I’m a straight male. I don’t deny that. I’m also a strong proponent of LGBTQ rights and will gladly side with them against all those who would undermine, alienate, or denigrate that community. In honor of Pride Month, I’d like to make that clearly and proudly.
At the same time, being a straight male means I can only do so much to understand the plight of LGBTQ individuals. I can never fully understand the feelings they feel or the thoughts they think as they live their lives in a world that’s still very hostile to them. Even though I have close relatives who are openly gay, my perspective is still limited.
Having said all that, I’d like to make another small contribution to Pride Month 2021. It’s not much, but it’s something I hope adds to the greater perspective of others, regardless of their orientation. During times like this, that perspective is more important than other.
Like it or not, our lives have been profoundly affected by people who identify as LGBTQ. You may not realize it, but you wouldn’t even be able to read this, nor would I be able to share it, were it not for one prominent member of the LGBTQ community.
His name is Alan Turing. He’s the reason why we know how to make the computer or smartphone you’re using right now. He may also be the reason why some of us aren’t saluting a Nazi flag.
The life of Mr. Turing may have been tragic in many respects, especially towards the end, but few men have affected the modern world more than him. He was more than just a brilliant mathematician, computer scientist, and philosopher. He practically laid the foundation for our modern world through his work.
The fact that he was a gay man living in an era where being gay was considered a mental illness only makes these accomplishment more remarkable. However, his sexuality was still often secondary to his brilliance.
Alan Turing had a genuine gift for math and science. That gift earned him diplomas from universities like Cambridge and Princeton. It also earned him a role at Bletchley Park during Word War II, the home of Britain’s efforts to break the seemingly unbreakable German Enigma Code. It’s not unreasonable to say that this effort wouldn’t have succeeded without Alan Turing.
You also don’t need to be an expert in alternative history to know that breaking the Enigma Code played a big part in ensuring World War II ended the way it did. Even if you believe the Allies were always going to win, that victory came sooner and saved more lives because of Turing’s role in breaking that code.
The breadth and details of that effort are vast. It would take too long to go over everything he did to help the Allies in World War II. Thankfully, others with more expertise than me have done so. Check out this YouTube video to get a better feel for how Turing did what he did in cracking Enigma.
It’s also through that same effort that he laid the foundations for modern computing. He is largely credited with creating the fundamental structure of things like algorithms and computation. He may not have built the first modern computer, but he created the model by which all future computers were built.
Without Alan Turing, computer technology would not be where it is today.
Without Alan Turing, the internet as we know it would not exist.
Without Alan Turing, the modern world as we know it simply would not be possible.
That’s a hell of an accomplishment for anyone, let alone someone who was gay. It is a great tragedy that Turing had to spend most of his life hiding his sexuality. He did marry a woman who knew his secret, but that was only a cover. He still had to live a lie day after day for most of his life.
It only came crashing down in 1952 when Turing was arrested in Manchester for the “indecency” of admitting to a sexual relationship with another man. As a result, Turing lost his various security clearances. All that work he’d done to help the world was suddenly an afterthought. On top of that, he was forced to take hormones to “treat” his desires.
I put “treat” in quotes because what this did to him was nothing short of unconscionable. I won’t go into the disturbing details. I’ll just say that this “treatment” played a major role in him eventually taking his own life in 1954. It was a sad end to the life of a man who gave us so much through his brilliance and his work.
Now, to be fair, the British Government did eventually apologize for the role it played in destroying Alan Turing’s life. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen until 2009. I’d usually say better late than never, but that’s really pushing it.
It’s hard to say how much we lost because Alan Turing’s life was cut short. Who knows where we would be if he hadn’t been persecuted because of his sexuality? Even if we ended up at the same place, Turing deserved better. This is a man who served his country and contributed immensely to the knowledge of mankind, only to be ruined by bigotry.
How many other brilliant men and women suffered a similar fate?
How many of those individuals had something to contribute to mankind, but never got the chance?
How many had to live their entire lives hiding this part of themselves, suffering in silence out of fear of enduring a fate like Turing’s?
We can never know the answer to those questions. The answers are probably as distressing as they are tragic.
If nothing else, the story of Alan Turing should give us pause in how we see the past, present, and future of LGBTQ struggles. It’s true that we’ve made a great deal of progress since the days of Alan Turing. In more recent years, awareness surrounding the struggles and accomplishments of men like Turing has grown.
There are still challenges to overcome and we should be ready and willing to face those challenges. Despite how it ended, the life and accomplishments of Alan Turing should inspire us to do better. The fact we can make those efforts through the very machines he helped create is a fitting tribute. So, in honor of Pride Month 2021, let us take a moment to remember and celebrate the life of Alan Turing. He contributed immensely to our modern world, despite living at a time when his very identity was criminal. That’s an accomplishment and a strength that’s worthy of pride.