Hero of the Month: Alan Turing

If you are reading this on a computer, you can be grateful to Alan Turing. You can also thank him for helping save the world from Nazism. Yet Turing’s contemporaries, instead of thanking him, hounded him to death at the age of 41 for being gay.

During this month in which we have lost so many young people to bullying and suicide — a month which also happens to be gay and lesbian history month — my thoughts keep turning to Turing, his achievements, and what more he might have accomplished had he continued his work.

Turing was a brilliant and eccentric mathematician who provided the blueprint for the modern computer in 1937. He then used his skills during World War II to design a machine that broke the codes the Nazis were using to send messages to U-Boats in the North Atlantic. His code-breaking work was part of a project so top-secret, that its existence and details were only revealed thirty years later.

After the war, Turing was prosecuted for gross indecency when he revealed his homosexuality to the police in connection with a burglary of his home. In lieu of jail time, Turing was given female hormones to chemically castrate him, and he began to grow breasts. Because he now had a criminal record, his security clearance was revoked and he could not continue at his job. Turing was later found dead in his home from cyanide poisoning with a half-eaten apple by his bed. It is believed that he committed suicide, although some have speculated that he might have been assassinated.

Once the details of Turing’s code-breaking work became known, he began to get his due. In 1999, Time Magazine recognized him as one of the 100 most important people of the 20th century. Last year, Gordon Brown, Britain’s prime minister, issued an official apology on behalf of the British government for its treatment of him. There have even been rumors that Apple computer’s rainbow-apple-with-a-bite-out-of-it logo is an homage to him, although Apple denies it.

Turing’s significance and legacy deserve to be taught in every school, as do the contributions of so many other LGBTs. Here is a website that has an impressive list of notable individuals, and a quote that explains why it is crucial that we and our youth know that those individuals are LGBT:

Within the typical secondary school curriculum, homosexuals do not exist. . . . They have fought no battles, held no offices, explored nowhere, written no literature, built nothing, invented nothing and solved no equations. The lesson to the heterosexual student is abundantly clear: homosexuals do nothing of consequence. To the homosexual student, the message has even greater power: no one who has ever felt as you do has done anything worth mentioning.

We will know we are coming close to equality when the curriculum is outed and the sexual orientation of accomplished LGBTs is not hidden from students.

UPDATE: Just as this was scheduled to be posted, I saw this report in The Guardian. A London school is reporting that it has cut anti-gay bullying by offering lessons on LGBT history. The future appears to be now at that school.

Liz Newcomb is an attorney by day and committed LGBT activist by night and weekend. She has worked as a researcher at the Williams Institute. While in law school at UCLA, she was Articles Editor of the LGBT law journal. Liz lives in West Hollywood with her wife, Lynne. They are one of the 18,000 California same-sex couples who got married during the summer before proposition 8 passed. Liz has lived in California for over 20 years and brings a left coast perspective to AMERICAblog.

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