Following an online petition signed by 30,000 people, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has made a posthumous apology to Alan Turing, the English mathematician and war hero who broke the Nazis’ Enigma code, only to be hounded to his death by the nation he defended.
Breaking Enigma allowed the Allies to read the Germans’ secret transmissions. It is estimated that this one breakthrough by Turing and his colleagues shortened WWII by two years, saving millions of lives.
Following the war, Turing’s genius only blossomed, and he presented a paper outlining designs for what could have been the world’s first electronic computer. The first computers to be built owed a heavy debt to his theories.
But tragedy struck in January 1952 when a young lover took advantage of him to burgle his home. He reported the theft to police, but when the facts of his relationship with the man came out, the investigation changed tack and Turing found himself charged with gross indecency.
As punishment, he was chemically castrated and subjected to a year of oestrogen injections which bloated his body and made him grow breasts. The alternative was a year in prison.
With his conviction he was stripped of his security clearance and separated from the research that had been his life’s passion. Two years later, a shadow of his former self, he took a bite from an apple he’d laced with cyanide.
Winston Churchill, again Prime Minister, and the leader who had reaped the benefits of Turing’s work during the war, did not lift a finger for the man.
In the year of Turing’s arrest over 1600 gay men were convicted of the same crime in Britain. Close to 100,000 suffered similarly before the law’s repeal in 1967.
In remembering Turing, Brown acknowledged these other victims, but no formal apology for them was forthcoming.
Other leaders have gone further. Spain has not only wiped clean the records of gays arrested under the Franco regime but is now paying them compensation for their imprisonment and the human rights abuses received there.
We are unlikely to see such an apology from our PM, as laws targeting gays here have always been the responsibility of the states.
But perhaps one day, this nation’s premiers might come together and acknowledge the wrongness of past laws, to wipe the convictions of those convicted prior to decriminalisation and finally make those changes retroactive — in NSW, gay sex before 1983 remains technically a crime.
And perhaps the newspaper that named and shamed those arrested at Sydney’s first Mardi Gras way back in 1978 might apologise for that wrongness as well?

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