by David Webb
I should confess a couple of things. First, until recently, I hadn’t heard of Alan Turing. Second, I vacillate between the notions that nothing is merely coincidence and that everything is random. Right now, I’m more convinced of the former. It was in that mindset that I saw the New York premiere of Codebreaker, a docudrama on the life of Alan Turing.
As I watched Codebreaker, the sense of connection I felt with Turing, his on-screen psychotherapist and the other people in the cinema was strong. We were all together for a purpose. I didn’t know what it was at the time, and more likely will be revealed in days ahead, but purpose did show itself.
If you, like me, also haven’t heard of Alan Turning, you should know that he was a brilliant British mathematician whose thesis laid the groundwork for modern computers. During World War II, he cracked the Germans’ Enigma machine, a device they used to send coded messages; the most difficult to crack were the codes coordinating U-boat attacks on British vessels. Without Turing, the Nazis either would have won or, at the very least, would have fought longer. Oh, another important detail – Turing was gay.
A few years after the war, Turing reported the theft of a family heirloom to the police, along with the name of the man he suspected, the friend of a lover. Instead of investigating the theft, authorities charged Turing with “gross indecency,” the legal term for sodomy laws in the UK. To avoid jail time, he pled guilty and was sentenced to be “treated” for his homosexuality. For two years, he was forced to take synthetic estrogen, effectively causing chemical castration. After his body failed to return to normal, he committed suicide.
Before the movie, I told a friend what I was doing, along with the movie’s synopsis. She remarked, “Sometimes people just absolutely disgust me.” I felt her frustration. Here was a man who recorded the theories of mechanical computation, developed binary code and played an integral role in defeating the Nazis. But egad! He loved men. Punish him! Cure him!
What a terrible waste. Everyone in the audience expressed disgust at the film’s end when it was revealed that, in September 2009, the British government finally apologized for Turing’s treatment. Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s official statement included this: “Sorry. We should have treated you better.” Seems a bit too little too late, doesn’t it?
Ah, but back to the purpose. During the Q&A with the film’s Executive Producer, Patrick Sammon, a young gentleman behind me shared in a quaking voice that he had been sent to reparative therapy in California to be “cured” of his homosexuality and how grateful he was that Governor Jerry Brown recently signed legislation banning this barbaric treatment in his state. He concluded with the determination that New York must follow suit and that it shouldn’t be allowed anywhere. When he finished, everyone applauded.
Alan Turing solved one enigma and was done in by another. As his story is told, heard and shared by more and more, perhaps his example will solve the enigma of ignorant, mean-spirited homophobia by those who would rather “cure” what’s not broken than break the code of living in harmony.