Eyes Closed Forever in the Sleeping Death

The name of Henry Labouchere is certainly unfamiliar to most, and yet he played a role in one of the great travesties of the 20th century.  I realize that it can be unfair to judge acts of history through the lens of modern morality, but I am going to do so anyways.  In this instance, it is justified. 

When the United Kingdom was amending its criminal laws in 1885, the major thrust of the revisions was to expand the protection of women in an era when they lacked power in any number of respects.  It was an era in which women were not permitted to vote and one in which the age of consent for sex was a mere thirteen, setting forth only misdemeanor penalties for those who would have sex with a girl between the ages of 10 and 12.  The amendments did any number of things that most today would recognize as good and responsible:  they raised the age of consent to 16 and introduced a number of provisions designed to curb the practice of abducting or otherwise procuring young, impoverished girls for prostitution.  The Labouchere amendment, added quietly to the bill at the last minute, did something quite unrelated:  It criminalized almost all homosexual behavior between men. 

The Labouchere Amendment:  Any male person who, in public or private, commits, or is a party to the commission of, or procures, or attempts to procure the commission by any male person of, any act of gross indecency shall be guilty of a misdemeanour, and being convicted shall be liable at the discretion of the Court to be imprisoned for any term not exceeding two years, with or without hard labour.

Sixty-seven years later, as part of reporting the burglary of his home by a friend of his lover, a man confessed to police that he was having a sexual relationship with another man.  He was convicted under the Labouchere Amendment and given the choice of a year’s imprisonment or probation on the condition that he undergo chemical castration.  He was to take female-hormone injections every week for a year, resulting in a humiliating feminization of his body.  “They’ve given me breasts,” he complained to a friend.  He had once run a marathon in a time that was only 21 minutes shy of the world record, and had one of the most brilliant scientific minds of the 20th century.

The man, of course, was Alan Turing, whose work as a cryptographer at Bletchley Park during World War II was, in no small measure, instrumental to the ultimate victory by allied forces.  His most important contribution was certainly development of the initial design of the “bombe,” an electromechanical device that allowed the British to determine settings on the German Enigma machines and that altered the flow of vital naval intelligence information.  While some generously consider the bombe to have been the world’s first computer, it was not programmable in the way we normally think of computers.  But it was there too that Turing had an impact, expanding on theoretical ideas he developed before the war to build some of the earliest programmable computers.  He is often called “the father of the computer” and his “Turing test” to evaluate the apparent intelligence of computers remains of fundamental importance in fields of artificial intelligence.

There is no question that Turing was eccentric and that he was socially different from others.  But when his country owed him a debt of gratitude for his impact in changing the course of a war and for his role in establishing one of the pillars of modern society, it instead convicted him for his personal and private activities, shaming him with a horrible demasculinizing of his body.  It removed his security clearance and banned him from continuing his consultant work with the British intelligence agencies. 

One of Turing’s eccentricities was his peculiar fascination with the tale of Snow White.  When he was found dead at the age of 42, it was beside an apple that had been dipped in cyanide and from which several bites had been taken.  Few doubt that Turing, sickened by what his government had done to his body, deliberately poisoned the apple and ate it as his method of committing suicide.

Dip the apple in the brew,
Let the sleeping death seep through,
Look at the skin,
A symbol of what lies within,
Now turn red to tempt Snow White,
To make her hunger for a bite,
(It’s not for you, it’s for Snow White)
When she breaks the tender peel,
To taste the apple from my hand,
Her breath will still, her blood congeal,
Then I’ll be the Fairest in the Land.

                                               Snow White (Disney, 1938)

June 23 is the 99th anniversary of Alan Turing’s birth.  A year from now, I expect that there will be any number of articles written about him and about the achievements he produced in his tragically shortened life.  We can only speculate what other accomplishments that awaited him the world was denied.  In my own way, I want to recognize his eccentricity by commemorating him a year early.

It is a sad testament on our humanity that we have in the past, continue today, and undoubtedly will in the future, misuse the power of the law to punish others for the simple crime of failing to conform.  But how much is that nonconformity itself responsible for the vision that men like Turing had in being able to see things the rest of us are blind to?  Why don’t we celebrate the gifts of that diversity instead?