Charles Petzold

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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