Today, descendants of Alan Turing will take a petition signed by over 500,000 people to Downing Street. The petition to pardon all men who were convicted under the ‘gross indecency’ law has clearly resonated with the public, but I haven’t signed it. I can’t sign it because I do not think it is the right thing to do. And not only because it has been used to bolster the Oscar campaign for the dreadful film loosely based on Turing’s life, The Imitation Game, although that certainly is a factor.
The petition calls for the British government to
Pardon all of the estimated 49,000 men who, like Alan Turing, were convicted of consenting same-sex relations under the British “gross indecency” law (only repealed in 2003), and also all the other men convicted under other UK anti-gay laws.
The first thing that struck me was the lack of clarity in the petition – do the petitioners mean pardon every man convicted under any anti-gay law ever? If this petition were to go through, what would it mean for the men across the world convicted of sexual relations with other men? UK laws that policed sexuality were not limited to the UK, but were taken abroad and afar during colonialism. What would the law mean for women? Women who throughout history have lived as men to be with women, who were convicted of fraud? Where do we stop? Is this a pardon, an apology or a wipe of a criminal record?
To quote Matt Houlbrook, who has written brilliantly on this subject, ‘it might be good politics, but it is certainly bad history‘
I do believe that those men still living today who were convicted under this law should have their conviction revoked and completely wiped. This conviction affects their day to day life, and will have done for decades. But we can’t change the lives of those who have already passed away. It would be an empty political act by a government who keeps looking backwards at equality, not forwards.
My fear is that a pardon would end there, with no further action. This would do no justice to the men who were persecuted for their sexuality. Why are we looking back when we should be looking forward too (yes I know, says the historian)? By this I mean we cannot alter the past (not that the pardon makes much attempt to understand the past), but we can forge the future. We can remember the men who were persecuted and strive to ensure justice and equality today and in the future.
What are the names of the ‘49,000 men’? We have Turing’s name and that is that. I fear that it will remain so. It will be the Turing Act, the Turing Pardon, the Turing story. If it’s justice we’re striving for (though I’m not sure what the petition means by ‘justice’), what sort of justice is that?
Instead of pardoning historic convictions (again, I do believe those still alive today should have their convictions wiped), why not build a monument? A list of names, permanently inscribed and publicly remembered. There is no public monument in the UK that collectively remembers the LGBT community, nor is there one that recognises the past persecution of same-sex love. Surely remembering those men who were convicted, in a public, open, permanent and tangible way will serve to remember them better? Surely such a monument could act as a reminder that we must strive for equality today and in the future.
Such a monument would also be an educational tool – and surely a better tool than a petition and pardon in striving to understand the past and build a better future.