“[Alan Turing] was and is a hero of all time…a man who is a gay icon, who didn’t deny his nature, his being, and for that he suffered. … This is a story that celebrates him, that celebrates outsiders; it celebrates anybody who’s ever felt different and ostracized and ever suffered prejudice.”
I usually find movie award shows to project primarily fluff and silliness, and they rarely stir deep emotions in me. But listening to Benedict Cumberbatch accept the award for Best Actor at the American Film Awards for his portrayal of Alan Turing in the film The Imitation Game two years ago brought me to tears.
This stemmed from a sense of deep pride and an endless abyss of sadness. Cumberbatch’s commitment and passion shined through on stage as he talked about transforming Turing’s story, his brilliance, and his humanity to the silver screen, helping to give Turing the long-overdue wide-scale recognition he rightly deserves.
Alan Mathison Turing was a pioneering computer scientist, and he served as a mid-20th century British mathematician, logician, and cryptanalyst who, working during World War II at England’s Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park, succeeded with his team of scientists and linguists in cracking the “Enigma code” used by the Nazi command to conduct covert communication operations.
Because of Turing and his colleagues’ efforts, Cumberbatch said, there is now general agreement that they shortened the war by at least two years, saving an estimated 17 million lives. Prime Minister Winston Churchill singled out Turing as the person whose work contributed the most to defeating the Germans.
The Imitation Game also highlights the enormous obstacles placed in the way of women entering the sciences, especially mid-century. In this regard, Keira Knightley made an equally moving speech at the American Film Awards in accepting theBest Supporting Actress award for her portrayal of Joan Clarke, who worked with Turing in deciphering the code.
“Particularly now, when women are such a minority in all fields, her story and the fact that she really perseveres, and she had space and time and grace, is really inspiring,” she said.
Though initially considered a national hero in Britain, in 1952, government officials arrested and prosecuted Turing on the antiquated charge of “gross indecency” when he “admitted” to maintaining a same-sex relationship. Rather than serving time in prison, Turing chose to undergo estrogen injections then considered in men a form of “chemical castration” eliminating sex drive. Turing took his life two years later by swallowing cyanide just two weeks short of his 42nd birthday.
I find it deeply ironic that while Turing and his team helped defeat the Nazi war machine, a nation intolerant of any form of difference including same-sex relations (especially between men), the primary “allied” nations fighting Nazi Germany – United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union – all maintained laws criminalizing homosexuality.
Under King Henry VIII in 1533, England passed a “buggery” (or sodomy) law, doling out the penalty of death for “the detestable and abominable Vice of Buggery committed with mankind or beast.” Under the rule of Elizabeth I in 1564, death for same-sex acts between men became a permanent part of English law until the 1880s. British courts at the time concluded that sex between two women was impossible and, therefore, exempted women from the statute. By 1885, English Criminal Law punished homosexuality with imprisonment up to two years. This remained in effect until homosexuality was decriminalized in 1967.
In addition, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin criminalized homosexuality with eight years imprisonment or exile to Siberia. And in the United States, consensual same-sex relations were against the law at one time in all states, and remained illegal in some states as late as 2003, when the Supreme Court finally overturned such bans in its Lawrence v. Texas decision.
In 2009, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown officially apologized to Alan Turing on behalf of the people of his nation for “the appalling way he was treated.” Parliament finally brought up a bill of “pardon” in 2013, and on 24 December, 2013, Queen Elizabeth granted Turing a posthumous pardon.
Though the English government never actually forced a physical stigma onto Turing’s body, they branded the symbol of the outsider, the pervert, the enemy deeply into his soul. This branding seriously deprived the British nation and the larger world community of his continued genius, his generosity, and the many additional gifts he could have imparted.
I agree with Benedict Cumberbatch that Turing’s wide-scale recognition is long overdue.