A little over a year ago, we celebrated the 100th birthday of Alan Turing – the queer math genius without whom we wouldn’t have computers or artificial intelligence (so, you know, no video games), and without whom the world might have been overrun by Nazis. A man worth lauding.
Infamously, the government of the United Kingdom convicted him of gross indecency and punished him with chemical castration for daring to admit to the authorities he had sex with a man. Again, were it not for Mr. Turing, the government of the United Kingdom may very well not have existed any more when he was prosecuted.
Two years after the implementation of his sentence, Turing killed himself.
Until recently, that very same government refused to grant Mr. Turing a pardon, as well as to the 49 000 other people – including Oscar Wilde – who were convicted of the same “crime.” This is despite an apology from then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown with an acknowledgement of the government’s “inhumane” treatment of Turing under a “homophobic law.” But now, Mr. Turing is being granted a royal pardon by Queen Elizabeth – announced on Tuesday by Justice Secretary Chris Grayling, and effective immediately.
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But the pardon does not come without significant ethical concerns. After all, a pardon suggests that Turing did, in fact, do something wrong: It could be read as suggesting that a victim of state-led persecution was the one who did an injustice and that that the government was not the villain in this scenario. It was.
The pardon also insinuates that Alan Turing deserves this recognition because of his undeniably vast contributions to civilization and science. Freedom from fascism. Computer science. Artificial intelligence. Computers themselves. But the pardon does not go far enough. It seeks to redress the injustice committed to one man while leaving the 49 000 others on the hook for a crime that should never have been.
But, as one commenter has put it, the pardon stands to be the thin end of the wedge on this issue. The pardon and apology together acknowledge that governments do wrong. At a time when it is very needed, they suggest to the world that anti-gay laws are unjust. Now it’s back to the activists to run with the precedent and secure an apology for the others whose names are not so notable.
Moreover, all the publicity this issue has generated builds the renown of a very needed role model. He may not have been during the birth of modern computing, but Alan Turing is as out as out can be now, and generations of young queer nerds to come will forever have his example. A Nazi-busting, man-loving computer geek – and a reminder to the world that persecuting queer folks is wrong; and that every time someone texts, double-clicks, or picks up a controller, they can thank one of the family.