While Andrew Jackson is being bounced with much fanfare from the front to the back of the new $20 bill — to be replaced by Harriet Tubman — there is a piece of quieter historical rehabilitation at work over in the U.K.
Alan Turing, who died in ignominy and by his own hand, is finally getting his due. He did not make it onto the currency — despite a campaign between 2010-2015 to feature Turing on the new ten pound note. But he has been, if not fully, then at least partly rehabilitated.
Turing is likely best known to current audiences from the 2014 award-winning feature film, The Imitation Game. The film brought home just how significant a contribution Turing made to the ultimate Allied victory in World War II, breaking Germany’s Enigma code and, at the same time, basically inventing the computer. Many also learned that Turing was a gay man.
But Turing’s incredible contribution had already been trumpeted back in 1980 by Larry Kramer in his groundbreaking play about AIDS, The Normal Heart. Ned Weeks, the play’s considerably autobiographical character, enthuses about Turing in a memorable monologue while berating his closeted nemesis, Bruce Niles:
“Mr. Green Beret, did you know that it was an openly gay Englishman who’s responsible for winning World War II? His name’s Alan Turing and he cracked the Germans’ Enigma code. After the war was over, he committed suicide because he was so hounded for being gay. Why didn’t they teach any of that in schools? A gay man is responsible for winning World War II! If they did, maybe he wouldn’t have killed himself and you wouldn’t be so terrified of who you are.”
The subsequent guilt and culpability associated with Turing’s arrest and trial for “gross indecency” and his later suicide has led to a gradual restitution of Turing’s status and reputation, albeit many decades too late.
Turing chose what was then known as chemical castration, rather than do jail time for his alleged “crimes.” As the film so powerfully portrayed, the physical and psychological pain of those treatments may well have contributed to his suicide on 8 June 1954 by cyanide poisoning.
After The Normal Heart came Hugh Whitemore’s 1986 play about Turing himself, Breaking the Code, which was also filmed for television 10 years later, both times with now out actor Derek Jacobi as Turing. There has also been a slew of books about him.
Then in 2009, there was a hint of progress when then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, issued a public apology for Turing’s treatment. “The debt of gratitude he is owed makes it all the more horrifying, therefore, that he was treated so inhumanely,” Brown said.
Despite this, parliament notoriously voted to refuse Turing a pardon in 2012, provoking a public outcry and a 10,000-signature petition. Among Turing’s advocates was renowned scientist, Stephen Hawking. This led, ultimately, to a 2013 formal pardon from the Queen. But there was more to come.
Turing had to keep quiet about his continued involvement with GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters), Britain’s security and intelligence agency. But its current head, John Hannigan, recently apologized not only for Turing’s treatment but for the agency’s longstanding ban — now lifted — against homosexuals working there. “Who knows what Turing would have gone on to do,” Hannigan speculated.
Today, Elizabeth Fry (£5), Charles Darwin (£10), Adam Smith (£20) and Matthew Boulton and James Watt (£50) adorn the reverse side of British banknotes — the reigning monarch is in permanent occupation on the front. Could a gay man one day supplant one of these luminaries? Only time will tell.
Photo Credit: theguardian.com