Peter Tatchell: Homophobia still persists long after Alan Turing’s death
Writing following the release of The Imitation Game, Peter Tatchell, Director of the Peter Tatchell Foundation, explains that homophobia is still with us 60 years after the death of Alan Turing.
Movies rarely make me cry but I cried when I watched The Imitation Game. Released this month, it stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightly; telling the heroic and tragic story of the British wartime code breaker, mathematical genius and computer pioneer, Alan Turing.
As well as decrypting Nazi military codes, shortening the war by two years and saving millions of lives, the entire modern digital age of computers, mobile phones, email, internet and space exploration is based on the principles he elaborated. Arguably possessed of one of the greatest minds in history – on a par with Newton and Einstein – he was nevertheless prosecuted and hounded to his death in 1954 for being gay.
Upon conviction, Turing was given a stark choice: two years jail or chemical castration via a hormone therapy that was uncannily similar to Nazi ‘cures’ for homosexuality that were used on gay men in Buchenwald concentration camp.
Unable to cope with the ghastly side effects of castration treatment, he committed suicide at the age of 41; depriving humanity of countless future knowledge and inventions he might have pioneered had he lived.
I wept as I watched this film. I wept not only for Turing’s terrible personal suffering but also for the estimated 50,000-100,000 other gay and bisexual men who were convicted in Britain under the same or similar anti-gay laws. Unlike Turing, most of them were given no choice. They were jailed and often brutally abused on the inside.
In response to a 30-year campaign, which I supported, Turing received a posthumous royal pardon in 2013. Unfairly, no such pardon has been extended to the tens of thousands of other gay victims – not even to other high profile ones such as Lord Montague and Sir John Gielgud.
Shockingly, the persecution of men for same-sex love continued for nearly half a century after Turing’s suicide.
The 1967 Sexual Offences Act was a very partial, limited decriminalisation. It only applied to England and Wales; not being extended to Scotland until 1980 and to Northern Ireland until 1982.
All the centuries-old anti-gay laws remained on the statute books under the heading: ‘Unnatural Offences’. Post-reform they were not enforced in certain narrow circumstances. But most aspects of gay male life remained criminal. In the four years after 1967, convictions for consensual gay offences rose by almost 400%.
In addition, homophobic discrimination in housing, employment and the provision of goods and services remained lawful by default. There was no legal protection against it. Thousands were sacked from their jobs and evicted from rented accommodation because of their sexual orientation.
In the 1980s, the Conservative government’s ‘family values’ and ‘Victorian values’ campaigns whipped up homophobia; aided by the moral panic over AIDS – which was dubbed the ‘gay plague’. Margaret Thatcher attacked the notion that people had a ‘right’ to be gay. The consequence was a massive spike in queer-bashing murders and convictions for victimless same-sex acts. Indeed, in 1989, over 2,000 men were convicted under the same law as Alan Turing; which was almost as many as in the 1950-55 era when Turing was sentenced.
The ‘gross indecency’ law of 1885 – prohibiting any sexual contact between men – was used against Turing and before him against Oscar Wilde in 1895. It was repealed only in 2003. Likewise, the criminalisation of ‘buggery’ (anal sex) – enacted in 1533 during the reign of King Henry VIII – was repealed only 11 years ago.
Since the Sexual Offences Act 2003, for the first time in over 500 years, we have a criminal code that does not discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation.
Progress at last! But homophobia isn’t over yet. Only last year, to create a data base of ‘serious sex offenders’, the police turned up unannounced on people’s doorsteps to demand DNA samples from men who, like Turing, were convicted of consenting adult same-sex relationships decades ago. They were lumped together with rapists and paedophiles.
Views about gay people have improved significantly but according to the British Social Attitudes survey published in 2010, 36% of the public continue to believe that homosexuality is either “always” or “mostly” wrong. Some parents still kick their children out of home and onto the streets after discovering they are gay or lesbian. It is one of the biggest causes of youth homelessness.
All Britain’s equality laws have exemptions for religious organisations, which permits faith-run service providers, such schools and hospitals, to discriminate in certain circumstances on the grounds of sexual orientation.
One-third of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people have been victims of homophobic hate crimes. The kicking to death of a 62 year-old gay man, Ian Baynham, in Trafalgar Square in 2009 is a reminder that even in liberal London LGBT people are not always safe. Although homophobic murders are nowadays rare, vicious violent attacks still happen in London and other big cities on a regular basis.
Fifty-five percent of young LGBT people say they were bullied at school – with some of them suffering savage assaults in the classroom or playground. Despite this, nearly half of all schools have no anti-bullying programme that explicitly tackles homophobia and transphobia.
It’s no surprise then that suicide, self-harm, mental ill-health, substance abuse and HIV infections are much higher among young LGBTs than the national average.
So how do we turn things around to make life better for future LGBT generations?
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Schools have a key role to play in challenging attitudes that fuel hate and victimisation. After all, no child is born homophobic. Some become anti-gay as a result of exposure to the bad influences of bigoted adults and peers.
Education can help prevent that. I know this from my own successful talks in schools and from the effective work of education providers like Diversity Role Models and Educate and Celebrate.
They educate pupils against prejudice and get positive results. But sadly, their work only reaches a small proportion of schools.
To combat anti-gay bullying and hate crime, education against all prejudice – including racism and sexism, as well as homophobia and transphobia – should be a mandatory subject in every school. It ought to start from primary level onwards and continue throughout a pupil’s secondary years.
The aim should be to encourage the understanding and acceptance of difference, which is vital for a happy, harmonious society. Is the Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, listening?
Peter Tatchell campaigns for human rights with the PTF: www.PeterTatchellFoundation.org