WHEN ALAN TURING DIED IN 1954, a modest obituary in the Manchester Guardian spoke of an academic who pioneered the creation of the new electronic calculating machines. He liked long-distance running, chess and gardening, and entertained the idea that “electrical computators” would one day “do something akin to thinking.” No writer of the time could fathom the true nature of Turing’s life and genius, which are still being deciphered decades later.
Unknown to the general public at the time of his death, Turing was a World War II code-breaking hero who, as Winston Churchill would later recall, made the single biggest contribution to the Allied victory in World War II.
Turing’s brilliant work in mathematics and logic laid out the blueprint for modern computers and, in turn, the digital age. To honor his trailblazing contribution, the Turing Prize — considered the Nobel Prize of computing — was established in 1966 as the field’s highest distinction.
And, as Prime Minister Gordon Brown noted in a national apology a half century after Turing’s presumed suicide, the war hero faced cruel and inhuman persecution for being gay, a fate shared by tens of thousands of others.
Innovative, forward thinking and brave in the face of prejudice, Alan Turing was an enigma in his own time, one that we are only just beginning to figure out.
ONE OF 49,000
During sentencing, a judge offered Turing the choice of prison or “organo-therapy,” a type of chemical castration via estrogen injection that killed a man’s sex drive. Turing’s choice, hormone therapy, caused him to grow breasts and become depressed, triggers for his suicide. He was far from alone. More than 49,000 men, including politicians and celebrities were arrested or experienced similar punishments during a dragnet compared to McCarthyism. In 1962, an allegedly gay Army captain was killed during a course of doctor-supervised aversion therapy. Injected with a vomit-inducing drug while being shown pictures of naked men, he died of dehydration. His death certificate said natural causes.
A QUIET DISSIDENT
This widespread persecution created a climate where newspapers ran stories about “how to spot a homo,” a gay slang (“polari”) evolved to evade surveillance, and many gay men, marginalized and blackmailed, committed suicide. Turing refused to cower. He was arrested only after self-reporting a burglary and telling the police about the relationship he had with a man he suspected was involved. In both 1952 and 1953, he traveled to Norway and Greece to get out from under English law and pursue relationships as he saw fit. It wasn’t until 1967, after thousands of its gay citizens had been persecuted, that gay relationships began to be decriminalized in the United Kingdom.
Pardon all 49,000
To join a petition to pardon the 49,000 men who, like Alan Turing, were persecuted under British law for being gay, go to change.org
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