Editor's Note, October 21, 2016: The BBC reports that the new private member's bill to pardon all gay men in the United Kingdom living with convictions for sexual offenses that were once considered criminal under British law will not go forward. The Turing Bill, as it was called, did not progress due to concerns that an automatic pardon would clear some people of offenses that are still crimes. The government has introduced its own amendment that, if passed, will require the living to apply for pardons.
In 1954, Alan Turing, the groundbreaking computer scientist who cracked the Enigma Code, killed himself. Turing, who was gay, was prosecuted for “gross indecency” for having sex with another man just two years before his death, and he choose to undergo chemical castration rather than face jail time. Despite Turing's high profile today and the fact that the U.K. hasn’t had laws criminalizing homosexual activity on the books since 1967, he wasn’t pardoned until 2013. Now, reports Sewell Chan for The New York Times, a new law bearing Turing’s name is poised to posthumously pardon tens of thousands of men.
It’s nicknamed the Turing Law, and, as Chan reports, it’s the brainchild of John Sharkey, a member of the House of Lords who proposed a law pardoning deceased people who were convicted of crimes that are no longer considered criminal under British law. As the BBC reports, living people will be pardoned under the new law, too—though they are already able to apply to have sexual offenses that are no longer crimes wiped from their records, such offenses will be automatically pardoned once the law goes into effect.
In 1967, the Sexual Offences Act, as it was called, was passed in England and Wales. The law made homosexual contact between people in private legal, provided it was consensual and between people 21 years of age or older. The Act was passed after the so-called Wolfenden Report, a parliamentary study that recommended that gay men not be prosecuted for consensual sexual activity after series of incidents involving public figures.
The U.K. had a long history of prosecuting gay men: The Buggery Act of 1533 was one of the first such laws and made homosexual sex an act punishable by death. Later laws softened the punishments somewhat, but men were still subject to prosecution and penalties for having sex with other men. (Despite a legend that Queen Victoria never made lesbianism illegal because she did not believe in the existence of lesbians, it appears it was never included in British legislation due to the oversight of a member of parliament.)
No present-day act can atone for the suffering of people like Turing who were persecuted and prosecuted for being gay—people who will never get the chance to live life in a more accepting society. But today, there have been efforts in the United States and Britain to bring national attention and preservation efforts to historical sites concerning gay people like the Stonewall Inn in New York and Oscar Wilde’s house in London, and the recognition of same-sex marriage in both countries has been heralded as a critical step forward.
Still, as The Daily Beast’s Tom Sykes reports, the pardons have caused some contention among LGBT activists, who take issue with the word “pardon,” which implies that a crime was in fact committed and “does not go far enough to apologize for centuries of injustice."
Sharkey estimates that 15,000 men convicted of such acts are still living—over 23 percent of the estimated 65,000 men who were declared criminals due to those laws.