British Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued an apology on Friday for the homophobic persecution of World War II-era mathematician and code-breaker Alan Turing. Describing the way Turing was treated as "appalling," Brown gave definitive affirmation to a lengthy campaign aimed at restoring the reputation of a famous victim of homophobia.
Alan Turing, born in 1912, is best known for helping to create a machine to crack messages written in code by the Germans' Enigma machines in World War II. The ability to break the Germans' code was a key factor in the Allies' eventual victory. Turing also helped to provide key concepts that fueled the development of the computer, and designed a test, called the Turing Test, that can assess a machine's intelligence. In short, he was a prominent figure in mid-century mathematics, and a British patriot.
But Turing was also gay. In 1952, he had a couple of assignations with a man named Arnold Murray, who helped stage a break-in at Turing's house. Turing went to the police about the robbery, in the process admitting the nature of his connection to Murray. He was, along with Murray, charged with "gross indecency," a crime at the time. Given the choice between prison and probation, Turing chose the latter—but the deal came with a condition, that he accept hormone "therapy" designed to suppress his sex-drive. After a year of estrogen injections, Turing had developed breasts and lost his reputation. In 1954 he was dead by cyanide poisoning, a presumed suicide.
In August of this year, a well-known English computer programmer, John Graham-Cumming, began a petition demanding that the British government apologize to Turing. It quickly gained thousands of signatures, leading Prime Minister Gordon Brown on Friday to issue a formal apology. In his statement, released on the Prime Minister's Number10 website, Brown put Turing's ill-treatment in the context of the code-breaker's contribution to the fight against fascism, or as Brown calls it, "the darkness of dictatorship." As the statement says, "It is no exaggeration to say that, without his outstanding contribution, the history of World War Two could well have been very different.... 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."
Calling the treatment of Turing "appalling," Brown's statment concludes with an unmistakeable apology for the past: "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." Of course, one cannot help but think of U.S policy, which excludes gays from military service. While the U.S. diplomatic corp has no prohibition on gay service members,"Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is still the rule of the U.S. miitary. Surely the legacy of Alan Turing stands as a lesson against this policy.