Days to Centenary: 204
In the runup to the centenary of Alan Turing’s birth on June 23, 2012 and the Alan Turing Year events throughout 2012, the world is being exposed to the facts of Alan Turing’s life on a scale that is unmatched in the past. One of the facts that newcomers to the story are confronted with — alongside Turing’s status as one of the founding fathers of computer science and artificial intelligence and his unparalleled contribution to the Allied victory in World War II — is Turing’s sexuality.
Turing was a gay man living in an era when the word still meant “happy” or “lighthearted” and anyone who acted on a homosexual impulse was subject to criminal prosecution, not only in England where Turing lived but in many other countries as well.
It’s easy to feel smug about such a benighted time, but even now, in a time when condemnation of his persecution is a matter of government policy, it remains a fact that many people react with a small flinch when Turing’s gayness is mentioned, and especially if it is taken out of the realm of dry biographical fact and given vivid life.
Many people have a visceral negative reaction to homosexuality, however much their intellect might tell them that their response is irrational and inappropriate. No one should be condemned on that basis alone — it’s a reaction that happens at a psychological level that is not easily subject to intervention and in the end one’s conduct is what matters most. After all, we all have impulses that we recognize as undesirable, and while we work to educate ourselves and mitigate those impulses, we certainly hope to be judged on the decisions we make about which impulses we act on and which ones we don’t rather than being held accountable for every dark thought that arises out of our unconscious.
That said, this kind of lingering discomfort with gay sexuality shouldn’t be allowed to subtly affect our perceptions of Turing, pushing this aspect of his personality into the background where it’s easier for people who have that flinching reaction to ignore it. One needn’t be confrontational about it, but one must never soft pedal it either. Being gay isn’t merely a plot point in a life story that may soon grace our movie screens, its an integral fact of a real person’s real life.
So for my part, I want to focus in this post on Alan Turing as a gay man who has rightly taken on an iconic status for LGBT communities and who will increasingly do so as he comes to the attention of more and more people.
(A quick aside on terminology: LGBT stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered, and I use the term “communities” because there is no single, monolithic LGBT community, just as there is no single straight community, or Scottish community, or Buddhist community).
Turing’s achievments as a scientist, including his role in Word War II, are relatively well recognized by now, if not yet on the scale they deserve. But as a gay man who was hounded into suicide because of his sexuality, Turing is increasingly relevant in the battle for LGBT rights as well — his legacy is one of technological change, but also of social change.
For instance, the It Gets Better campaign features various people — celebrities and non-celebrities, gay and straight — in home-made videos that are intended to help LGBT youth understand that there is a happy life to be had once they get past the bullying of their teen years. Among other things this is intended to help reduce the horrific rates of suicide amongst LGBT youth. It Gets Better could just about name Turing, who was himself bullied into suicide by the state, as its patron saint.
President Obama’s “It Gets Better” video:
As Turing gains more and more prominence in the course of the Alan Turing Year, he will no doubt come to the attention of more and more members of the LGBT communities, many of whom will find him in him both a kindred spirit and a source of inspiration.
To some extent this process has been in motion for some time. Andrew Hodges, author of Turing’s definitive biography and himself a gay rights activist of long standing, has written on him for The Gay and Lesbian Humanist.
The LGBT History Month web site has profiled Turing and So So Gay, which bills itself as the most popular and fastest-growing online LGBT lifestyle magazine in the UK, includes Turing in its list of LGBT heroes.
AMERICAblog Gay, a journal of news and opinion about LGBT politics, named him “hero of the month” in October 2010 and explicitly drew the parallel between Turing’s suicide and the suicides of bullied LGBT youth.
Back in the Gays, a web site that allows users to post stories recounting various aspects of LGBT history, has a page commemorating him, and he has a page in the “icons gallery” of the Circa Club, an online social and business club for gay men.
Even groups that are not explicitly LGBT-oriented have come to identify Turing with the cause of LGBT equality. The Online Policy Group, for instance, is not an LGBT group, but a nonprofit organization dedicated to internet policy research, outreach, and action on a variety of issues including access to the internet, privacy, digital defamation, and the digital divide. As its web site proclaims it also
…focuses on Internet participants’ civil liberties and human rights, like access, privacy, safety, and serving schools, libraries, disabled, elderly, youth, women, and sexual, gender, and ethnic minorities.
The OPG’s program for dealing with LGBT issues is named in part after Turing (The QueerNet/Turing Program).
In terms of public attention, Turing’s star has never shone brighter than it does right now, and it’s likely that his notoriety will grow substantially before the Turing Year is over. As it does, he will increasingly be claimed by LGBT groups wanting to explicitly include him in the pantheon of heroes whose achievements simultaneously:
- help break down stereotypes about who and what LGBT people are, and
- inspire pride in LGBT youth and give them a sense of a belonging to a long-standing, richly varied, and valuable set of communities.
This is both natural and inevitable. Have those who share his nationality been any less anxious to claim him than those who share his sexuality? It is also, I would argue, desirable. Nevertheless, it is bound to make some people uncomfortable.
It is truly incredible how much social attitudes about homosexuality have changed since Turing’s time (despite continued prejudice), and they are bound to continue to evolve. By being careful to preserve the gayness in Turing’s legacy we can help that evolution along. It’s true that it’s difficult to argue with ingrained prejudice, but it’s also difficult to argue with Turing’s record of contribution or the fact that his contributions could have continued for many years but for the senseless criminalization of his sex life.