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Gay Rights and the Prosecution of Alan Turing

June 28, 2008
Roscoe, N.Y.

In January, 1952, English mathematician and computer pioneer Alan Turing was arrested for having sex with another man.

The law that Alan Turing broke was the infamous Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885. Section 11 prohibited "any act of gross indecency with another male person" and specified that offenders "be imprisoned for any term not exceeding two years, with or without hard labour."

The term "gross indecency" was not specifically defined in the law, but it was understood to mean any sexual contact other than that denoted by the quaint English legal term "buggery." Oral sex or mutual masturbation would fall under the category of "gross indecency."

Section 11 was controversial from its very beginning. The Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 described itself as "An Act to make further provision for the protection of women and girls, the suppression of brothels, and other purposes." The law raised the age of consent for girls from 13 to 16, and contained several provisions intended to prevent women from exploitation, such as being drugged in brothels or abducted into prostitution.

Section 11 was added to the Act just a week before it was passed. At the time it was noted that the acts prohibited by Section 11 had never been illegal in England before when performed in private, and that the law could easily be abused through blackmail. The most famous victim of Section 11 was playwright and poet Oscar Wilde, who served two years hard labor from 1895 to 1897. His health severly compromised by the prison term, Oscar Wilde died three years after his release at the age of 46.

By the time of Turing's conviction, alternatives to imprisonment were offered in the form of hormone treatments called "organotherepy" but more commonly known as "chemical castration."

Experiments with treating gay men with hormones had begun in the 1940s. At first it was believed that homosexuality was caused by insufficient "maleness," so the treatment involved testosterone. As we know now, increased levels of testosterone are associated with aggressiveness (sexual and otherwise), so it's not surprising to learn that the experimental testosterone treatments did not have the anticipated effect!

By Turing's time, they had switched to estrogen treatments. The implant they gave Turing for a year rendered him impotent and caused his breats to grow.

The early 1950s were a terrible time to be identified as a gay person. As part of my research in writing The Annotated Turing: A Guided Tour through Alan Turing's Historic Paper on Computability and the Turing Machine, I wanted to get a good understanding of what it was like. Of course I got some great information from the concluding chapters of Andrew Hodges's biography Alan Turing: The Enigma (Simon and Schuster,1983).

I also found a fascinating book by historian David K. Johnson about the situation in the United States entitled The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government (University of Chicago Press, 2004), and which I discussed in a blog entry two years ago.. The title plays off the concept of the "Red Scare" initiated by Senator Joseph McCarthy and others to weed out communists in the State Department. There actually weren't very many communists in the State Department, but there were plenty of closeted gay people working in the U.S. government and they were fired by the hundreds. The term "security risk" used during this period was basically a euphemism for "homosexual."

I was hoping to find something similar to The Lavender Scare but about England. I am now convinced that such a book does not exist, but I did benefit a great deal from H. Montgomery Hyde's The Love That Dared Not Speak Its Name: A Candid History of Homosexuality in Britain (Little, Brown and Co., 1970), published in England under the title The Other Love. This book covers a much broader period of time but provided me with background on Section 11 and details regarding the early-1950s persecution of gay people in England.

As a result of his conviction, Turing's job options were certainly diminished. Any type of security clearance would be out of the question. (At the time, his crucial work on breaking codes used by the German military during World War II was still top secret.) He would no longer be able to visit the United States. A 1952 law prohibited admission to the U.S. of "‘aliens afflicted with psychopathic personality," which was interpreted to mean homosexuality.

Alan Turing committed suicide in June, 1954, at the age of 41. He left behind no note, and his suicide has some mysterious aspects, but it is generally assumed that it was related to the humiliation he suffered from his prosecution under Section 11.

That certainly seems like a long time ago! Today we are as appalled by the 1950s persecution of gay people as much as we are appalled by the discrimination against persons of color during the same period. As a society, we have made significant moral progress since that time, and I am encouraged by these trends.

