Disappointingly, the push to have Alan Turing pardoned for the “crime” of homosexuality (aka “gross indecency”) has come to a halt.
In the House of Lords on February 2nd Lord McNally stated that the government had already considered this in 2009 and continued:
“A posthumous pardon was not considered appropriate as Alan Turing was properly convicted of what at the time was a criminal offence. He would have known that his offence was against the law and that he would be prosecuted. It is tragic that Alan Turing was convicted of an offence which now seems both cruel and absurd-particularly poignant given his outstanding contribution to the war effort. However, the law at the time required a prosecution and, as such, long-standing policy has been to accept that such convictions took place and, rather than trying to alter the historical context and to put right what cannot be put right, ensure instead that we never again return to those times”.
This pisses me off for two reasons. They’re closely related. The first is this:
He would have known that his offence was against the law and that he would be prosecuted.
We could pass a law against the eating of corn syrup as well. Those people who cannot afford the time to cook from scratch would know that their meals were against the law and that they would be prosecuted. “Properly” convicted, no less, with all the necessary bells and whistles propping up the injustice. That still wouldn’t give us any right to have declared these people criminals for surviving in an unjust world.
The British government, however, is clinging to that right. “He broke our law. He knew he would be prosecuted.” No mention of the other choices he faced, of course. No mention, either, that standing by this prosecution was a choice for the government then and is one now.
That brings me to the second reason this statement is all wrong: “[L]ong-standing policy has been to accept that such convictions took place and, rather than trying to alter the historical context and to put right what cannot be put right, ensure instead that we never again return to those times”.
These times have “those times” as part of their current context. Nobody thinks that pardoning Turing and others convicted of the same crime will help them in any way. No one thinks it will undo chemical castration and prison sentences or restore lost lives and careers. No one thinks the past can be undone.
We do know that regressive forces often treat the past as precedent, however. We know that there is no guarantee we will “never again return to those times”, not when there is a constant pressure to do so. We also know that this pressure comes in the form of a narrative that we’ve gone too far, that otherwise rational people have succumbed to loud protests from a small minority and done something they would never have done if they were listening to everyone. We know there is always a push to take just one little step backward.
Now, you can say that won’t happen with gay rights. You can look around you and tell us both that we’ve changed too much to put up with that. But are you sure? Do you have that much faith that gay rights have become so entrenched in our societies that they can’t be touched by our periodic bouts of collective madness?
I don’t. I don’t trust in any such thing. Given that, I think it’s hugely important that any “little step backward” has to be big enough to cover several symbolic steps forward before it gets to the concrete steps that recognized basic human rights. We need to make the step from “consensual sex with another adult” to “criminal” as large as possible in the here and now, and that means not leaving a bunch of people who did nothing more than have consensual sex with another adult in the category of “criminal” as precedent.
It especially involves not shrugging and saying, “But they were criminals”, when they come up in conversation, as though it were all their doing and no one else could do anything more than throw their hands up. That part is just inhumane.