In Memoriam: Pride pioneer and scientist Alan Turing

Brilliant mind and gay icon, persecuted and redeemed

This Pride month, qnotes pays homage to one figure whose life and accomplishments set a golden precedent for the capabilities of LGBTQ people everywhere. Alan Turing, renowned scientist of many trades and proud gay man, died on June 7, 1954.

Turing’s professional achievements were remarkable enough. As a mathematician and cryptographer, his work for the British military was responsible for breaking the Nazi Enigma code during World War II. This not only led to the creation of the computer, but played an integral role in the Allies’ victory in Europe.

His accomplishments paired with his deplorable prosecution by the British government for “gross indecency” have now made Turing one of the best-known LGBTQ figures of the past century. However, Turing was not famous during his lifetime. It was only in recent decades that his tide-turning work for the military during World War II was made public.

Scholar Andrew Hodges, author of the seminal biography, “Alan Turing: the Enigma,” also wrote for the BBC discussing the scientist’s discoveries, inventions and interdisciplinary interests.

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“In March 1946 Turing produced a detailed design for what was called the Automatic Computing Engine,” Hodges wrote. “This was a digital computer in the modern sense, storing programs in its memory…In 1950, he published a philosophical paper including the idea of an ‘imitation game’ for comparing human and machine outputs, now called the Turing Test. This paper remains his best known work and was a key contribution to the field of Artificial Intelligence.”

In addition to Turing’s works on philosophy and engineering — groundbreaking work that undeniably led to the modern computer — he also dabbled in biology and chemistry and was an avid runner in amateur marathons. A fellow runner once asked Turing why he was so dedicated to the sport.

“I have such a stressful job that the only way I can get it out of my mind is by running hard,” he replied.

Turing died of cyanide poisoning on that fateful day 63 years ago. His death was ruled as a suicide at the time, and many still believe it to be a result of his prosecution, when he was sentenced to one year of estrogen therapy — essentially chemical castration.

However, Turing scholar Jack Copeland later argued that the scientist’s death was more likely an accident. Turing kept cyanide in his home as a tool for chemical experiments and had never shown signs of suicidality. His hormone injections had ended more than a year before his death.

Long before the fight for LGBTQ rights became a movement, in a time when being gay was against the law, Turing was open about his sexuality. He even shared it with his fiancée, Joan Clarke, who remained engaged to him until Turing himself chose to end the relationship.

When police investigated a burglary in Turing’s home, the burglar testified to being an acquaintance of Turing’s former lover. When questioned about the relationship, Turing told the truth about his brief affair with 19-year-old Arnold Murray.

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“When he was arrested, the first thing he said was he thought that this shouldn’t be against the law,” Hodges told PBS in a 2014 interview. “He gave a statement that was unapologetic, that detailed what had happened.”

Turing’s unapologetic pride in his sexual identity was not reflected in the recent biopic “The Imitation Game.” Critics who researched Turing’s life tore the movie apart point by point.

Christian Caryl, a writer for The New York Review of Books magazine, described the movie depiction of Turing as “reducing him to a caricature of the tortured genius.” Caryl also condemns the film’s factual inaccuracies, calling them “a bizarre departure from the historical record.”

“The filmmakers have managed to transform the real Turing, vivacious and forceful, into just the sort of mythological gay man, whiney and weak, that homophobes love to hate,” Caryl wrote.

The homophobes of Turing’s time treated him horrifically. Decades upon decades after Turing’s death, a 2009 petition penned by John Graham-Cunning inspired modern politicians to make an official apology.

“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,” Prime Minister Gordon Brown said at the time. “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.”

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