The Trickster Prince

Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.

Pardoning Alan Turing might be good politics, but it’s certainly bad history

It has been a couple of weeks since it became clear that the proposal that Alan Turing receive a posthumous pardon for his conviction for “gross indecency” in 1952 will be passed into law. Despite the flurry of discussion in the media and online I didn’t want to write anything about it at the time. This might be unfashionable, but I wanted to think about exactly what is at stake in this move.

Pardoning Turing might be good politics, but I think it is certainly bad history. Good politics? For David Cameron, giving government support to a private member’s bill to pardon Turing is a neat way of detoxifying the Conservative brand and confirming his claims to be a social liberal. For LGBT organizations and communities it is a welcome gesture—symbolic confirmation of the progressive narrative of social inclusion woven around the campaigns for equal marriage and partnership rights. Stepping back further, the idea that in 2013 “we” can pardon Turing of offences committed in 1952 is evidence of our newfound liberalism. Implicit in much of the discussion about the case is a kind of smug self-congratulation: oh how things have changed since the dark days of 1950s Britain.

So I can see how this is good politics, in some respects. But a pardon makes no difference to Turing. Rather than a prison sentence, after his trial Turing undertook a course of oestrogen injections that were supposed to work as a kind of chemical castration; a criminal conviction meant he lost his security clearance and could not work at GCHQ; he committed suicide in June 1954. This is an individual tragedy, of course, but a pardon won’t bring him back. Neither can it wish away the disturbing fact that same-sex relations between men remained a criminal offence in until 1967. Those days are within living memory.

Of course Turing was remarkable—a pioneer in the development of modern computing and a vital contributor to breaking the German Enigma code at Bletchley Park during the Second World War. I cannot see why his contribution to national life means we should single him and him alone out for a pardon ahead of the thousands of ordinary men who faced arrest, prosecution and prison in this period. Only an arbitrary and exclusive qualification test can even begin to justify that. Should we also pardon Brian Epstein, for example, because he gave us the Beatles and transformed modern pop music? A pardon for Turing has to mean a pardon for all: but that, as I show below, carries its own problems. Above all, the politics of pardon can never be more than gesture politics. At best, it is easy and comes at no real political cost; at worst it creates a comforting, cosy and progressive narrative that conceals the persistence of entrenched social, economic and political inequalities that continue to face queer men and women.

Pardoning Turning is also bad history. A couple of weeks ago I noticed this exchange on Twitter.

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As Dr C gently pointed out, Justin Champion might not quite be up on the latest historical scholarship, but I think his tweet was well meant. Despite this, its first sentence encapsulates what I see as two significant problems: “49000 gay men were convicted under the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act.”

Turing was convicted of “gross indecency” under Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act. Passed into law in 1885 this was, we are constantly reminded, the same piece of legislation under which Oscar Wilde went to prison in 1895. It made sex between men a criminal offence whether it took place in public or in private. As such, Section 11 has come to represent the legal repression and social hostility endured by queer men for almost a century. Why focus any campaign for a pardon on the Criminal Law Amendment Act though? Historians including Harry Cocks and Matt Cook have shown that the legislation made very little immediate difference in the prosecution of same-sex offences. Crucially, moreover, gross indecency was only one of many offences for which men could be prosecuted. It was never the case that “homosexuality” was illegal in Britain. At the same time, a series of pieces of legislation sought to suppress a range of different social and sexual interactions between men. In London more men were prosecuted for “persistently importuning for immoral purposes” under the 1898 Vagrancy Act and 1912 Criminal Law Amendment Act. Should they also be pardoned? Hundreds of men were convicted and imprisoned for buggery under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act. Should we pardon all of them—or just those who had anal sex with another man rather than a woman or an animal? Do we reopen dusty case files on indecent assault cases to distinguish between those men entrapped by a pretty police officer in a public urinal and those who violently forced themselves on someone younger or more vulnerable? I guess Cameron wouldn’t want a blanket pardon here. Do we work out which of the men and women arrested in a nightclub and imprisoned for aiding and abetting in keeping a disorderly house was “gay” and pardon them. Ironically, we could then leave the opposite-sex couples dancing next to them with their legal offence still standing. Ask questions like this and everything starts to fall apart. As well as impractical, focusing on Turing and the Criminal Law Amendment Act just can’t accommodate the complex relationship between sexualities and the law in modern Britain.

