Passport

Britain Will Pardon 65,000 Gay Men in Law Named for Famous Mathematician

Not all of them think a pardon is enough.

A rare manuscript (R) belonging to British mathematician and code breaker Alan Turing (L, depicted on a poster) is displayed in Hong Kong on March 19, 2015. The handwritten notebook from the early 1940s gives an intimate insight into the "father of the modern computer" and was shown ahead of an auction in New York where it is expected to fetch at least one million USD.  AFP PHOTO / Philippe Lopez        (Photo credit should read PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
A rare manuscript (R) belonging to British mathematician and code breaker Alan Turing (L, depicted on a poster) is displayed in Hong Kong on March 19, 2015. The handwritten notebook from the early 1940s gives an intimate insight into the "father of the modern computer" and was shown ahead of an auction in New York where it is expected to fetch at least one million USD. AFP PHOTO / Philippe Lopez (Photo credit should read PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

In 1942, British mathematician Alan Turing cracked the Nazi’s Enigma cipher machine — a coded communications method that the Germans thought unbreakable. Ten years later, the hero who helped spy on Nazis and win the war on German U-Boats was found guilty of having sex with a man — a crime in Britain at the time. He was punished with chemical castration and killed himself with cyanide two years later.

Homosexual acts between men ages 21 and older were decriminalized in England in 1967, though not in Scotland until 1980 or northern Ireland until 1982. The age of consent didn’t drop to 16 to match that of heterosexuals until 2001. (In Ireland, homosexuality was no decriminalized until 1993, and voters there approved gay marriage in a landslide referendum vote last year.) And in 2013, Turing was posthumously pardoned from the guilty verdict that ultimately prompted him to take his life.

Now, a law passed in his name will pardon the tens of thousands of other men whose sexuality led to them being charged with crimes during the days that it was considered illegal.

“A pardon is probably the best way of acknowledging the real harm done by the unjust and cruel homophobic laws, which thankfully we’ve now repealed,” lawmaker John Sharkey, who proposed the amendment, said on Thursday. “And I do hope that a lot of people will feel exactly the same way.”

But not everybody does. George Montague is one of some 65,000 British men convicted under the laws that criminalized homosexual acts, and one of 15,000 still alive to see the amendment pass into law.

In 1974, he was convicted of gross indecency with a man. But he told the BBC on Thursday that “to accept a pardon means you accept that you were guilty.”

“I think it was wrong to give Alan Turing — one of the heroes of my life — a pardon,” Montague said. “What was he guilty of? He was guilty of the same as what they called me guilty of – being born only able to fall in love with another man.”

Still, the British government says the move is one part of the process toward reconciling with Britain’s now-defunct laws that mistreated homosexuals.

“It is hugely important that we pardon people convicted of historical sexual offenses who would be innocent of any crime today,” said Justice Minister Sam Gyimah.

Photo credit: PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images

Siobhán O’Grady is a freelance journalist working across sub-Saharan Africa. She previously worked as a staff writer at Foreign Policy. @siobhan_ogrady

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