Alan Turing’s family fights to correct a historical injustice

The 2015 Oscar winner “The Imitation Game” tells the story of British mathematician Alan Turing, whose early computer helped the allies win World War II. But the movie also brings attention to the anti-sodomy laws that drove Turing to suicide. Jeffrey Brown speaks with Peter Tatchell of the Peter Tatchell Foundation about getting justice for others convicted under the same laws.

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    The Academy Awards often serve as a spotlight for a variety of political and social issues. That was certainly true again last night. And one of the tributes made during the ceremony, to code-breaker Alan Turing and his legacy for modern times, spurred more calls to correct a historical injustice today.

    Jeffrey Brown has the story.


    "The Imitation Game" tells how British mathematician Alan Turing built an early computer to crack the German code and helped allied forces win World War II.

    It also shows how Turing, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, suffered under Britain's anti-homosexual laws in the 1950s, and was forced to take hormone therapy as punishment.

    BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH, "The Imitation Game": Chemical castration to cure me of my homosexual predilections.


    Alan Turing died at age 41, an apparent suicide.

    In November, Cumberbatch told me how Turing's story had moved him.


    The reality of what then happened to him in the '50s hits you, and you're winded with emotion of this injustice this man who was served by the very government and democracy he had saved from fascism with estrogen injections to cure his homosexuality, which was punishable by either that or imprisonment, and I was really upset, and then angry.

    OPRAH WINFREY, Host, "The Oprah Winfrey Show": Graham Moore, "The Imitation Game."


    Last night, Graham Moore, the film's screenwriter, won the Oscar for best adapted screenplay. Moore, who later said he himself is not gay, spoke of his own sense of alienation as a teen and even a suicide attempt.


    Because I felt weird, and I felt different, and I felt like I didn't belong. And now I'm standing here. And so I would like for this moment to be for that kid out there who feels like she's weird, or she's different, or she doesn't fit in anywhere. Yes, you do. I promise, you do. You do. Stay weird. Stay different.


    Alan Turing received a posthumous pardon from Queen Elizabeth in 2013, and the film has brought new awareness to this side of British history.

    And today brought a new step, as Alan Turing's family presented the British government with a petition to pardon 49,000 others convicted under the same anti-sodomy law.

    And one of the activists behind that effort, Peter Tatchell, joins us now from London.

    Fill us in, briefly, if you would. The Turing case took place in the 1950s, but the law that he was convicted under and others have a longer history?

  • PETER TATCHELL, Human Rights Activist:


    Anti-gay laws in Britain go back centuries, and they were not finally repealed until 2003. There was a partial decriminalization in 1967, but it was very, very limited. Most aspects of gay male life remain criminalized.

    So, from the 19th century, when records proper began, until 2003, it's estimated that somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 men in Britain were convicted for consenting adult same-sex relations. And what we're saying is that not only should Alan Turing rightly have been pardoned, but all these other men should also be pardoned and the government should issue an apology for the suffering they endured.


    How much effort went into the pardoning of Alan Turing? What did that take?


    It was a long campaign. We had got an apology from the government initially for his persecution. And that was foiled up with the royal pardon.

    We're now saying that should be extended to others who were convicted under the same law or one of the other anti-gay laws that also existed. At the moment, the government is holding out against an extended apology and pardon. We don't believe that's right. We do support and applaud the government for apologizing and giving a pardon to Alan Turing.

    But if his conviction was unjust, so too was the conviction of all these other men. And let's not forget, not only did they suffer a convictions. Many of them were jailed. Nearly all of them suffered other consequences, like being sacked from their jobs, being evicted from their homes, the breakup of their marriages, mob and vigilante attacks, and even in some cases suicide.

    So it was a very, very heavy price, and we believe justice must be done for all these men, not just Alan Turing.


    What is the government response so far? I mean, I assume that this would require going through case by case into the many thousands, right?


    Well, that's right.

    What we have proposed is that under a royal pardon procedure, any man who was convicted, all their partner, family, loved ones or even a third party should have a right to apply for a royal pardon. And then each case would be assessed on its individual merits.

    But we are very confident that the vast majority of all these tens of thousands of men were unjustly convicted under laws that didn't apply to heterosexual men and women and some of them didn't even involve sex. They just merely involved two men meeting in the street, exchanging names and phone numbers. That was a criminal offense until 2003, punishable by up to two years imprisonment.

    So there are many other cases beyond sex that also need to be overturned.


    And just finally, very briefly, if you would, do you think that the movie, that the more awareness from the Turing story is going to make a difference now?


    Well, there's no doubt that the movie has already made a huge difference.

    Off the back of the movie, we have collected within about a month over half-a-million signatures, which is probably one of the biggest petitions ever presented to the British government on any issue. So there quite clearly is a public groundswell that this is a grave injustice, and it must be rectified, that all these men, not just Alan Turing, all these men deserve a pardon.

    And we are hopeful that eventually the British government will see sense and recognize that that is the right thing to do.


    All right, Peter Tatchell from London, thank you so much.


    Thank you.

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