15 September 2009

Why Gordon Brown's apology matters

First posted at NextLeft and LabourList

Gordon Brown last night offered a heartfelt apology to World War II hero Alan Turing, who was forced to undergo chemical castration by the courts after a conviction for ‘gross indecency’ in 1952.

Turing famously worked at Bletchley Park during the Second World War to crack the German Enigma code machine, ultimately turning the tide of the conflict in favour of the Allies and potentially saving thousands of lives.

However, despite his invaluable work Turing was charged with gross indecency in 1952 after a relationship with another man became known to authorities. He was subsequently forced to be chemically castrated to avoid a prison sentence and suffered the indignity of having his government security clearance removed, thus barring him from continuing with his cryptographic consultancy for GCHQ.

Following his conviction and ensuing suffering, Turing took his own life on 8 June 1954 at the age of 41 – simply because he was gay.

This apology should remind us all that we must not forget the persecution and hatred faced by gay men and women just a generation ago. This apology is just a small way in which the Government can seek to atone for the suffering inflicted on so many by such barbaric laws.

It is also crucial that we refocus our attention on the international injustices still faced by so many simply due to their sexuality. With Panama decriminalising homosexuality in 2008 and Burundi for the first time in its history criminalising homosexuality in 2009, the world now counts 80 countries with State-sponsored homophobic laws: 72 countries and 3 entities (Turkish Cyprus, Gaza and Cook Islands) punish consenting adults with imprisonment, while 5 countries (Iran, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Yemen and parts of Nigeria and Somalia) punish them with the death penalty.

The apology has received a warm welcome not just in Britain, but across the world. It was particularly welcomed by Michael Cashman, MEP and Patron of LGBT Labour who has long been campaigning for the apology:

"The government's decision is a brilliant reminder of Labours commitment to equality and it's courage to put right the wrong decisions of the past. This news will be welcomed across the globe."

The Downing Street Petition had attracted some 30,805 people; the Prime Minister made the following statement in today’s Daily Telegraph:

“2009 has been a year of deep reflection - a chance for Britain, as a nation, to commemorate the profound debts we owe to those who came before. A unique combination of anniversaries and events have stirred in us that sense of pride and gratitude which characterise the British experience.

"Earlier this year I stood with Presidents Sarkozy and Obama to honour the service and the sacrifice of the heroes who stormed the beaches of Normandy 65 years ago. And just last week, we marked the 70 years which have passed since the British government declared its willingness to take up arms against Fascism and declared the outbreak of World War Two. So I am both pleased and proud that, thanks to a coalition of computer scientists, historians and LGBT activists, we have this year a chance to mark and celebrate another contribution to Britain’s fight against the darkness of dictatorship; that of code-breaker Alan Turing.

"Turing was a quite brilliant mathematician, most famous for his work on breaking the German Enigma codes. It is no exaggeration to say that, without his outstanding contribution, the history of World War Two could well have been very different. He truly was one of those individuals we can point to whose unique contribution helped to turn the tide of war. The debt of gratitude he is owed makes it all the more horrifying, therefore, that he was treated so inhumanely. In 1952, he was convicted of ‘gross indecency’ - in effect, tried for being gay. His sentence - and he was faced with the miserable choice of this or prison - was chemical castration by a series of injections of female hormones. He took his own life just two years later.

"Thousands of people have come together to demand justice for Alan Turing and recognition of the appalling way he was treated. While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time and we can’t put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him. Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted as he was convicted under homophobic laws were treated terribly. Over the years millions more lived in fear of conviction.

"I am proud that those days are gone and that in the last 12 years this government has done so much to make life fairer and more equal for our LGBT community. This recognition of Alan’s status as one of Britain’s most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality and long overdue.

"But even more than that, Alan deserves recognition for his contribution to humankind. For those of us born after 1945, into a Europe which is united, democratic and at peace, it is hard to imagine that our continent was once the theatre of mankind’s darkest hour. It is difficult to believe that in living memory, people could become so consumed by hate - by anti-Semitism, by homophobia, by xenophobia and other murderous prejudices - that the gas chambers and crematoria became a piece of the European landscape as surely as the galleries and universities and concert halls which had marked out the European civilisation for hundreds of years. It is thanks to men and women who were totally committed to fighting fascism, people like Alan Turing, that the horrors of the Holocaust and of total war are part of Europe’s history and not Europe’s present.

"So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan’s work I am very proud to say: we’re sorry, you deserved so much better."

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