In Europe and North America, discriminatory laws against gay people have largely been repealed. Full marriage equality — certainly an important milestone in the progressive historical advancement of human rights and individual dignity — is becoming a reality. Today five countries (Canada, Belgium, the Netherlands, South Africa, and Spain) offer full marriage equality for gay couples, and Norway will join their ranks next year.

Marriage equality in the United States will probably proceed one state at a time until some kind of tipping point is reached, or the U.S. Supreme Court makes a definitive decision. Today only Massachusetts and California have full marriage equality. Here in New York, Eliot Spitzer was recently elected Governor with a platform that included marriage equality. Although he's gone now, his successor David Paterson recently affirmed that same-sex marriages outside the state will be recognized here (which is, of course, the normal procedure except that some states have specifically gone in the opposite direction). A fascinating article in the New York Times last month described Governor Paterson's long affinity with gay people, and indicated that he is also a supporter of marriage equality.

But are we really so removed from the laws that drove Oscar Wilde and Alan Turing to their early deaths? Not really.

It was as recently as 2003 that the United States Supreme Court decision Lawrence v. Texas struck down state laws prohibiting gay sex. (In 1998, based on a false report of a man with a gun, the Harris County police entered the home of John Lawrence and found him having sex with another man. Rather than apologize profusely and quickly leave as normal people would have done, the police arrested the two men and charged them under Texas's Homosexual Conduct law.) At the time of Lawrence v. Texas some 13 other states had laws prohibiting homosexual sex acts, and even after the decision many of these laws are still on the books.

What scares me is the real agenda of the people behind the movement opposing marriage equality. It seems that for some of these people, the real motivation has nothing to do with "marriage" or "family" or "children" or "home" or "values." It's really all about gay sex, and the Lawrence v. Texas decision plays a major role in their worldview.

For example, one of the best-known and acknowledged nationwide leaders of the movement opposing marriage equality is James C. Dobson, head of the organization Focus on the Family. It is quite clear from reading Dr. Dobson's book Marriage under Fire: Why We Must Win This Battle (Multnomah Publishers, 2004) that the real problem for him is the Lawrence v. Texas decision — in short, that the Supreme Court's decision in giving gay people the legal right to have sex also implies the legal right to marriage.

I will quote at length (pages 39 to 41) without ellipses so you can get a proper sense of Dobson's not-so-hidden agenda:

The logic in these paragraphs is so tortured that I can hardly believe that Dr. Dobson actually believes anything he's writing here. The only "rights" Lawrence v. Texas has eliminated are those of a government to decide what consenting adults can do in the privacy of their bedrooms! Dr. Dobson seems to feel his rights have been restricted, yet the "rights" that he wants is the power to use the government to enforce his own narrow view of proper sexual behavior. That concept should scare heterosexuals and homosexuals alike!

The introduction of Adolf Hitler in Dr. Dobson's argument is astounding. Surely Dr. Dobson knows which side of the gay rights debate the Nazis were on! Surely Dr. Dobson knows that laws prohibiting gay sex in Germany were almost repealed during the Weimar Republic, and that when the Nazis gained power they actually strengthened the laws and made homosexual sex a felony rather than a misdemeanor. Surely Dr. Dobson knows that homosexuals were imprisoned by the Nazis in concentration camps, and that they had their own special triangle to identify them (notice the 5th column):

It could be argued that the extremist views of Dr. Dobson do not represent the mainstream of the movement opposing marriage equality, and that most people really do not want to reinstate laws that prohibit gay sex. I don't know. But I have not heard anyone on the anti-equality side actually denounce Dr. Dobson's position on this issue. I am forced to asume that Dr. Dobson's ugly and immoral views are actually quite prevalent.

Anyone who proposes the reinstatement of laws that prohibit consensual sexual contact between adults must consider the consequences of these laws, and that means to be familiar with the people who have been their victims. Alan Turing might still be alive today — he would have turned 96 earlier this week — had it not been for a law that made him a criminal, and which stripped him of his dignity and freedom.

