It's too late to save World War II codebreaker and computer inventor Alan Turing, who was chemically castrated for being gay in 1952. But 55 years after Turing's death, the British PM Gordon Brown has apologized.
Turing is one of the most intriguing and important figures in British intelligence history. His work on an early codebreaking computer called the "Bombe" helped break the German Enigma code during World War II, giving British intelligence a way to eavesdrop on secret German military communications. After the war, Turing continued his work on computers and later devised an intelligence test for machines called the Turing Test.
Throughout his tenure with British intelligence, Turing was openly gay. He never tried to hide his sexuality, and the government chose to tolerate him while he remained an asset to the war effort. When he continued to conduct open affairs with men during peacetime, however, the problems began. He was convicted of "gross indecency" and forced to undergo chemical castration. His security clearance was revoked, and he had to quit working at the UK Government Communications Headquarters.
Two years later, he was found dead in his home, apparently after eating a cyanide-laced apple. The death was ruled a suicide, though some have questioned whether he might have been assassinated.
The campaign to get a public apology issued for Turing was started by computer scientist John Graham-Cumming, who got thousands of people to sign a petition, including celeb Ian McEwan and science celeb Richard Dawkins. On Wednesday night, Gordon Brown issued an apology for Turing's "horrific" treatment that read, in part:
Without [Alan's] outstanding contribution, the history of world war two could well have been very different.
The debt of gratitude he is owed makes it all the more horrifying, therefore, that he was treated so inhumanely. Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted as he was convicted under homophobic laws were treated terribly. Over the years millions more lived in fear of conviction.
This recognition of Alan's status as one of Britain's most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality and long overdue.
But even more than that, Alan deserves recognition for his contribution to humankind … It is thanks to men and women who were totally committed to fighting fascism, people like Alan Turing, that the horrors of the Holocaust and of total war are part of Europe's history and not Europe's present.
So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan's work I am very proud to say: we're sorry, you deserved so much better.
Though the apology is symbolic, since Turing is dead, it is nevertheless a very powerful symbol. One of the greatest twentieth century heroes of geeks and queers alike is finally vindicated.
Neal Stephenson features Turing in his novel Cryptonomicon, which deals in part with Turing's role in creating the Bombes at Bletchley Park - and in part with the cute graduate student Turing dated. I am ready for Russell T. Davies, former showrunner for both Doctor Who and Queer as Folk, to write and direct the ultimate science fiction miniseries about Turing now.