Enduring enigma

Alan Turing’s pioneering work made modern technology possible. But because he was gay, he remains, technically, a criminal

Last week my partner and I gave each other early Christmas gifts: We exchanged iPads. As we got home with our new gadgets, I made an assessment of the number of computers we had in our house, and I was astounded.

Between us we have no fewer than eight computers, not counting the tiny computers we carry with us that we mistakenly call our telephones.

I remarked to my partner, “We are living in the age of Star Trek, minus the replicators, transporters and warp drive.”

And that is pretty much a true statement. The things we can do now with our iPhones would have astounded the top minds at IBM just 15 short years ago.

So many amazing gadgets that make our lives easier, better and richer are to a great extent the result of the pioneering work of a gay man from the United Kingdom named Alan Turing. Turing was a brilliant mathematician whose contributions to the concepts of algorithms and computation made all those computers in our house possible.


Hardy Haberman Flagging Left

Furthermore, his work in cryptanalysis in the now-famous Bletchley Park Government Code and Cypher School led to the development of a machine known then as the “bombe.” It was an electromechanical code-breaking computer that broke the German Enigma code and helped stop Hitler. Because of his work, Turing was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1945, an honor roughly equivalent to a Congressional Medal of Honor.

His amazing body of work, most of which is so highly technical that it is hard to describe in such a short space, has led historians to call Alan Turing the “Father of Computer Science.” Without Alan Turing, I would most likely be typing this column on an electric typewriter. Such was his impact on our modern world.

The dark side of his story happened in 1952. That year, he met a man outside a cinema in Manchester and they struck up a relationship. Turing invited the man, Arnold Murry, to his house several times. On one of those visits, Murry opened Turing’s house up to a thief, his accomplice, and they stole several things from his home.

When Turning reported it to the police, he admitted that Murry was more than just a visitor; Murry was his lover.
And that’s where the story gets dark.

Turing and Murry were both charged with “gross indecency” because homosexual acts were illegal in the United Kingdom at that time. Turing was convicted and given an onerous choice: He could go to prison or he could accept probation, the terms of which included chemical castration via hormone injections.

Turing’s security clearance was rescinded and he was prevented from ever working in the field of cryptanalysis again. He was even prevented from ever discussing his work during World War II.

Turing was found dead on a June morning in 1954, with a half-eaten apple beside his bed. The autopsy showed he had ingested cyanide, possibly from the apple, and his death was ruled a suicide.

What makes this tale even sadder is that to this date, Alan Turing has never received an official pardon from the British government.

Today there are statues and plaques and tributes to the “Father of Modern Computing.” He even received a posthumous apology from then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown in 2009.

But his criminal record still stands.

The inhumane treatment Turing endured has been acknowledged, but this great man deserves more.

Today there is a movement to have the government pardon Alan Turing as we enter the new year. One hundred years after his birth, the global scientific community has declared 2012 as “Alan Turing Year, a Centenary Celebration of the Life and Work of Alan Turing.” It seems fitting that during his commemorative year, the British government could offer a posthumous pardon to a man to whom we all owe so much.

So far there are only a few thousand signatures to the petition. It is my hope that every LGBT individual will sign it as an offering to one of our own who gave us so much. Why it has taken this long is truly an enigma.

The petition is online at: Submissions.Epetitions.Direct.gov.uk/petitions/23526.

Hardy Haberman is a longtime local LGBT activist and a board member of the Woodhull Freedom Alliance. His blog is at DungeonDiary.blogspot.com

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 9, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas