Spoiler Alert: This isn’t exactly a movie review (if you’d like one, I recommend Alex von Tunzelmann’s review in The Guardian) but it may give away elements of the film. Be forewarned.
If you watch The Imitation Game, the Oscar-nominated biopic, you’ll learn that Alan Turing betrayed his country when blackmailed by a Soviet spy who threatened to reveal that Turing was gay.
The problem? All but that last bit was made up. There’s no evidence to support such an outrageous and offensive implication.
Turing — a brilliant mathematician and artificial intelligence pioneer who helped the allied powers win World War II by cracking the German Enigma machine code — was gay, and he made little secret of it. To suggest that he was a traitor only adds to the injustices he suffered during his life as a result of his sexuality.
I’m happy to see Turing’s story brought to a larger audience, and I’m glad the filmmakers made sure people knew what the British government did to him. So why the filmmakers’ ham-handed use of a made-up spy story? I don’t know. I’d guess espionage seemed like a sexier plot device than the reality, that Turing reported a theft to police but raised suspicion when he changed his story while trying to conceal his relationship with a man named Arnold Murray, leading to his and Murray’s 1952 arrest.
Maybe this reality was just too “everyday” for Hollywood? But this buries the important point that it was everyday. The British police weren’t looking for a spy; they were looking for a different kind of “threat to state security,” a man suspected of the “gross indecency” of consensual sex with another man.
A Self-Fulfilling Accusation
In the mid-20th century, leading professionals and decision makers in the United States and Britain saw homosexuality as an illness, a moral failing, a threat to the nation, or all of the above. In the United States, medical experts defined homosexuality as a mental illness in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the guiding manual for psychiatry, until 1974. This pathologization of gay and lesbian lives served to justify both social discrimination and the criminalization of homosexuality.
In the 1950s both England and the United States already had longstanding laws on the books criminalizing homosexual behavior — also referred to as “sexual perversion” or “gross indecency” in 1950s records. England didn’t decriminalize consensual, private “homosexual acts” until 1967 (and even then the age of consent was higher than for “heterosexual acts”). And the United States took until 2003, when the Supreme Court’s decision in Lawrence And Garner v. Texas declared all US sodomy laws unconstitutional.
Based on these assumptions — that gay men and lesbians were mentally ill, or morally lax, or emotionally or psychologically undeveloped and unable to control themselves — many in positions of leadership and in the general public believed they posed a risk to the security of the country.
Senator Clyde Hoey of North Carolina explained to the New York Times in 1950: “The lack of emotional stability which is found in most sex perverts, and the weakness of their moral fiber, makes them susceptible to the blandishments of foreign espionage agents.” In 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10450, which provided legal authority for a process that had already begun some years earlier, what David Johnson in 2004 termed the “lavender scare“: a systematic effort that fired thousands of LGBT workers from the federal government.
Much the same atmosphere dominated in England at the time. Police in the 1950s regularly used entrapment and pressure tactics to rigorously enforce the country’s laws against homosexuality. LGBT rights activist Peter Tatchell, quoted in a 2011 article in The Independent, estimated that under these laws Britain convicted between 50,000 and 100,000 men between 1885 and 2003. Notably, the 2011 article reported on the passage of a law that year allowing some of these individuals to petition to have their convictions expunged, after more than half a century. As recently as 2010, people in Britain had to disclose their old convictions under the then-overturned laws.
Alan Turing’s arrest and conviction took place at the height of this Cold War paranoia about homosexuality and intensified efforts to enforce laws criminalizing it. The court considered his work for the government sufficiently important that they provided an alternative to the usual prison sentence: one year of estrogen “therapy.” Turing agreed to this sentence, a form of chemical castration meant to decrease sex drive, and continued his research — as well as his work for the government — but always under the suspicious eye of the police.
Alan Turing died of cyanide poisoning in 1954. The coroner called it a suicide, but Turing’s mother believed, and recent work by Jack Copeland suggests, that it may have been accidental. 59 years later, in 2013, Turing received a royal pardon for his 1952 conviction. But was this a triumph of justice? It seems like things should be the other way around, that it’s the British government that needs to ask forgiveness for what they did to Turing and thousands of other LGBT individuals. Britain also continues to deny even this too-little, too-late royal pardon to an estimated 49,000 others with similar convictions — people who may not have been war heroes, but who suffered just as much under these unjust laws. Activists like Peter Tatchell, and more recently Stephen Fry and the Human Rights Campaign, continue to call for the British government to extend its pardon to everyone convicted under these laws. A pardon still confuses who should be asking for apology, but at least it’s a step in the right direction.
Andrew Hodges, Alan Turing: The Enigma, (Princeton University Press, 2014 Reprint, Originally published in 1983).
Jack Copeland, Turing: Pioneer of the Information Age (Oxford: OUP Oxford, 2012).
David K. Johnson, The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).
Carolyn Herbst Lewis, Prescription for Heterosexuality: Sexual Citizenship in the Cold War Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010).
Margot Canaday, The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009).
- “Federal Vigilance on Perverts Asked: Senate Group Says They Must Be Kept Out of Government Because of Security Risk Called ‘Prey to Blackmailers’ Tightening Laws Urged,” New York Times, December 16, 1950. Return to text.