Most people are familiar with Alan Turing. If you aren’t, he was a scientist and cryptanalyst (amongst a plethora of other things) whose work for the British government is often recognised to have shortened the war in Europe by more than two years and saved over 14 million lives.
In 1952, the British government thanked Turing with a prosecution for gross indecency under section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendments Act 1885. He was given the ultimatum of imprisonment or probation – the latter with the condition that he undergo chemical castration to lower his libido. Turing’s conviction lead to the removal of his security clearance and barring from continuing his cryptographic work for GC&CS. Turing died on 7 June 1953 by cyanide, 14 months after his conviction.
60 years later, on 24 December 2013, Turing received a posthumous Royal Pardon.
The Alan Turing Law – the colloquial term for the amnesty law legislated in the Policing & Crime Act 2017, which pardons men who were cautioned or convicted under historical legislation (Buggery Act 1533) that outlawed homosexual acts. I’d forgive you for thinking that this law could right every wrong the government made against gay men, but this isn’t true. These statutory pardons are only for some men convicted of some homosexual offences.
We have just passed the bills third anniversary, which received royal assent on 31 January 2017. It’s a common misconception that this offers a blanket forgiveness for the crimes of the estimated 49,000 men who, like Alan Turing were convicted of consenting same-sex relations under the gross indecency law or other anti-gay legislations. As Justin Bengry, Historian of Britain’s LGBTQ past points out, “it offers too great an opportunity for the state to strategically forget and erase history rather than atone for the damage it has wrought on the lives of queer men”.
The Peter Tatchell Foundation estimates that some 50,000-100,000 men were convicted during the 20th century. Bengry poses the question, why should the pardon be limited only to men punished by these laws in the 20th century? Buggery, after all was criminalised in 1533 – how many more thousands of pardons would be needed for centuries-worth of inhumane convictions under the British government? The last execution for consensual anal sex only happened in 1835. Should these not be pardoned and apologised for?
It’s not wildly known the number of men who are unable to be granted pardons. This includes, but is not limited to, those men whose records cannot be found (you cannot obtain a pardon for an offence which a charge has no record).
For myself, it’s incredibly significant that those men whose crimes would still be illegal today – for example those convicted under indecent exposure (which is criminal under the Sexual Offences Act 2003), -cannot be pardoned. These men sought privacy and safety in public restrooms, solace from these anti-gay convictions and it was these circumstances which they were forced into by the government. These very crimes were the product of British anti-gay laws and deserve to be apologised for, not least to be pardoned. These crimes would never have been committed if the men were not put into this impossible position whereby they must choose between expressing their fundamental rights or be persecuted by a hostile government – one which still won’t right all of its wrongs.
A posthumous pardon is problematic for several reasons. If we look at the language, a pardon is not an apology. It is a forgiveness for a crime committed and in no way implies the person was wrongfully convicted.
Turing received his apology in 2009 by Gordon Brown on behalf of the British Government for “the appalling way he was treated”, however tens of thousands of men are still without apology and many of them without pardon—some of them still alive today.
Is the Government’s posthumous pardon a get out of jail free card? When the innocent party can neither accept the pardon, thus accepting that their actions were criminal, nor deny it— therefore embarrassing the government.
Right now, there are thousands of gay men unable to obtain the pardons offered by the government since 2017, which were intended for people unjustly convicted because of their sexuality. Many of these men were convicted of ‘importuning’ or ‘soliciting’ when in reality, many men were arrested simply for looking at an officer ‘the wrong way’ or speaking to another man on the street. There was no ground for arrest for many of these historic convictions in which a pardon is not offered.
Many men’s lives have been ruined by the mark against their record, which these scared men were forced into signing out of fear, in the belief it could be forgotten about.
It’s also invariably impossible to determine which crimes would still legitimately stand as crimes today? How can the Government blanket pardon all men convicted of queer sex, when some of these cases may well have been non-consensual or involving minors? Justin Bengry makes a point that this sort of detail is unlikely to have been preserved.
For centuries, lives were destroyed; men were executed by the state for homosexual offences. “This history should be preserved actively, publicly and loudly”.I believe that the Government must be held accountable and made to acknowledge its role in the destruction of so many LGBTQ+ lives and until all of the issues surrounding the pardon, including some of the ones I have discussed above have been addressed, it will continue to trick many people into thinking that thousands of men have been apologised to. A pardon is in no way an apology or even an admission of wrongful conviction.
It should not be employed to distract us from the continued struggles of the LGBTQ+ community, and the Government’s general posthumous pardon simply is not good enough.
I am optimistic that more will be done, but the reality is that forgiveness can never be given by the unknown numbers of deceased men who died at the hands of the Government, and this should never, ever be forgotten. The world can learn from these injustices which must be remembered if we wish for history to never again be repeated.
Germany used the enigma to scramble and confuse messages. The British Government, I feel, do this very well with no such machine.
Written by Rhys Jones