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Why is Alan Turing Important to the LGBTQ+ Community?

alan turing

Alan Turing was an English mathematician and was a pioneer of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence. During WW2, he was instrumental in breaking the German Enigma code, leading to Allied victory over Nazi Germany.

His Story

He was born Alan Mathison Turing on June 23, 1912, in Maida Vale, London, England. At a young age, he displayed signs of high intelligence, which some teachers recognised, but did not necessarily respect.

When Turing attended the well-known independent Sherborne School at the age of 13, he became particularly interested in maths and science.

Turing later enrolled at King’s College in Cambridge, where he studied from 1931 to 1934. As a result of his dissertation, in which he proved the central limit theorem, Turing was elected a fellow at the school upon his graduation.

In 1936, Turing delivered a paper, “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem,” in which he presented the notion of a universal machine (later called the “Universal Turing Machine,” and then the “Turing machine”) that was capable of computing anything that is computable: It is considered the precursor to the modern computer.

Over the next two years, Turing studied mathematics and cryptology at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, USA. After receiving his PhD from Princeton University in 1938, he returned to Cambridge, and then took a part-time position with the Government Code and Cypher School, a British code-breaking organisation that was moved to Bletchley Park when war was declared on 3 September 1939.

Here he made five major advances in the field of cryptanalysis. Together with fellow code-breaker Gordon Welchman, Turing developed the ‘Bombe’, a machine based on an earlier Polish design, which from late 1940 was decoding all German Enigma encrypted signals.

The German Enigma Code

Turing was instrumental in breaking the German Enigma code, leading to Allied victory over Nazi Germany.

The Enigma machine is an encryption device developed and used in the early-to-mid-20th century to protect communication. It was employed mainly by Nazi Germany during World War II, in all branches of the German military.

The Enigma has an electromechanical rotor mechanism that scrambles the 26 letters of the alphabet. It works when one person enters text on the Enigma’s keyboard and another person writes down which of 26 lights above the keyboard lights up at each keypress.

The Enigma encryption proved vulnerable to cryptanalytic attacks by Germany’s adversaries, at first Polish and French intelligence and, later, a massive effort mounted by the United Kingdom at Bletchley Park. While Germany introduced a series of improvements to Enigma and these hampered decryption efforts to varying degrees, they did not ultimately prevent Britain and its allies from exploiting Enigma-encoded messages as a major source of intelligence during the war.

Further Contributions to Code Breaking

He also turned his attention to the more complex German naval signals, and together with his ‘Hut 8’ team at Bletchley, succeeded in decrypting these as well in 1941, contributing to Allied victory in the Battle of the Atlantic.

In July 1942, Turing developed a complex code-breaking technique he named ‘Turingery’ for use against the Lorenz cypher messages produced by the Germans’ new ‘Geheimschreiber’ (secret writer) machine.

Turing also developed a secure speech system, which he named ‘Delilah’. The system, which encoded and decoded voice communications, was intended to be used in a similar way to a telephone scrambler. He demonstrated its mechanisms in one of Churchill’s speeches, but the machine was never commissioned for use in the war effort.

Turing’s contributions to the code-breaking process didn’t stop there: He also wrote two papers about mathematical approaches to code-breaking, which became such important assets to the Code and Cypher School (later known as the Government Communications Headquarters) that the GCHQ waited until April 2012 to release them to the National Archives of the United Kingdom.

Turing went on to hold high-ranking positions in the mathematics department and later the computing laboratory at the University of Manchester in the late 1940s. He first addressed the issue of artificial intelligence in his 1950 paper, “Computing machinery and intelligence,” and proposed an experiment known as the “Turing Test” — an effort to create an intelligence design standard for the tech industry. Over the past several decades, the test has significantly influenced debates over artificial intelligence.

His LGBTQ Story

Turing’s homosexuality was barely heard of in mid-20th-century England and was a big taboo at the time. His first love was for another pupil at Sherborne School, Christopher Morcom, whose sudden and tragic death from brucellosis left Turing utterly heartbroken and bereft. This affected him for the rest of his life.

After school Turing went to King’s College Cambridge, which during the 1930s was still a centre of the Bloomsbury Group. J.M.Keynes, Virginia Woolf, and E.M Forster had led the way for Bloomsbury with their emphasis on humanity, sincerity, authenticity, and a direct approach to intellectual problems, so very different ideologies from what the Victorian era believed. They had also created perhaps the most gay-friendly environment the country had ever seen. Turing flourished in this new environment, where his own sexuality was simply accepted without fuss or protest.

By the middle of the Second World War, he got engaged to a woman. He was open with his fiancée about his homosexuality. Which didn’t stop her love for him, but Turing eventually ended the relationship later on despite her acceptance.

alan turing codeAfter the war, Turing moved to the University of Manchester, where he started working in the new computer science department. At the same time, he was personally preoccupied with finding new ways to deal with his homosexuality in a new city. He grew in confidence because of the increasingly permissive attitudes in society that had been bred by wartime conditions and soon found himself seeking quick sexual acts with men he met on the streets of Manchester – something that, given the nature of Turing’s work, the government took to be dangerously naive.

