LGBTQ Heroes: Alan Turing
Today, 23 June, would have been Alan Turing’s 108th birthday.
Realistically, even in the best of times, Turing would have been hard-pressed to see his 108th birthday, but the reality is that Alan Turing died at the age of 41.
“Alan Turing was an outstanding mathematician whose work has had an enormous impact on how we live today…” said the governor of the Bank of England, announcing the decision to celebrate Turing’s life on the UK’s £50 note. “As the father of computer science and artificial intelligence, as well as a war hero, Alan Turing’s contributions were far ranging and path breaking. Turing is a giant on whose shoulders so many now stand.”
To mark the birthday of the great man, let’s reflect on Turing’s remarkable but tragic life.
Turing was a computer scientist, mathematician, logician, crypt-analyst, philosopher, and theoretical biologist.
During World War II, Turing worked as part of Britain’s code-breaking centre, where he devised a number of techniques for cracking the intercepted coded messages. Turing is credited with helping the Allied forces to defeat the Germans in a number of key battles, including the Battle of the Atlantic.
Turing was particularly influential in the development of theoretical computer science, inventing the Turing Machine – a forerunner of what we now know as a computer. Turing is considered to have been one of the key thinkers in the field of computer science and artificial intelligence.
Life and death
Born in 1912, Turing died in 1954 at the age of 41.
In 1952, Turing was prosecuted for gross indecency for a sexual encounter with another man. At this time in England, homosexuality was a criminal offence.
As an alternative to prison, Turing agreed to chemical castration treatment.
Turing died of cyanide poisoning. An inquest concluded that his death was suicide.
In 2009, the British Prime Minister made a public apology to Turing on behalf of the British Government.
In 2013, Queen Elizabeth II granted Turing an posthumous pardon.
The early 1950s was a period of persecution for gay men in the UK, with over 1,000 gay men imprisoned and countless more lives ruined by blackmail, entrapment, and prosecution.
The arrest and punishment of Alan Turing was among the most high profile persecutions of gay men during this period. The treatment of Turing seems particularly perverse, given the role he had played in defending Britain during World War II.
It’s likely that Turing’s arrest and subsequent death played a part in the establishment of the Wolfenden Committee, which ultimately led to the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK.
A posthumous pardon and a portrait on a bank note seem to be of little consequence when Turing’s life was consciously and deliberately destroyed, depriving us all of the benefit of his mathematical genius. However, by celebrating Turing’s work and contribution to the world as we know it today, it does send a powerful signal that LGBTQ people are now valued and a key part of our society.