In LGBT History month, denying a persecuted homosexual a pardon seems particularly insensitive. But in the case of Alan Turing, the so-called Father of Computing and Bletchley Park code-breaker, and the subject of a campaign to absolve him posthumously of a “gross indecency” conviction, Lord Justice McNally has made the right decision.
Charged with the offence in 1952, Turing was offered a choice of sentence — prison or chemical castration. He opted for the second, but was so distressed by the treatment that he committed suicide two years later. In 2009, a petition demanding that Turing be apologised to in light of his contribution to national life, ratcheted up 30,000 signatures on the No 10 website. Gordon Brown made a national apology for Turing’s treatment but no pardon was granted. Meanwhile, the current e-petition, started by William Jones and carried forward by Lib Dem MP John Leech — who tabled an early day motion to secure Turing’s pardon — is backed by the Guardian and has been so far signed by more than 28,000 people.
The motivation for pardoning Turing comes with the best of intentions. But the pardon itself would achieve what, exactly? Help construct the acceptable face of establishment homosexuality in a patriotic form? Assure the LGBTQI community that the government’s commitment to equal rights really does have nothing to do with vote-swinging? Make us feel better about a law that we cannot — and must not — forget existed in the first place?
Instead, pardoning Turing would actually create a problem — it would establish a precedent for the “deserving” homosexual. John Graham-Cummingham, the computer scientist who created the first petition said: “You don’t have to be gay to think that prosecuting a man for a private consensual sex act who just seven years before had been hailed as a hero of the Second World War was simply wrong.” Fair enough. But the implication of pardoning Turing now would be that he is worthy of his pardon only because he was a national hero; a some gays are more equal than others kind of approach. If we pardon Turing, there are thousands more due the same — every lesbian, bisexual, gay, intersex and trans man and woman persecuted or harassed throughout the nation’s history, from Oscar Wilde to Radclyffe Hall, to the everyday citizens whose secret lives were made the stuff of public shame and state prosecution.
While we’re at it, if we’re cleaning up historical inequalities, why stop there? What of those convicted under or controlled by other laws we now regard as inhumane — women burned for witchcraft, for example, or the 18th century designation of black slaves as commodities under the Trade and Navigation Act? What’s more, if as an act of contrition we are to overturn past criminal convictions, it would surely only be just to issue posthumous prosecutions for those who committed what we now consider to be crimes. But just what exactly would an anachronistic sentencing and pardoning policy achieve for these victims of our history? Defending the decision not to pardon Turing, Lord MacNally stated:
Long-standing policy has been to accept that such convictions took place … Rather than trying to alter the historical context and to put right what cannot be put right, [we should] ensure instead that we never again return to those times.
Never returning to those times; that should be our aim.
If we are to use e-petitions for social good, how about we use them to challenge the government on practices causing harm to the LGBTQI community right now; the Commonwealth’s failure to condemn Jamaica’s stringent sodomy laws, for example, particularly considering the fact that the prohibition of homosexuality was a colonial import in the first place. Or the revised laws on giving blood which previously banned gay men from donating because of the HIV risk, and now merely allow those who have been celibate for a decade to donate. This is both unjust and irrational when heterosexual transmissions account for the greater number of overall UK infections, and when all donors are not routinely asked how much unprotected sex they have had. There are two petitions for you; there are hundreds more.
Turing’s story is sickening; but rewriting history will not help atone for his treatment. Instead, in his centenary year, let’s celebrate his life’s work and achievements and ensure he takes the place in British history he so deserves. After all, his sexuality has nothing to do with that.
Nichi Hodgson is a 28-year-old freelance journalist specialising in sexual politics, law and culture.
This article was updated at 9.45am on 10 February 2012.