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Thursday, August 20, 2009


Petition time

Who here hasn't heard of Alan Turing?

One of the greatest mathematicians of his generation, pioneer of computer technology and hero of the Second World War who was instrumental in cracking the Engima code - a decisive victory against Hitler which is reckoned to have shortened the war by at least two years.

He was also gay. In an astonishing display of bigotry prevailing over gratitude, his country - my country - prosecuted him for this, revoked his security approval and subjected him to chemical castration. It's worth noting that his homosexuality came out because he himself told a policeman about it, reporting a burglary that he suspected was done by an acquaintance of his boyfriend. You can see a news feature about him here, though the website is Carnal Nation and so may not be work safe.

At the age of forty-one, he laced an apple with cyanide and killed himself.

There's now a petition online for the government to issue an official apology for this disgraceful persecution of our of our greatest and most important citizens for no better reason than having consensual sex in private with whom he chose. It doesn't take very long to sign, but an apology would be a significant gesture of reparation, to Turing and his family, to the gay citizens of Britain, and to all of us for this shameful stain on our national history. Please take a few seconds and sign it.

Later: it's been pointed out in the comments that Alan Turing was far from the only victim of these dreadful laws. The criminalising of homosexuality was tacked on to the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, a law that was primarily intended to raise the female age of consent from thirteen to sixteen and increase penalties for sexual assault in an attempt to reduce child prostitution - which is to say, a bad addition to a good law. That criminalisation remained in place until 1967. A lot of people can suffer in eighty-two years, and all of them are owed an apology too. What I did was sign the petition and then write to my MP asking her to support gay marriage, which the UK disgracefully doesn't have, to support the apology to Alan Turing and also a general apology to all the other victims of the same laws that destroyed him. I'd encourage others to do the same.

Alas, I cannot sign, as I am neither a citizen nor resident of Britain, but I stand with you in the hope that the government will finally apologize for this tragedy.

The history of the treatment of gay people in the West is horrific, from gays in Nazi concentration camps being transferred to Allied prisons after the camps were liberated because it was deemed the Nazis had had cause to incarcerate them, to the pre-Stonewall stories or raids and beatings in New York, to Oscar Wilde's incarceration, but somehow the story of Alan Turing always stood out to me as especially and particularly tragic. A brilliant and civic-minded man shown absolutely no gratitude from his people, driven to suicide over something that was so harmless, and so irrelevant to the work he was doing. I get mad enough to hit things every time I think of it.

Of course there's nothing for me to hit that would help the situation, (nor can I even sign the petition) and I think this apology, if it does come, falls in the "way too little, way too late" category, obviously, but if they can't bring themselves to make even such a hollow gesture, well...

So while I can't say I really hope they do it, I do really hope they don't refuse to do it. You know?
I think this apology, if it does come, falls in the "way too little, way too late" category

For poor Alan Turing, undoubtedly. But I think it has a value of precedent: the government will be admitting it has no right to persecute citizens for their sexuality. And that's a really important thing for governments to admit.

Too, I hope the petition gets a lot of signatures for another reason: gay rights aren't properly achieved in this country yet. A petition with lots of names indicates to the government that we the people do not support discrimination against gay citizens. Next time an issue about marriage equality, hate crimes and similar issues comes up for discussion, politicians may recall the petition and be reminded that their constituents are in favour of equal rights; it could influence their votes.

So yeah, it doesn't help Turing now unless he's looking down from Heaven, but I do think it's an important symbolic gesture that keeps the injustices against gay people in the public eye - and that may carry some weight in the future.
The thing about informing elected officials of the opinions of their constituents hadn't occurred to me, and you're right that that's very valuable. I keep forgetting that same-sex marriage doesn't exist legally in the UK. Like I said, having been asked to issue the apology the government can't reasonably refuse, I just wish they were doing something real.

I guess I just don't like symbolic gestures, you know? I feel like if they're meaningful then they will be backed up by real reform, in which case the symbolic gesture itself is unnecessary. And if there isn't any real reform then the symbolic gesture is just an attempt at appeasement, and is therefore meaningless.

I get what you're saying about it being an official statement about not discriminating, I just.. *sigh*. I don't know how to express it, things like this just always leave me cold. Recently my government officially apologised for putting Native people in residential schools where they were abused and robbed of their religion and culture. And even though many of the survivors of those schools are still alive to hear the apology, I can't see what good it does them. Does it give them their history back? Does it give them relationships with the parents they were stolen from? Does it rebuild the communities and traditions that died when there were no children to grow up and continue them?

Like I said, you can't not apologize, but the apology doesn't fix anything. If the apology is where the action ends then it isn't better than nothing, not really.

Sorry, I keep coming to your blog and arguing with you and it's not that I disagree with you in the broad strokes, I don't think. You have the ability to see value in things that are mostly about feelings and symbols and stuff, and it's an ability that I lack. See? I don't even have a functional vocabulary to talk about it.
There's another objection as well - why ask to only pardon Alan Turing?

Turing was treated abominably. However, if the government pardons one, it should pardon all. If we say that Turing should be pardoned because he was a great man (and he was), then it makes him a special case. However he was not the only one to suffer. When it comes to being pardoned, why should it matter what he did? Is his boyfriend less deserving of a pardon than Turing is?

I have no doubt that the people behind the petition would answer 'of course not' to that question. But personally, I would have preferred to see a petition for all gays who suffered under the anti-homosexual laws.

(For completeness, I might as well say that I'm bisexual)
Sorry, I keep coming to your blog and arguing with you and it's not that I disagree with you in the broad strokes, I don't think. You have the ability to see value in things that are mostly about feelings and symbols and stuff, and it's an ability that I lack.

Alternative perspectives are always welcome, and I respect your principles - indeed, I share them, I just have some different ideas about how to act on them - so please don't feel you have to apologise. You're always polite and make good moral points; as long as that's the case there's no problem here.

I do see the point of symbolic gestures. I mean, I'm a novelist; gestures and symbolism are a big part of my brain pattern. I think I assume that, as I'm probably not the only person who in any way resembles me, a lot of other people see the point of symbolic gestures too, and a gesture like apologising to Turing will mean something to them, which makes it valuable.

I don't see symbolic gestures as isolated, either. You say 'If the apology is where the action ends then it isn't better than nothing', but I don't see any reason to assume that the action will end at the apology. If it happens it'll be one event in a long chain, possible because of previous events and contributing to the possibility of others.

Another point, for instance: it'll be a message from the government to the country that persecuting gay people is Not All Right. Regrettably we still have homophobes aplenty, and people who don't actually hate gay people but think a normal society is one where they don't marry or have children. Such people are generally influenced by the idea of being 'normal'. If the government apologises for persecuting Alan Turing, it's a little gesture that hints: 'It's not normal to treat gay people badly.' It tugs the average very slightly towards justice. People are influenced by such things.

Not the cure-all, of course, but if something will only do a bit of good, it's worth doing. It's not an either-or between 'solves everything' and 'totally useless'. I think I have more faith than you do in the power of small things, because I believe small things add up and don't preclude the doing of big things; I think they get us into the habit of acting for the best. We've all got more than one good deed in us: we have as many as we choose to do, and we can and should choose often.

There's another objection as well - why ask to only pardon Alan Turing?

Why indeed. I'm behind this petition because of the precedent it sets, but I'd like to see the government issue a general apology. On that principle I wrote to my MP the same day I signed the petition, asking her to support gay marriage as well as the apology to Alan Turing, and pointing out that all the other victims of that ridiculous law were also owed an apology.

It's a good point: I think I'll add it to the bottom of the post.
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