Lessons from Alan Turing: Prejudice Is a Dangerous Enemy

He who saves one life saves the entire world.


Last weekend I went to see The Imitation Game, a film based on Alan Turing’s breaking of the Enigma code during World War II. His success shortened the conflict by two to four years. Put differently, by cracking the code his team at Bletchley Park in England saved fourteen to twenty-one million lives. Chances are that without this breakthrough, I would be dead.

When I was hiding in Belgium during the Holocaust, I knew that time was not my friend. How long could I, a Jewish-looking teen, escape the Nazis whose aim was to exterminate every Jew?

Alan Turing

Alan Turing, 1912-1954

Seeing The Imitation Game revives my sadness and rage. Instead of covering Turing with laurels, his compatriots treated him like a common criminal. In 1952 the British police discovered that he was gay. He was convicted and given the choice of going to prison or undergoing chemical castration. He chose the latter. He was also stripped of his security clearance, though he continued teaching at a university. Two years after the conviction, 42-year-old Turing died of cyanide poisoning, either self-inflicted or accidental.

It took from the 1960s to the 1980s to decriminalize same-sex relationships in all of Great Britain and the United States. Today it is still a crime to be gay in many countries around the globe, sometimes even punishable by death.

Historically male same-sex love—the mores of women, as usual, were mostly ignored—was both celebrated and disdained. Ever since the ascent of the Judeo-Christian and Muslim faiths, sexual relations between men were criminalized. Today, in Western nations, gay people are highly visible and their achievements are applauded. In certain circles, it is even chic to be gay.

Still, the acceptance of being gay people is not universal. Too many people, including well-meaning, loving parents, equate same-sex love with damnation. Currently the story of Linda and Rob Robertson is making well-deserved headlines. In 2009 Ryan, their twelve-year-old son, came out to his devoutly Christian parents. He himself was pious and willingly accepted to be “cured.” He tried, with the help of the family priest, to become “normal” and to “like girls.” Six years later he bolted and cut himself off from his mom and dad. His worried parents had a change of heart and realized that sexual orientation is something you are born with. Ryan was who he was, and he could not change. Their acceptance came too late. Eighteen long months later, when Ryan finally returned into their loving arms, he had become a drug addict. He became clean, but after a few years he relapsed and died. In his memory, his bereft parents now teach others to accept their gay children. (To read more visit www.justbecausehebreathes.com.)

Prejudice, whether it is against gays, Jews, African-Americans, or other minority groups, is insidious. It is like the mythical dragon. Ever so often people of good will believe that they have slain it for good. But then, after a few centuries, decades, or years, the dragon returns and the battle starts over again.

Today wars, racism, and dictatorship tear our earth apart. It all seems hopeless. However it is impossible to give up. History has demonstrated that protests organized by ordinary people can initiate major changes. Another current movie, Selma, celebrated the Alabama march that led to African-Americans securing (temporarily) equal voting rights. In 1969, a confrontation between the NYC police and a group of gay patrons at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, New York, marked the beginning of gay liberation. During the first month of 2015, millions of Parisians shouted that they were Charlie (Je suis Charlie”), after terrorists killed the French cartoonists. It all shows that freedom and justice are fragile, and that those who believe in their values must remain constantly on the alert.


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