Alan Turing is a name known to computer scientists, to those familiar with the history of WWII, and to LGBT historians. His efforts at the top-secret labs at Bletchley Park in Britain during World War II brought an end to the war that would have, if not for him, dragged on for years.
If you hadn't heard of Turing before 2013, you may have heard he was granted a royal pardon for a conviction in 1952. Alan Turing was gay, and despite cracking the German Enigma code machine, despite launching the field of computer science, despite preventing the deaths of millions of people around the world, despite being called the "single biggest contribution" to the Allied victory in WWII by Winston Churchill, Turing was hounded by his government and convicted of "gross indecency," because he was gay.
He was given the choice of punishments: years in prison, or chemical castration. He chose the latter, and not long afterward, Turing died at his own hands, a crushed man. The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing, tells the remarkable story of the breaking of the Enigma machine, and the ways in which Turing's own government, rather than celebrating him, destroyed his life. Turing was only one of at least 49,000 (and as many as 70,000) men who were similarly convicted of gross indecency, a crime that was only repealed in 2003. Many of these men were sentenced to prison, including Oscar Wilde. Many suffered the punishment Turing did: chemical castration. Their convictions cost many men their jobs and reputations. It destroyed family relationships, and for some men like Turing, it ended their lives. To this day many surviving men (as many as 15,000) are still living with this archaic and antigay conviction on their records. Such convictions prevent them from fully participating in U.K. civic life - from holding certain jobs, from volunteer work.
Turing was posthumously pardoned and while he was a hero, there are thousands of casualties of that terrible law, thousands of men who are not heroes, but who cannot be overlooked for justice simply for seeking out the relationships to which all people are entitled.
Several weeks ago, I started a Change.org petition to have all the other approximately 49,000 gross indecency convictions similarly pardoned. While the damage to these men's lives cannot be undone, a pardon would be some small measure of justice for these men, and it would be an acknowledgement by the UK government that the law was antigay and inhumane. And it would allow survivors to get on with their lives.
To date, more than 280,000 people from around the world have signed the petition. The Imitation Game's cast, including Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Allen Leech, Matthew Beard, Rory Kinnear, Alex Lawther, as well as producers Nora Grossman, Ido Ostrowsky, and Teddy Schwarzman, director Morten Tyldum, screenwriter Graham Moore, and editor Billy Goldenberg, have supported the petition.
Members of Turing's family joined noted author and actor Stephen Fry, Cumberbatch, and LGBT rights activist Peter Tatchell in signing a full-page open letter in The Guardian supporting the petition. Signers have also included Jessica Alba, Matt Damon, Michael Douglas, Alan Cumming, Graham Norton, Isaac Mizrahi, James Corden, Jason Collins, Julian Fellows, Lee Daniels, Matthew Morrison, Rosie O'Donnell, Sam Taylor-Johnson, Tim Gunn, Will Poulter, Zac Posen, Tina Brown, and Richard Dawkins.
Cumberbatch said, "Alan Turing was not only prosecuted, but quite arguably persuaded to end his own life early, by a society who called him a criminal for simply seeking out the love he deserved, as all human beings do. Sixty years later, that same government claimed to 'forgive' him by pardoning him. I find this deplorable, because Turing's actions did not warrant forgiveness - theirs did - and the 49,000 other prosecuted men deserve the same."
Men who suffered from these unjust laws have also signed the petition and shared their stories. Citizens across the globe, from Kenya to Singapore, and of course in the United Kingdom, have attributed their name to the effort, expressing concerns about disrespect, injustice, and human rights violations.
When marriage equality was legalized in the UK last March, Prime Minister David Cameron said about the moment, "It says we are a country that will continue to honor its proud traditions of respect, tolerance, and equal worth." In that same spirit of progress, the UK must now acknowledge the appalling punishment and repercussions associated with these convictions, and do what they can to make amends.
The next step opportunity is right in front of us. We have incredible momentum right now with the growing chorus of people worldwide calling on the British government to act. The perfect opportunity to right these wrongs is now, ahead of the one-year anniversary of marriage equality in the UK on 29 March. With this petition, I'm happy to play a small part in a campaign that can materially improve the lives of men convicted under discriminatory laws. The British government did the right thing by pardoning Turing, and now it's time for another positive step forward.
Please celebrate Alan Turing's life and his significant contributions to the world by calling on the British government to pardon the estimated 49,000 men convicted of gross indecency. You can sign and share the petition at Pardon49k.org.