law”.
The Christadelphian response
I spent at least my first 25 years thinking homosexuality was wrong, based on my understanding of the Bible. I wasn’t entirely comfortable with this, so it’s not surprising that when I rejected the Bible I also rejected the idea that homosexuality was wrong.
But even before I accepted homosexuality I recognised how unhelpful the Christadelphian response to it was. It seemed that almost everyone agreed it was one of the worst possible sins around. In discussion groups talking about sin (and particularly sins that might keep us out of the kingdom), it was a fair bet that it would be the first sin mentioned.
Why? I concluded that this was because it felt like a “safe” sin to condemn. It allowed us to condemn a sin that affected others, while being gentler on sins called out in the Bible that affected us (greed, for example). The end result was making homosexuals an out-group that we could easily fear and demonise without bothering to understand them.
I resisted this because it felt like the easy way out. But I also suspected that statistically there were probably some people in those discussion groups who were homosexual and were struggling as a result of these discussions. Now I’m basically certain of it, and feel bad for those people having their very existence demonised to make us feel a little better.
There are of course a range of responses to homosexuality within Christadelphia and within the wider Christian world, all the way from complete acceptance to complete rejection. Those Christians who are affirming typically interpret the various key texts from the Bible as not referring to loving same-sex relationships. But even for those who reject this, I’m sure some talk about Jesus accepting sinners or say “Yes, it’s a sin, but of course we are all sinners”. This might allow them to be more compassionate and stop them specifically demonising homosexuality, but I imagine it would still cause problems for people who refused to renounce that supposed “sin”.
The fact remains, though: There are still far too many in the Christian world who view it as a serious offence worthy of condemnation by man in this age, and by God in the next. And right now my opinion would be that if your religious text can’t accept it, you need to get a better religious text.
The word “homosexuality” can have negative connotations, and many style guides now encourage the use of “gay” and “lesbian”, or of umbrella terms like “LGBTI”. So far, I’ve used the word because that is what the play used, and that is what we used in Christadelphian discussion groups.
But my usage also reflects the fact that I was unaware of these broader categories while I was a Christadelphian. I feel that gay people and particularly gay sex were presented as the real demons. Lesbians were less talked about, even though technically they were included in the term (this probably matches the Bible - I think most of the verses quoted are specifically about male-on-male sex). And I don’t recall bisexual, transgender, or intersex being talked about at all. We probably would have considered them wrong had we talked about them, but they just weren’t on our radar.
Towards greater acceptance
Nowadays, the LGBTI community has much greater acceptance in the UK, in Australia, and across the Western world. Not only have offences like the one Turing was charged with been struck from the books, but many of these countries now recognise civil partnerships and same-sex marriage (though in the case of Australia the process to get there was highly divisive).
However, just making the behaviour legal doesn’t make it socially acceptable. I understand that this has largely happened in parallel: Increasing acceptance of it in our society has led to improvements in the law, and vice versa. And I think a big part of that societal acceptance was people coming to know real LGBTI people and recognising that they really were just normal people. The advice Turing received to be more discrete might well have kept him safer, but if everyone had followed it then we might still be in the same position today.
I think the main group holding out against it being socially acceptable is conservative Christians, most of whom consider this behaviour wrong (as I did). I know many consider this acceptance as a sign of the moral decline of society - that they have lost control, and that their respective nations are no longer “Christian nations”. Certainly during and after the same-sex marriage plebiscite in Australia there was lots of talk about protection of “religious freedoms”.
I suspect some would prefer it still to be a crime practised in secret. What it says about a religion when greater acceptance of fellow humans is considered moral decline is left as an exercise for the reader. But that can make “coming out” a very difficult process for some - it’s not much comfort having society as a whole accept it if your family won’t.
Recently Leo Varadkar, the Irish Taoiseach, was visiting Mike Pence, the US Vice President and conservative Christian, and he reflected on how Ireland had changed in his lifetime:
I lived in a country where if I’d tried to be myself at the time, it would have ended up breaking laws. But today, that is all changed. I stand here, leader of my country, flawed and human, but judged by my political actions, and not by my sexual orientation, my skin tone, gender or religious beliefs.
That was the situation Alan Turing was facing: just being himself in his own home did end up breaking the law.
I referred before to the McCarthy era, when gay and lesbian people were fired en masse because they were considered a security risk. While this was unjust and unfairly cast them as subversive and a threat to the American way of life, there was also a certain logic to it. It was thought that people in the closet could be more easily blackmailed into working for the Soviets. Firing them might force them out of the closet and ruin their lives, but it also might keep the US safer.
However, there was another way to address this potential security risk. Working towards decriminalisation and greater acceptance by society could have reduced the security risk and improved their lives. Fortunately, that seems to be the path we are on now. I don’t think anyone who hasn’t already decided LGBT is inherently evil could look at our society today and say we are worse off for this acceptance.