Earlier this week, the United Kingdom’s Queen Elizabeth II posthumously pardoned Alan Turing. Turing, a mathematician and early computer scientist, is perhaps best known for two contributions. He proposed what has come to be called the “Turing Test” in artificial intelligence theory, used to test a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior indistinguishable from that of a human. Turing also spearheaded the cryptography team at Bletchley Park in England that cracked the Nazi’s Enigma Code. His work contributed mightily to the Allies’ eventual victory in World War II.
Turing, one of the best minds of his generation or most others, was also openly gay. He was convicted of the crime of “gross indecency” in 1952, for admitting to a consensual sexual relationship with another adult man. With the conviction, the British authorities rescinded Turing’s security clearance and subjected him to ongoing monitoring, fearing that his homosexuality increased the risk of blackmail by the Soviets and enemies of the Crown. They also offered Turing a deal: he could avoid prison for his crime if he agreed to hormone treatments that would severely lower his testosterone levels, effectively eliminating his sex drive and rendering him impotent. Alan Turing chose chemical castration, answering one of the worst “which would you rather?” questions most men of any sexual orientation can imagine. Two years later, in 1954, Turing’s housekeeper found him dead, after he apparently ate a cyanide-laced apple. British authorities ruled his death a suicide.
Turing was prosecuted under Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, commonly referred to as the Labouchere Amendment, which provided that “[a]ny male person who, in public or private, commits [ . . . ] any act of gross indecency with an other male person [ . . . ] shall be liable at the discretion of the Court to be imprisoned for any term not exceeding two years, with or without hard labour.” Convictions under the Labouchere Amendment carried sentences much lighter than for the UK’s actual sodomy law — death until 1861, then life imprisonment in later years — but were much easier to obtain in practice. The Sexual Offences Act of 1967 partially repealed the Labouchere Amendment, though some of the provisions remained officially in place until the passage of the Sexual Offences Act of 2003.
Turing’s pardon this week arrived after a public campaign seeking redress for the maligned genius, whose cause was bolstered by the high-profile support of physicist Stephen Hawking and other public intellectuals. A pardon, while ostensibly a recognition of the good deeds of a man whose mind was largely responsible for saving the free world as we know it, seems to me altogether the wrong thing….