LGBTQI+ History Month Icons – Dr Alan Turing
For LGBTQI+ History Month 2021 members of SRUC’s Rainbow Staff Network will be blogging about someone who is an LGBTQI+ Icon to them. The last in the series is Dr Alan Turing OBE FRS, chosen by Hannah Rudman.
My icon is Dr Alan Turing OBE FRS (1912-1954)
Mathematician, computer scientist, logician, cryptanalyst, philosopher, and theoretical biologist. Turing was highly influential in the development of theoretical computer science, providing a formalisation of the concepts of algorithm and computation with the Universal Turing machine, and is widely considered to be the father of computer science and artificial intelligence. In World War II, he worked at Bletchley Park devising Enigma code breaking machines, a secret war hero.
Despite these far ranging and important accomplishments, he was never fully recognised for his contribution to humankind and computer science during his lifetime due to the prevalence of homophobia at the time (and because much of his work was covered by the Official Secrets Act). Turing was prosecuted in 1952 for homosexual acts – then a criminal offence in the UK. He accepted chemical castration treatment, as an alternative to prison. He died from cyanide poisoning (likely suicide) in 1954 when he just was 41.
In 2009, following an Internet campaign, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown made an official public apology on behalf of the British government for “the appalling way he was treated”. Queen Elizabeth II granted Turing a posthumous pardon in 2013.
So why is this important to you?
Even when homosexuality was still illegal, Alan lived an authentic life and didn’t keep his sexuality a secret from friends – many of whom were his colleagues. Until I was 33, I never came “out” at work, and as a result, hid quite a lot of my personal life from work colleagues. This was stressful for me, because it didn’t enable me to establish fully honest and open relationships with the people that I worked with and enjoyed spending time with. I only ever talked about work topics, even at social events or down the pub. Then, 12 years ago, the relationship I had moved to Scotland for broke down, and this caused my personal support network to fall into disarray for a while. I really needed the understanding and support of work colleagues during that time of leaving a home and dividing assets and so on, but hadn’t set-up my work relationships to enable that. Now, I bring my full authentic self to work, and it feels a much more honest and empowering footing upon which to build professional relationships!
Why have you chosen Alan Turing?
As a kid, I was very excited by what computers enabled me to create and make (including terrible nativity play scripts starring computers with artificial intelligence – see my picture!) As a 21st century computer scientist and digital innovations enthusiast and expert, Alan’s work continues to puzzle and excite me today. He created what we now call the Turing Test (originally called the Imitation Game) for measuring the efficacy of artificial intelligence machines to exhibit behaviour equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human.
His Bombe machine led to the cracking of the Enigma code that enabled the UK and its allies to understand the intercepted encrypted messages Germans were sending, and be victorious in WW2. Like my current practice, Bombe was an interdisciplinary research and development creation. It was a blend of techniques from many different academic fields – mathematical logic, formal language theory, coding theory, cryptology and electrical engineering – subjects which Alan researched, and then mashed up and developed with wires and plugs and screwdrivers! He synthesised loads of ideas and threw them together in a machine that he constantly improved and adapted – an early practitioner of what the IT and digital sector would call agile, and what academia and professionals would call interdisciplinary action research – methods which have underpinned all my work.
How do you know Alan Turing was gay?
Unfortunately, he was prosecuted for gross indecency in 1952 after being arrested for having a brief relationship with a man. He lost his security clearance and had to stop work at GCHQ (Bletchley’s post-war successor). The “Alan Turing law” is now an informal term for a 2017 law in the United Kingdom that now retroactively pardoned men cautioned or convicted under the historical legislation that outlawed homosexual acts.
Where can I find out more?
You’ll soon be able to check him out on the back of the new 2021 polymer £50 note: Alan was chosen over 227k other field of science nominees. You can watch the 2014 nail-biting film The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Matthew Good and Keira Knightly (it’s on all the streaming services). His academic papers are openly available online, and every time you turn on your computer it is influenced by his pioneering work. Or you could try and win the Turing Prize, the Nobel Prize of Computing and highest distinction in the sector, with an annual prize of £1m.