The best way to prevent these laws from coming back is to give gay men and women the fullest protection of the law, and that means full marriage equality.

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I am amazed that you can quote Dr.Dobson's writing as 'ugly & immoral', immorality is the problem with world and their views, go back to the Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth book (BIBLE) it makes it quite clear as to where homosexuality sits. Why do you think it is called 'sodomy' anyway ?

God made Adam & Eve, not Adam & Steve.

If we turned back to God's laws and stopped having personal agenda's then we might be able to rescue the little bit of humanity left.

Yes, the world may have been different if Turing was not convicted, however, the law was there, he broke it, by his own choices, no one else forced him to break the law, wake up world, start taking responsibility for your own actions.

Paul Usher, Sat, 28 Jun 2008 18:15:38 -0400 (EDT)

How unfortunate the misapprehension you are under, dear P.U. I will dispatch with you quickly, because I don't care to waste time with miserable wretches.

> Proof that fundamentalists selectively quote the Bible:

I actually wanted to post on the correct perception that the alleged moderates can only prove their moderation by actively criticizing the ugly extremists.

We who are fortunate to have a little enlightenment often deal politely with "moderates" who hold repressive views. But the burden is on those who call themselves "moderates". Prove it by pointing to a history of standing up and criticizing those who share the same view, but to an ugly and hateful extreme. Otherwise, don't howl when those with a little more enlightenment feel free to tar the "moderates" and the extremists with the same brush.

Manuel Garcia, Sat, 28 Jun 2008 19:33:21 -0400 (EDT)

"it makes it quite clear as to where homosexuality sits."

Right amongst shaving and shellfish on the list of "abominations" (Leviticus 19:27 and Leviticus 11:9-12, respectively).

— Russ Jones, Sat, 28 Jun 2008 19:42:25 -0400 (EDT)

A really good book I've recently read that discusses a lot of the thought processes behind Lawrence v. Texas is "The Nine", by Jeffrey Toobin (ISBN 0385516401). It's a very interesting read.

(My copy of the Turing book showed up a week or so ago, I'm hoping to get to it this summer)

— weloytty, Sat, 28 Jun 2008 22:16:51 -0400 (EDT)

Turing and his supporters should be bashed, not because of their stance on homosexuality (thou shall not judge), but because the adoption of Turing's erroneous ideas on computing is the main cause of almost everything that is wrong with the computer industry today, from the software reliabity and productivity crises to the parallel programming crisis. It is time to end the Turing madness. We need a better computing model to replace the Turing model. Half a century of crappy computing is enough. The computer industry is desperate for a Kuhnian revolution. One man's opinion. More at the link below:

Louis Savain, Sun, 29 Jun 2008 02:39:57 -0400 (EDT)

In the penultimate chapter of The Annotated Turing I discuss hypercomputation (among other things), which is the definition of computing machines that don't have the limitations of Turing Machines. Unfortunately, these machines also violate the laws of physics, such as accelerating time. In his essay "The Myth of Hypercomputation" (in Christof Teuscher, ed., Alan Turing: Life and Legacy of a Great Thinker, Springer, 1998), Martin Davis has even compared the hypercomputationalists to trisectors of the angle and inventors of perpetual motion machines.

The world is ready to move beyond the Turing limit. The world is also ready for safe, clean, cheap energy sources. Not everything desirable is possible.

Thanks for the link to your blog. I'll try to take a look at it soon. — Charles

@Paul Usher,

what God? God is a myth no different then most historical myths..

You quote, myths about a myth, which you believe since you have been taught to turn off logic under the guise of faith..

Maybe the law we should pass is outlawing the "act of interfering with the lives of others on the basis of myths of faith"

Ya, that's the law I want..

