British scientist given posthumous pardon of discriminatory 1952 conviction

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On Dec. 24, a royal pardon came into effect for computer science legend, Alan Turing. Groundswell for a pardon took hold in 2012 upon the celebration of the centennial of his birth.  A petition of over 37 000 names, including Stephen Hawking, was filed and the crime of “gross indecency” was pardoned from Turing’s records posthumously. Many were thrilled upon hearing the news, but a large elephant now sits in the room: Is everyone who was convicted for having homosexual relations pardoned now?

Alan Turing was a renowned computer scientist, Second World War code-breaker, and mathematician.  He was born June 23, 1912, and attended King’s College in Cambridge, 1931, three years after women were given the same voting rights as men in Britain.

Turing is credited with cracking an unbreakable code that was used in Nazi U-boats. This is thought to have reduced the war by two years. In 1952, his relationship with a young man landed him a conviction of gross indecency. He avoided prison by agreeing to chemical castration, and two years later he committed suicide. An autopsy revealed it was due to cyanide poisoning, administered by an apple.

“Laws against ‘buggery’ date back to Tudor times,” says UVic history professor Mariel Grant in an email. “Buggery” is defined as the act of sodomy and bestiality, and a law against this was instated in 1533 as a capital offence. Turing, however, was not charged with buggery. He was charged under the Labouchere amendment of the 1885 Criminal Amendment Act. This amendment made anything a Victorian judge could deem as a “gross indecency” illegal. “Although the term ‘gross indecency’ was not actually defined in the legislation,” says Grant, “the law was used against male homosexuals, in cases where sodomy itself could not be proven.  Homosexual acts, even between consenting adults, in private, were illegal until the passage of the Sexual Offences Act of 1967.”

Grant goes on to say that “the fact that Turing was prosecuted in 1952 points to the fear (common in this early Cold War period) that such a high ranking official could have been subject to blackmail because of the circumstances of his private life (and in the case of homosexual acts a distinction was not made between public and private), and the fact that Victorian attitudes towards matters, such as sexuality, continued to prevail.”

It wasn’t until the Wolfenden report of 1957 that homosexual acts were deemed a sin rather than a crime. The British government felt that it was not the law’s duty to infiltrate people’s private lives.

An official apology was broadcast, following a documentary about Turing, in November of 2011 by the British prime minister at that time, Gordon Brown. However, it was felt by some that a posthumous pardon was not fully considered because at the time of the prosecution Turing did commit a crime. This didn’t slow down the people committed to seeing Turing’s record kept clean. Now, nearly 60 years later, the conviction has been pardoned.

So what to make of the other people who were persecuted? No official apology has been made to them, let alone royal pardons. Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell told the British Broadcasting Corporation, “I pay tribute to the government for ensuring Alan Turing has a royal pardon at last but I do think it’s very wrong that other men convicted of exactly the same offence are not even being given an apology, let alone a royal pardon.”

At the end of 1954 there were over a thousand men in jail for homosexual acts, and Tatchell said they’re looking at roughly 50 000 men who were convicted of the same crime.

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