The idea that “49000 gay men” were convicted under the Criminal Law Amendment Act is also bad history. Alan Turing was first cast in the role of a gay martyr with the publication of Andrew Hodges biography Alan Turing: The Enigma in 1983. Turing here appeared as a national hero who became a victim of an intolerant society and the witch-hunt carried out against “gay” men by a homophobic Home Secretary and police force in the 1950s. While this version of Turing’s life played a vital role in the politics of gay liberation, however, I’m not sure that it’s a role in which Turing would recognize himself. Neither is it quite the case that his tragic suicide can be attributed to the oestrogen injections he was (we are told) forced to undergo. A few months ago the historian Chris Waters read the court records for all the prosecutions for homosexual offences in the court in which Turing was convicted in the three years around 1952. As far as I know he is the first person to have done this. Chris found that Turing was the only man in this period to undertake a course of hormonal treatment. Rather than being forced upon him, it was something his defence lawyer argued for as an alternative to prison—seen as a progressive outcome of modern science rather than as cruel and unusual punishment. I have argued elsewhere that the idea of a 1950s witch-hunt is just wrong. Building on this analysis, it seems that identifying the specific historical contexts that shaped Turing’s life and death is equally crucial to thinking critically about the narrative that informs the campaign for a pardon.

The way that we think about queer history today is shaped by two assumptions. The first is that that legal repression and social intolerance kept queer life firmly in the closet until “liberation” in the late sixties. In this context, goes the argument, men were invisible and isolated, forced through desperation to seek partners in the most dangerous public spaces. Yet the metaphor of the closet fails to capture the nature of queer life before 1967: interwar London was home to a vibrant urban culture that was perhaps more visible than at any time before the 1970s. As the crisis of the 1980s should remind us, history is not always about progress. The second assumption is explicit in Champion’s tweet and implicit throughout the campaign to pardon Turing. It is that sexual practices and identities have always been organized around the opposition between “homosexual” and “heterosexual” or “gay” or “straight.” Yet historians have recently drawn attention to the ways in which sexual identities have a history; they change over time and are shaped by broader divisions of gender, class, age, race, ethnicity and place.

In the first half of the twentieth century, for example many working-class men understood their sexual desires as part of their womanlike character, constructing a flamboyantly “effeminate” public persona in London’s streets and pubs. For others, particularly middle and upper-class men, their choice of sexual partner was the only thing that made them different. Conventionally masculine and discreet, they neither looked nor behaved “differently,” and remained invisible to passersby. All these men might have referred to themselves as queer, but they did not necessarily understand the term in the same way. If the meanings of queerness diverged, then so too did ideas of “normality.” Young working-class man had sex and forged intimate emotional relationships with other men, at the same time as with women, without thinking of themselves as anything other than “normal.” Known variously as men, trade, roughs, renters, or to be had, they were an integral part of the London scene until the 1960s. To have sex with or to love another man did not necessarily make a man different. The most remarkable thing about queer urban culture is that it was, to a large extent, composed of and created by men who never thought themselves queer. Very few, if any, of the 49,000 men convicted under Section 11 would have even known the term “gay” in its contemporary usage.

Pardoning Alan Turing might be good politics, but it is certainly bad history. It is bad history because it collapses the differences between then and now. It creates an illusory sameness between the sexual categories that shape contemporary society and politics and those that shaped the lives of men (and women) in the past. It can be bracing to recognise this, for sure, but we need to recognise the difference – the queerness – of the past. Neither Turing nor the men Champion gestures towards inhabited a “gay” world, as we would understand it. Partial, inaccurate and evasive, the historical narrative that informs the campaign to pardon Turing fails to appreciate the historically specific ways in which they understood their lives.



16 comments on “Pardoning Alan Turing might be good politics, but it’s certainly bad history

  1. menysnoweballes
    August 8, 2013

    Reblogged this on Meny Snoweballes and commented:
    Excellent blog post by Matt Houlbrook here. I don’t agree with quite all of this, but it raises some very important points about the complexity of queer history, the popular (and dangerous) desire to perceive our history as one of constant social progression, and the problem of using history to score political points.

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    December 24, 2013

    By pardoning him they remove a stain from the pages of English history ,a blot of cruelty ,prejudice and intolerance unwanted in their creation of the new image.

    December 24, 2013

    Its like allowing whats his name to poison himself as his” choice ” because he “corrupted ” the youth The evil ,the corrupters are the ones who dictate ordinariness upon their subjects, those that enforce compliance with their unrealistic un natural and abhorrent expectations in order to create an illusion of freedom and decency.

    December 24, 2013


  6. jbailey2013
    December 24, 2013

    Great piece that shows why knowing something about recent scholarship in history should be essential for policy makers.

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