Turing's pardon is no tribute to a national hero

All 75,000 Britons convicted for homosexuality should have their names cleared, not just the brilliant scientist

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 December, 2013, 5:25am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 December, 2013, 5:25am

Queen Elizabeth's announcement of a posthumous pardon to Alan Turing follows a long campaign and a petition signed by more than 37,000 people. The pardon will be welcomed by many, and it is undoubtedly a gesture of humanity, compassion and progressive values. It is also entirely, profoundly wrong.

Turing was an intellectual legend of the 20th century. His breakthroughs in applied mathematics have led him to be described as the father of modern computing. His work on the Enigma code breaking machine made him more responsible than almost any other Briton for the ultimate defeat of Nazi Germany. Biographers recall him as a gentle, modest, reserved man. He was also gay, and in 1952 he was convicted of gross indecency - the catch-all legal term used to prosecute consenting sexual acts between men. The judge at his trial, acknowledging the importance of Turing's work, laid down what seemed at the time to be a lenient sentence. The mathematician was spared jail and ordered to undergo an experimental hormone therapy, often dubbed "chemical castration". We know now the treatment will not have affected his orientation or desires, but it did cause physical changes including breast enlargement and erectile dysfunction.

Turing described the experience as horrible and humiliating and less than two years later, he died of cyanide poisoning. An inquest recorded a verdict of suicide. It is a tragic, shameful episode in the UK's recent history, but while the tragedy was Turing's, the shame was entirely the nation's.

In announcing the pardon, Justice Secretary Chris Grayling said: "A pardon from the Queen is a fitting tribute to an exceptional man." Turing was certainly exceptional but the tribute could not be less fitting. It says Britain is prepared to forgive historical homosexual acts providing they were performed by a national hero. This is the polar opposite of the correct message. Turing should be forgiven not because he was a modern legend, but because he did nothing wrong. The only wrong was the venality of the law. It was wrong when used against Oscar Wilde, it was wrong when it was used against Turing and it was wrong when it was used against an estimated 75,000 other men, whether famous playwrights and scientists or plumbers and clerks. Each was just as unfairly persecuted, and many suffered similarly awful fates. To single out Turing is to say they are less deserving of justice because they were somehow less exceptional. That cannot be right.

It is shocking to realise that people alive today were unjustly criminalised in their youth, and have carried the stain of a record as a sex offender through almost their entire adult lives. Last year, the Protection of Freedoms Act was passed, allowing those convicted of homosexuality to apply to have their criminal records removed if the facts of the case would no longer count as a crime. As legal commentator David Allen Green pointed out, there is no reason why this provision could not be extended to cover all those convicted, living or dead, without a personal application. With a little political marketing, it could become the Turing law. Now that really would be a fitting tribute to a national hero.

Ally Fogg is a Manchester-based writer and journalist for The Guardian