— Anthony, Sun, 29 Jun 2008 03:04:03 -0400 (EDT)

Well written, as always. You are courageous in opening yourself up to the ugly comments that I suspect you will receive on this. I wish we all lived in a world of quiet tolerance for one another. In these loudly intolerant times, it increasingly seems like a moral imperative for the rest of us to speak up in support of the rights of others.

— Elena, Sun, 29 Jun 2008 05:31:38 -0400 (EDT)

Mr. Petzold:

I've been reading and learning from you for a little under twenty years now. I hadn't been sure that you could gain more respect than I already held; as an intelligent, calm, and rational individual you hold traits which I can - even after many years of work - only dream of obtaining.

Thank for you for the article. It's thought provoking, well reasoned, and, in my opinion, balanced. It also shows me that pride and prejudice have not completely taken over the world.

I wish you the best of luck in all your endeavors.

— Brian Schkerke, Mon, 30 Jun 2008 11:03:25 -0400 (EDT)

Mr. Usher, sodomy is not an activity limited to homosexuals alone--it is a rather common activity for heterosexual couples as well. Also, not all homosexuals engage in sodomy--some engage only in other activities, and don't forget that half of homosexuals are female, to whom the Texas sodomy law would not apply.

For some reason, this is usually glossed over--which would seem to indicate that the real issue people have with two men engaging in sex is that it supposedly "feminizes" them and turns gender roles upside down, and as a society we just can't have that because we still subconsciously think that men are fundamentally better than women. People don't get half as upset over lesbians, who clearly are also homosexual. Women "pretending to be men" are misguided but cute, but men "pretending to be women" are dangerous, because it implies weakness and who will lead our society then, etc, etc. I suspect that when men and women are actually seen to be equal, the hysteria concerning the bedrooms of others will cease.

This whole ridiculous obsession with what other people do in bed is also what makes modern Christianity lose its original focus of actually helping the poor, the needy and the oppressed people of the world...which includes homosexuals, especially in some non-western countries, where you can be killed by a mob for the mere suspicion of being gay.

Honestly, what WOULD Jesus do?

— Tina, Wed, 2 Jul 2008 03:53:57 -0400 (EDT)

I don't believe in God. I do, believe in people. People are real. God was an idea.

People are important, particularly the one's in my life. It matters not which way there sexuality is, but that what they have can make them happy.

If the people in my life find happiness in whatever it maybe, then I, too myself are happy.

Nik Radford, Wed, 2 Jul 2008 07:30:04 -0400 (EDT)

From all my years of studying computer science, I never got the full picture of Turing. I knew of his suicide and homosexuality, but never learned the extent of the oppression he live with. How horrible!

Despite the disappointment of our past, while reading this post I became so encouraged (despite Dr. Dobson's very scary quote) that we as a global civilization are moving forward and becoming more tolerant -- especially given the global status of the United States in the world right now.

Unfortunately, I ended up reading Mr. Usher's comment immediately following Charles' though provoking post -- extremely unfortunate that a post like this receives your comment first, sir. I am amazed beyond expression that someone can still harbor these beliefs under the banner of Christianity. I think Tina posed the perfect question in ending her comment above.

— Peter Meyer, Wed, 2 Jul 2008 09:46:06 -0400 (EDT)

@Paul Usher

The bible is a joke. Stop using a fairy tale to guide your life.

— MadClown, Wed, 2 Jul 2008 10:08:29 -0400 (EDT)

Paul - i join others in voicing my frustration with those who are intolerant of difference. I respect your right not to have homosexual sex or any sex at all if you choose. I respect your right to believe in whichever God you please. I will not judge you one way or the other because of it. I will treat you with deep respect as a fellow human being.

Please, please could you find it in your heart - to respect the common humanity of others. Even those whose beliefs or actions (which harm nobody) you find repugnant.

we will all live in a better world for it.

— Michael, Wed, 2 Jul 2008 12:29:39 -0400 (EDT)

I do believe in a higher power. I have never had this higher power call on me to kill anyone or degrade anyone. If your higher power asks you to do such a thing it is possible that it is not working correctly and I highly recommend calling your higher power tech support to get some assistance.