At the time of Cold War Britain, British intelligence was closely linked with the American CIA, at a time when US society was undergoing the paranoia and suspicion of McCarthyism. It was believed at the time that to be a homosexual was a security risk. Churchill’s civil service was keen to screen out such threats.

Homosexuality was still illegal in the UK in the early 1950s, so when Turing admitted to police that were called to his house after a January 1952 break-in, that he’d had a sexual relationship with the perpetrator, 19-year-old Arnold Murray, he was charged with gross indecency.

Following his arrest, Turing was forced to choose between temporary probation on the condition that he receive hormonal treatment for libido reduction (which was a form of oestrogen treatment that amounted to oestrogen treatment, or imprisonment.

He was prosecuted and found guilty of homosexual offences. In letters and conversations, Turing seemed to just make light of the conviction and the grim choice he was confronted with by the judge.

Turing opted for the castration and was on oestrogen treatment for a year, which eventually rendered him impotent. As a result of his charges, he also lost his security clearance, and was officially regarded as a security risk by MI5; this made it completely impossible for him to continue his work with cryptography.

His Death

On June 7 1954, Turing was found and confirmed dead in his bed.

A post-mortem exam confirmed that the cause of death was cyanide poisoning.

The remains of an apple were found next to the body, though no apple parts were found in his stomach. The autopsy reported that “four ounces of fluid which smelled strongly of bitter almonds, as does a solution of cyanide” was found in the stomach.

The trace smell of bitter almonds was also reported in vital organs. The autopsy concluded that the cause of death was asphyxia due to cyanide poisoning and ruled a suicide.

It is said that he may have committed suicide in despair at the way he had been persecuted for his homosexuality or that he may have been having mood swings which were known to be one of the side effects of the oestrogen treatment that he was taking.

Both of these are just theories as he did not leave a note or an explanation as to the real reason why he may have committed suicide.

In 2012, a BBC investigation with professor Jack Copeland added that ‘The apple was never tested for cyanide, nothing in the accounts of Turing’s last days suggested he was suicidal and Turing had had cyanide in his house for chemical experiments which he conducted in his spare room.’

A true cause of death has never been fully confirmed.

Awards and Recognition

Shortly after World War II, Turing was awarded an Order of the British Empire for his work. For what would have been his 86th birthday, Turing biographer Andrew Hodges unveiled an official English Heritage blue plaque at his childhood home.

In June 2007, a life-size statue of Turing was unveiled at Bletchley Park. A bronze statue of Turing was unveiled at the University of Surrey on October 28, 2004, to mark the 50th anniversary of his death.

Turing was honoured in a number of other ways, particularly in the city of Manchester, where he worked toward the end of his life. In 1999, Time magazine named him one of its “100 Most Important People of the 20th century,” saying, “The fact remains that everyone who taps at a keyboard, opening a spreadsheet or a word-processing program, is working on an incarnation of a Turing machine.” Turing was also ranked 21st on the BBC nationwide poll of the “100 Greatest Britons” in 2002. By and large, Turing has been recognised for his impact on computer science, with many crediting him as the “founder” of the field.

His LGBTQ+ Story is Important

Following a petition started by John Graham-Cumming, then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown released a statement on September 10, 2009, on behalf of the British government, which posthumously apologised to Turing for prosecuting him as a homosexual.

“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,” Brown stated. “It is thanks to men and women who were totally committed to fighting fascism, people like Alan Turing, that the horrors of the Holocaust and of total war are part of Europe’s history and not Europe’s present. So 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.”

In 2013, Queen Elizabeth II posthumously granted Turing a rare royal pardon almost 60 years after he committed suicide. Three years later, on October 20, 2016, the British government announced “Turing’s Law” to posthumously pardon thousands of gay and bisexual men who were convicted for homosexual acts when it was considered a crime. According to a statement issued by Justice Minister Sam Gyimah, the law also automatically pardons living people who were “convicted of historical sexual offences who would be innocent of any crime today.

Although this was a big milestone for the LGBTQ+ community. For some campaigners, nothing can appease the persecution of gay and bisexual men in the UK until 1967. The Manchester-based LGBT Foundation was formed in 1975 to help men come out after being gay was decriminalised.

Turing’s Legacy

Alan Turing’s story isn’t only important to the mathematical history but also for his contributions to the war effort. It is also a great example of how LGBTQ+ people, despite having made important contributions to society, continue to experience discrimination. Prejudice towards us throughout history has often robbed us of a fulfilling personal life, but also of being recognised properly for our historical achievements simply because of our sexuality.

Recently Turing has been named the new face on the £50 note. Which has been welcomed massively by parts of the LGBT+ community as a symbol of a country facing up to the way gay men were persecuted.

Prominent gay rights spokesman Peter Tatchell said Turing’s treatment was symbolic of a “witch hunt” of gay and bisexual men, which led to 1,000 being imprisoned at any one time during the 1950s. He was among those who have welcomed Turing’s appearance on banknotes from 2021.

“It’s a real milestone that signifies the degree of acceptance of LGBT people at the highest level of our society, Alan Turing is not only an icon for the LGBT community, but he is also an iconic figure for the whole of British society.”

We need to continue to recognise people like Turing to ensure that the legacy of people is not forgotten, especially when they have made such significant contributions to our society and everyday life.

Nikki Halliwell (She/Her)

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