Pardoning Historical Gay Convictions: Is It Enough?

Alan Turing, a name mostly associated with breaking the Enigma Code and saving the lives of millions of people by bringing an early end to the Second World War.

Winston Churchill regarded Turing’s efforts as “the biggest single contribution” to securing a win for Britain. Turing was also gay at a time when all male homosexual activity was illegal. Homosexuality was criminalized until 1967, when the Sexual Offences Act legalized private “homosexual acts” between consenting adults over the age of 21. Prior to the amendments, gay sex landed men two years in prison or invasive and humiliating hormone therapy.

Just seven years after the end of the war, when Turing was caught having an affair with another man after merely reporting a petty crime that occurred in his household, he lost his job with the secret service and was convicted for gross indecency. As punishment for this he was forced to undergo chemical castration. Two years later he killed himself.

Skip to 2016 and the government have just unveiled the ‘Alan Turing law’ which will pardon 65,000 men convicted for having consensual same-sex relationships before homosexuality was decriminalised. This historical correction is being viewed by many as a step in the right direction. But it’s not without its critics.

After the family of Turing handed a petition of 640,000 signatories into government in 2015, the law became a hot issue during the last election, with every major political party pledging to bring the law into action. However, this only came after decades of campaigning by Turing’s family and LGBT charities. Out of the 65,000 men convicted for “homosexual activity”, only 15,000 are still alive.

“A pardon means you accept that you were guilty”

Though Turing received a posthumous apology back in 2013 and many men have since been asking for the same, George Montague was convicted of gross indecency with a man and says this warrants an apology, not a pardon. He told the BBC: “To accept a pardon means you accept that you were guilty. I was not guilty of anything. I was only guilty… of being born only able to fall in love with another man.”

The Independent recently published an article about gay men with historical convictions, which details how many applications to get criminal convictions lifted were considered “not eligible”.

One example is of a man who failed to get his caution for soliciting pardoned as the Home Offices states that “soliciting” is not eligible, despite the fact that it was repealed in 2003 on the basis that it was used in a discriminatory way to arrest gay men for meeting in public places.

“Richard”, the man in question, was approached by a man in Soho at the end of a night out and before he had spoken to the man, was arrested by a plainclothes police officer and arrested for “soliciting or importuning for an immoral purpose”. This led to Richard losing his job as he failed a CRB check which his employer later required.

It’s important to remember that the Alan Turing law will always be considered a great (albeit controversial) step in gay history. However, it’s easy to see why some consider it to be too little, too late, and in some cases simply not enough.

Words // Rhys Mathews