Another option (if your higher power is malfunctioning) would be to think for yourself. I know it is much easier to have someone else make decisions about right and wrong for you. However, at some point you need to take some personal responsibility.

— Luke Lawson, Wed, 2 Jul 2008 13:49:14 -0400 (EDT)

Paul Usher says to take responsibility for your own actions, but he seems to really want to take responsibility for everyone else's actions.

Marriage is a religious union. Civil marriages are legal unions. No one can forcea the church to recognize homosexual marriage. Its' not your place to judge. We live in a secular society. Read the constitution. Jesus is not in there. The "creator" is mentioned. I say that means Zeus. Prove I'm wrong.

Homosexual marriage has no detrimental effect on my own marriage, just as there is absolutely no effect on my own marriage if Paul Usher adheres to the one man one woman christian marriage.

Which part of "it's none of your business, stupid" do you not understand? Telling me how to live my life is a shortcut to a bloody nose.

— Sam, Wed, 2 Jul 2008 14:17:39 -0400 (EDT)

I believe, because God & the Bible said homosexuality is wrong; it is and therefore I am against homosexuality and am called to believe that marriage should be, between a man and a woman and that's it. I also believe that marriage is a union between a man and a woman & God.

To those that say the Bible is a joke, you're entitled to your thoughts & beliefs/morals and I certainly don't fault you for that or hold that against you. I believe that's not my place. And if the Bible really is a joke then I have lost nothing; but I have faith it isn't and those who believe it is will lose something in the end, so don't tell me it's a fairy tail because I don't suggest how you life your life or what guides you is a fairy tail.

To Paul, Yes I believe homosexuality is wrong. However it's not my place to judge individuals who practice it. It's my place to love them and accept them. Jesus once said "for those of you who have broken the least of my commandments are guilty of breaking them all" So homosexuality is no more right or wrong then telling a lie. "We've all sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God" But that's the great thing about it God will forgive, my God will forgive and welcome Hitler or the worst of th worst criminals as we judge them here on earth into heaven if they repent. So we're called to be disciples of Jesus Christ and to love and accept everyone . Regardless of their sins. Can I accept and love a murder ? No probably not but that's because I am human and not Jesus, isn't it great ?

PS I am a Canadian too.

Chris Howell, Wed, 2 Jul 2008 23:08:52 -0400 (EDT)

i actually liked dobson's focus on the family talk show. it's on the christian radio that i listen to. but if that's the way dobson really feels about lawrence vs texas, then i'll have to find a more loving christian leader for guidance.

— Choy, Thu, 3 Jul 2008 03:52:29 -0400 (EDT)

To Sam:

In regards to Zeus, I can prove you wrong - He wasn't the Creator in Greek mythology.

Charles, I'm sorry that your respectful treatment of such a tragic subject has to endure echoes of the same problems that Turing himself dealt with. Thank you, as always, for a thought provoking read.

— Russ C., Thu, 3 Jul 2008 04:46:18 -0400 (EDT)

@Chris Howell - Well put. Despite my distaste for Mr. Usher's comments, I feel those comments that are dismissive of one faith or another in such a derogatory manner are on equal ground.

— Peter Meyer, Thu, 3 Jul 2008 09:05:26 -0400 (EDT)


Sadly, that isn't a disproof. I wish it were so simple to argue against religious beliefs with facts, but it is irritatingly not so.

Sam might subscribe to a less popular flavor of Greek mythology that you haven't studied. In his personal faith, Zeus could be the creator. And that's the beauty of faith for some. All you need is belief. Correctness never needs to be ascertained.

— gex, Thu, 3 Jul 2008 11:50:36 -0400 (EDT)

I greatly respect and admire the work of both Mr. Turing and Mr. Petzold, and I am glad for some of the advancements in gay rights. But I don't agree with everything in the gay agenda.

