Saturday, November 12, 2011

Alan Turing And The Tragedy Of Homophobia


I spent this morning at a Blue America-sponsored lecture at the Brave New Films studios in Culver City. Our guest was Alan Grayson. In a couple weeks, we'll edit down the 90 minute session into YouTube-size chunks and share them. Meanwhile, though, I wanted to share something that I didn't know anything about at all-- though most people in the audience seemed to-- British mathematician Alan Turing. Between quoting Pericles and Leonard Cohen and railing against the inability of the Democratic Establishment to communicate effectively with the country how the Democratic Party is different from the Republican Party-- Alan wants it to be a battle of progressive ideas and reactionary thrashing-- he told the moving story of the father of computers, Alan Turing.

It took the Vatican how many centuries to apologize to Galileo? The official U.K. apology to Alan Turing came far quicker. Prime Minister Gordon Brown did it in an OpEd in The Telegraph on September 10, 2009, just over 50 years after Britain drove one of their greatest heroes to suicide. Brown:
[J]ust last week, we marked the 70 years which have passed since the British government declared its willingness to take up arms against fascism and declared the outbreak of the Second World War.

So I am both pleased and proud that, thanks to a coalition of computer scientists, historians and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) activists, we have this year a chance to mark and celebrate another contribution to Britain's fight against the darkness of dictatorship: that of code-breaker Alan Turing.

Turing was a quite brilliant mathematician, most famous for his work on breaking the German Enigma codes. It is no exaggeration to say that, without his outstanding contribution, the history of the Second World War could have been very different. He truly was one of those individuals we can point to whose unique contribution helped to turn the tide of war. The debt of gratitude he is owed makes it all the more horrifying, therefore, that he was treated so inhumanely.

In 1952, he was convicted of "gross indecency"-- in effect, tried for being gay. His sentence-- and he was faced with the miserable choice of this or prison-- was chemical castration by a series of injections of female hormones. He took his own life just two years later.

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. Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted, as he was convicted, under homophobic laws, were treated terribly. Over the years, millions more lived in fear in conviction. I am proud that those days are gone and that in the past 12 years this Government has done so much to make life fairer and more equal for our LGBT community. This recognition of Alan's status as one of Britain's most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality, and long overdue.

But even more than that, Alan deserves recognition for his contribution to humankind. For those of us born after 1945, into a Europe which is united, democratic and at peace, it is hard to imagine that our continent was once the theatre of mankind's darkest hour. It is difficult to believe that in living memory, people could become so consumed by hate – by anti-Semitism, by homophobia, by xenophobia and other murderous prejudices – that the gas chambers and crematoria became a piece of the European landscape as surely as the galleries and universities and concert halls which had marked out the European civilisation for hundreds of years.

It is thanks to men and women who were totally committed to fighting fascism, people like Alan Turing, that the horrors of the Holocaust and of total war are part of Europe's history and not Europe's present. 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.

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