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Alan Turing's Family Wants Britain to Pardon All 49,000 Gay Men Convicted of 'Gross Indecency'

The legendary mathematician helped crack the Nazi Enigma code and hasten the end of World War II, a story told in the Oscar-winning movie 'The Imitation Game.'

by Katie Engelhart
Feb 25 2015, 2:00pm

Photo by Matt Dunham/AP

The family of Alan Turing, the legendary mathematician who helped crack the Nazi Enigma code and hasten the end of World War II, is championing a campaign to pardon nearly 50,000 men who were convicted of "gross indecency" under antiquated laws banning gay sex in Britain.

Turing, whose story inspired the 2015 Oscar-winning movie The Imitation Game, was himself convicted of indecency in 1952. He was chemically castrated and two years later, at the age of 41, died in an apparent suicide, after taking a bite of a cyanide-laced apple.

While Turing was offered a royal pardon in 2013, campaigners argue that the Queen should have extended the measure to include all those affected. An estimated 15,000 men who were convicted under the outdated law are thought to be alive today.

"To be honest with you, it seems totally logically and totally obvious that everybody should be pardoned," Rachel Barnes, Turing's great niece, told VICE News. "I cannot understand why they just pulled Alan Turing's name out of a hat when everybody had the same treatment."

On Monday, members of his family delivered a petition with over 500,000 signatures to 10 Downing Street, the home of the British prime minister, requesting pardons for 49,000 men who were similarly persecuted for their homosexuality. The petition states that the "intolerant law brought not only unwarranted shame, but horrific physical and mental damage and lost years of wrongful imprisonment to these men."

Among the prosecuted 49,000 is Oscar Wilde, who was charged with indecency in 1895 and sentenced to two years of hard labor.

An open letter also signed by Benedict Cumberbatch — whose portrayal of Turing in The Imitation Game won him a Oscar nomination for Best Actor — stated: "The UK's homophobic laws made the lives of generations of gay and bisexual men intolerable. It is up to young leaders of today including the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to acknowledge this mark on our history and not allow it to stand."

A spokesperson for Kate and William said that the proposal was a matter for government to consider, and that the couple would not be making a public comment.

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When Turing, often called the "father of modern computing," was convicted of gross indecency in 1952 — following a fling with a 19-year-old man — he was given two options: prison or "treatment," consisting of chemical castration. Turing opted for the latter. Before long, he was receiving injections of synthetic female hormone, which caused impotence and gynecomastia — the swelling of breast tissue in a man or boy.

"I've now got myself into the kind of trouble that I have always considered to be a possibility for me," wrote Turing, in a 1952 letter to friend and fellow mathematician Norman Routledge, just before he plead guilty to indecency charges. "No doubt I shall emerge from it all a different man, but quite who I've not found out…. Yours in distress, Alan."

To add great insult to injury, Turing was also stripped of his security clearance — meaning an end to his high-level government work.

Indeed, as a result of the UK Official Secrets Act, which bound Turing to sworn secrecy about his role at Bletchley Park, his contribution to the war effort was largely unknown until two decades after his death. Even Turing's parents did not know that their son had invented the "bombe," an electromagnetic machine that aided the deciphering of Germany's Enigma codes.

Former Prime Minister Winston Churchill later said that Turing "made the single biggest contribution to the allied victory in World War II."

Parliamentary efforts to pardon Turing began in 2009. That year, then Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued an "unequivocal apology" for "the appalling way [Turing] was treated" — but Brown's justice minister, Lord McNally, declined requests to overturn the sentence, on the grounds that Turing was "properly convicted of what at the time was a criminal offense."

The failed effort kicked off a broader discussion about the desirability, and legal feasibility, of government pardons for historic sentences. By 2009, the British government had several substantive precedents to draw on. For instance, more than 300 shell-shocked soldiers who were shot for "desertion," "cowardice," and other offences during World War I were pardoned, en masse, in 2006.

In 2013, Turing was finally pardoned, under the Royal Prerogative of Mercy by Queen Elizabeth. But that pardon singled out the famous scientist, and made no mention of the tens of thousands of other men who suffered similar fates.

One such man was the former army captain Billy Clegg-Hill, who died in 1962 during medically-supervised "therapy" for homosexuality — ordered by a British judge, following Clegg-Hills's arrest for indecency. As part of his therapy, Clegg-Hill was shown naked pictures of men and simultaneously injected with a vomit-inducing drug called apomorphine. "The idea was to make him associate naked men with being sick," his sister later told the BBC. "Unfortunately, the doctors neglected to give him any fluids, and he died of a stroke brought on by dehydration."

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Turing was convicted under Section 11 of Britain's Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885. The wording of the Act was hazy, but "gross indecency" was broadly interpreted as applying to sexual acts, between men, which fell short of actual intercourse.

According to the Oxford University mathematician Andrew Hodges, who has written a biography of Alan Turing, British courts unleashed "a wave of prosecutions" for gross indecency around 1951, when the 76-year-old Conservative Winston Churchill was elected prime minister. "The early 1950s was a period in which homosexuals, as a minority group who should or shouldn't be singled out for attention, became a public issue," Hodges told VICE News.

Hodges said that British politicians were, in this respect, inspired by America — which had begun its own McCarthyist crackdown on homosexuals in 1950s. Gays and lesbians in the US were considered to be susceptible to blackmail, and thus a national security risk. During the so-called "Lavender Scare," many homosexuals or alleged homosexuals were fired or forced to resign from government jobs.

Homosexual sex was only decriminalized in England and Wales in 1967. Even then, sexual acts were only legal if they were carried out between men aged 21 and older. In 2001, the age of consent was finally lowered to 16 for gay men: the same age applied to heterosexuals.

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Hodges told VICE News that, at the time of Turing's arrest, "he thought the [gross indecency] law was going to be changed. He took the attitude that it was ridiculous."

But in the meantime — and rather unusually, said Hodges — Turing "made a point of talking about [his sentence] freely, in the computer laboratory... He talked very freely about it," even when others tried to look away. Because he wasn't ashamed.

Follow Katie Engelhart on Twitter: @katieengelhart