The great hallmark of democracy is that we are governed by laws that, at least in theory, reflect the will of the people being governed. We elect representatives whom we believe will enact legislation that is moral and just, and repeal legislation that is not moral and just. Perhaps I am being a bit naive, in this era of lobyyists and political action groups, but I believe that the system still has a chance to work. I believe that most people in our country have a good sense of "right" and "wrong", and want laws that reflect that.

However in the case of gay rights, most of the recent gains have been the result of judicial rather than legislative activity. Rather than trusting the "the people" and their elected representatives to do the right thing, activists have chosen to focus their attention on court cases and judges who can change the laws for them.

And there can be no doubt that the laws have changed. Gay marriage was certainly not legal in Massachussetts before the court decisions that made it so.

For those who disagree with Dr. Dobson, the surest way to silence him and those who oppose gay rights would be to build enough popular support that the desired changes could be accomplished through legislative rather than judicial channels.

— dsm, Mon, 7 Jul 2008 14:04:33 -0400 (EDT)

@Charles Perzold: thanks for a post. Gay rights and equality are still a front on which we have to fight daily. Homophobia still kills, social prejdudice still exists and we're only at the beginning of the road.

@dsm, maybe you should learn and try first-hand what it is to be discriminated against, attacked physically and verbally, just because you happen to be different. Everybody has a right to equality and a right to live without prejudice. As long as we haven't achieved that, and the amount of collective suffering in the gay community shows that we're still far from having achieved any of it, there will be an agenda. Not to gain rights at the detriments of others, but to have the right to be treated equaly, mary, have a family and live happily.

As for the bible bashers, I won't comment on the hypocrisy of some of their views, the point has been made well enough so far. The law protects the rights of those that share a religious belief, it is a good thing it protects the rights of those that happen to love and live with same-sex partners.

Sebastien Lambla, Tue, 8 Jul 2008 16:48:38 -0400 (EDT)

The one problem I have with the bible is that it is always referred to as the "word of god", and yet it was written by a bunch of old men with nothing better to do. I can just see them thinking up the quotes.

1."How about, 'Thy Dog consumed'?"

2."no.. Flesh? 'Thy Flesh Consumed'?

1."Awesome, let's put it in.

2. What about Meat? Like, eating your meat off the table?

1. Flesh is fine, moving on...

And yes, sadly almost my entire knowledge of the bible is based on Ultimate Doom's Episode 4, but at least that keeps me neutral, it is JUST A BOOK. the only difference between the bible and any other book is that being a fan of it is a religion.

Religion brings together but it also tears apart. The problem is people are compelled to feel that there is an "ever-after", that their bodies don't just rot in the ground, that they are rewarded for all their good deeds on a fictional "judgement day" (which, BTW, was scheduled for January 1st 2000 (or 2001), so I guess god didn't get a memo). We're not. Although I can make no claims as to "know" what happens to people when they die, I have to say that the promise of a paradise for good deeds is a bit idealistic, although it gives people that are otherwise complete assholes material reason to not be such a big one. Which brings us back to sodomy....

I have more arguments here, but this entire comments section has degraded into the typical set of arguments that are presented whenever state and churches viewpoints don't match. I'd just like to add that the entire problem is that you cannot properly word a law so that it isn't unambiguous in all cases, especially when you have to define such vague phrases as "gross indecency", heck, that could simply be cleaning mould off a wall while in your underwear. the mould is making you sick and your doing your laundry, but at the same time the mould is gross and your being indecent. Sure, it's a far-fetched definition, but it seems that the edge cases of a law are far more important then those completely within or without it.

— Michael Burgwin, Wed, 9 Jul 2008 08:27:47 -0400 (EDT)

Did I say Zeus? I meant Zoose and I know in my heart that he is my Lord and Savior. Prove I'm wrong.

—, Thu, 17 Jul 2008 17:34:30 -0400 (EDT)

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