The British government led by Prime Minister Brown has today apologized for the murderous treatment of the famous gay computer scientist Alan Turing, following a petitition by a number of well-known British public figures, among whom Sir Ian McKellen and Richard Dawkins. Not only has it indicated regret for the events, but it has in no uncertain terms rejected the attitude underlying the persecution of Turing as well.
This is an important fact, since the British government had maintained anti-homosexual laws on the books until 2003 (2000 in Scotland). Similarly, in the United States a significant number of states banned homosexual sex, until the Supreme Court of the United States voided these laws in the decision Lawrence vs. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003). Just very recently, even the High Court in Delhi has voided the colonial-era Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which prohibited “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”. Even nations such as China and Singapore are becoming more lax on this topic.
What does this mean in social terms? Although homosexual behavior had long been banned in all number of societies based on religious precepts, there was no identity of ‘the homosexual’ clearly so-called until the late 19th Century. Identity politics is a part of the politics of individualism within society, and therefore require a strong basis in capitalist competition as well as its attendant liberalism to prosper. Some historical societies have seen various social roles which have retroactively been constituted as homosexual or even transgender, such as the ‘two-spirited’ in some Native American societies or specific roles in Polynesia. Whatever the anthropological meaning of such social roles may have been, it is however clear that they are not equivalent to the modern identification of the practitioner of homosexual sex or the person having homosexual desires as a specific kind of person, a homosexual qua homosexual.
This particular identification has a complicated relationship to the liberal capitalism that produced it. On the one hand, religion is a bulwark of all existing orders, including the capitalist establishment, and as such anything that contravenes long-standing religious norms would be discouraged, simply to prevent encouraging general dissenting and rebellious attitudes, completely aside from the utilitarian uses of a given norm. This is particularly true for capitalism in its weak or early stages, as one can see in much of the Third World still. At the same time, a more advanced capitalism does not strictly need religion that much; it needs equality between religions, making specific religious norms look less weighty and normatively powerful, and it needs science more than it needs the support of theology, since it must for its continued existence exert total control over the production and application of technology. What’s more, more advanced forms of capitalism encourage individualism, which in turn creates a ‘space of liberalism’ in which individuals have greater opportunity to fully develop their own individuality and lifestyle and taste interests, even including sexuality – provided they are capable of achieving a position that materially allows this, i.e. that they have accumulated enough wealth or staked out a sufficiently solid social position. It is absolutely beyond any doubt that this particular tendency in liberalism has allowed the middle classes of the First World greater personal freedom in constituting the own individual person according to one’s tastes than in any other society or period of history.
That is not to say however that liberalism has no need for regressive norms in this regard either. The main unit, the so-called ‘nuclear family’, must be maintained and protected as much as possible, since capitalism requires it for its reproduction. This is not just because of the production of new laborers, but also because of the unpaid housework for the maintenance of labor done within the family, as well as the manner in which the bourgeois family is a cohered and inward-looking unit vis-á-vis all other such units, which creates a sort of family individualism in turn. Such a relatively competitive and isolated structure is of course the ideal basis for capitalism to thrive – as attested by everything from the happy marriage between religious bigotry and capitalism in the American religious right to the idea of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’.
Also, the imperialism that currently maintains capitalism in fact limits such freedoms for the peoples subject to it, by keeping them in suppressed and backward positions. On the one hand this means they are more likely to rely on religious forms of resistance and revolt, in accordance with the principle of the ‘opium of the people’, which in turn encourages religious normativity against GLBT people as much as against feminism and so on. On the other hand, imperialists often purposely keep even very unpopular reactionary governments in power, because the more they chain the bodies and minds of their citizens, the easier they are governed, and the less capable they are of developing any form of resistance or class-consciousness. This is no mere amateur political science: even from the days when the Royal East India Company encouraged the Indian landlords and Brahmins to maintain their old social structures to the later fanaticisms of the Tibetan feudal lords and the Afghan islamists, imperialists have had no trouble finding people with very illiberal outlook indeed to maintain liberal freedoms in their own societies.
Indeed it is telling that many of the strongest anti-imperialist movements, mainly Communist ones, have made a strong issue out of women’s rights, and even in some cases very early on favored liberal freedoms in the field of sexuality. The USSR was the first country in the world to abolish laws against homosexuality when the Czarist law code was scrapped in 1917, although the ban was reintroduced as part of Stalin’s productivist campaign in the early 1930s. Similarly, modern Communists from Nepal to South Africa and even the Caribbean have fought for and to some extent succeeded in defending the equality of GLBT people. That is not to say that this has always been a record of unlimited understanding, as one can see from the hostile attitude towards homosexuality in most traditional Third International parties from the 1930s on, but even there parties like the KPD stood their ground compared to others. It is clear that individual liberation of this kind is quite compatible with liberal capitalism, but not for everyone: that requires a stronger transformation, by current outlooks. But even if all Third World nations when still subject to imperialism provide legal equality for homosexuals, this would still not necessarily provide for any social equality or the cultural level required for the full enjoyment thereof. A better society, as always, produces a better man with a better mindset. Only if we can provide such a society will we have truly vindicated Alan Turing.
Here is the full text of Prime Minister Brown’s statement:
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.