Alan Turing has been granted a posthumous royal pardon for his 1952 conviction for consensual sex with another man. If this provides a degree of comfort to some living LGBTQ people, then it’s perhaps a welcome gesture – but it’s no more than a gesture.
Neither Turing nor the many tens of thousands of others whose relationships were criminalised had done anything wrong. A pardon serves no purpose for a sentence already served. It is in effect an assertion that the conviction was correct, and that the convicted is “forgiven” their crime. In Turing’s case and the others not deemed worthy of equivalent treatment, the state should be seeking, not insultingly presuming to grant, forgiveness.
It emerged this week Moazzam Begg, who sued the British government over his extrajudicial detention at Guantanamo Bay, was stripped of his UK passport. Royal Prerogative – the same authority on which Turing was pardoned – was invoked by the Home Office on the grounds that his freedom of movement was “not in the public interest”. Meanwhile, Justice Secretary Chris Grayling who signed the request for pardon, has – just in time for Christmas – banned prisoners from receiving parcels and packages.
Just as we oppose police brutality and repression against our political opponents, LGBTQ people can take no comfort in the state granting us freedoms by the same means it uses to abuse the freedoms of others.
State oppression of LGBTQ people in the UK of course didn’t end with the decriminalisation of similar-sex relationships. This is the first year that anyone who began secondary education in England after the repeal of Section 28 will graduate from university. Instead of fighting to rid the country of its shadow of ignorance and prejudice, we are having to fight its reinstitution through web filters, which are blocking access to basic information on LGBTQ health and well-being – bitterly ironic given Turing’s own immeasurable contribution to computing.
The web has given LGBTQ adults access to the information and support networks we needed to plug just some of the gaps in a generation of neglect. We should in turn demand that LGBTQ youth are allowed unfettered access to vital information about their own sexual/romantic orientations and gender identities. Simple “ok to be gay” platitudes are not enough. LGBTQ people – all people – deserve free and open access to a health service which promotes their mental, physical and sexual health.
Nor has the state divested from intrusion into and regulation of our orientations and identities. LGBQ people seeking asylum – if not told to simply leave and pretend otherwise – are made to prove their orientation in the courts. Trans people seeking basic legal recognition of their identities must pay for the privilege of the Courts and Tribunals Service prying into – and adjudicating on – the legitimacy of their gender. These submissions are no less of an intrusion than Turing’s own 5 page confession. We are who we say we are, and no government holds the authority to say otherwise.
The ceremony of the pardon then – “reflecting the exceptional nature of Alan Turing’s achievements” or not – stands in clear contrast to the reality of this (and all previous) UK government’s bureaucratic acceptance of LGBTQ people’s lives, and civil liberties more generally. There is plenty yet to be done in spite of the veiled triumphalism of today’s announcement.
For now perhaps the most fitting ministerial pronouncement to LGBTQ people past and present is that offered to Alan Turing in 2009 by the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown:
“We are sorry, you deserved better“