Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Summer 2004

Unburying the Evidence

by Brett Humphreys

I first became aware of Alan Turing’s sexuality during the academic year 1973/74 when I was a student of computer science at the University of Warwick. I already knew of Turing as a pioneer of the mathematical logic underlying the theory of computation, his name immortalised in the phrase “Turing machine”, but one day the professor spoke in personal terms of the great man, whom he had once observed sitting characteristically inconspicuously in the audience at a lecture: Alan Turing was homosexual; his life had been tragically cut short by suicide. For me, then just in the process of coming out, the revelation was electrifying.

Later, in the university library, I discovered Alan Turing’s biography, written by his mother, Sara Turing, and published in 1959. It was a sad disappointment. Not only was there no acknowledgment of either homosexuality or suicide, but it seemed as if Alan Turing hardly had any personality at all.

Some time during the next few years I acquired a copy of a gay liberation booklet entitled With Downcast Gays: Aspects of Homosexual Self-Oppression, by Andrew Hodges and David Hutter – memorable for its castigation of E. M. Forster for not coming out during his lifetime – but it was only with the publication of Alan Turing: the Enigma in 1983 that a link between Andrew Hodges and Alan Turing became apparent. (In one of those odd coincidences that Hodges so delights in, it also turns out that Alan Turing’s first lover, James Atkins, later became David Hutter’s long-term partner.)

In fact, Andrew Hodges conceived this remarkable book in 1977, going on to spend two years of meticulous full-time research on it between 1978 and 1980. The time was right. The secrecy shrouding wartime intelligence activities had begun to lift during the years leading up to the publication in 1979 of the first volume of Harry Hinsley’s official history British Intelligence in the Second World War. At the same time, homosexuality had become thoroughly mentionable in a way that was unthinkable twenty years earlier. And yet most of Alan Turing’s close associates were still around to give their account of events, although a growing number, including his mother, were already dead.

In piecing together the jigsaw of evidence, Andrew Hodges constructed a consistent, if inevitably incomplete, picture in which Alan Turing’s personality emerges through the interaction of a number of traits: his exceptional intelligence; his sexuality; his independence of mind and disregard for the mist of social conventions and shared beliefs that envelops most people; his openness and honesty; his untidiness; his lack of coordination of mind and body, epitomised by his erratic speech and sometimes barely legible handwriting.

Alan Turing’s exceptional intelligence was evident to those around him. He would astound people by instantly seeing the solution to a problem that others had been grappling with for days. It was this type of insight that led him in 1936, at the age of 23, to produce his magnum opus, On computable numbers with an application to the Entscheidungsproblem. In it he set out his theory of computability, and in the process solved one of the great outstanding questions of mathematics – the so-called Entscheidungsproblem (“decision problem”) posed by the leading German mathematician David Hilbert in 1928.

Far less evident to most of Alan Turing’s contemporaries was his sexual orientation, but Andrew Hodges has succeeded in unburying evidence of it in every chapter of his life from his mid-teens onwards. Alan had secretly fallen in love with Christopher Morcom, a fellow pupil at Sherborne School, and was building a friendship with him when Christopher suddenly died at the age of 18 from the latent effects of childhood tuberculosis contracted from infected milk.

In Andrew Hodges’ view, the trauma of Christopher’s death was pivotal to Alan’s subsequent development. Over the following years he thought deeply about questions of free will and determinism, body and spirit. On a visit to the Morcom family home, the Clock House at Fockbury in Worcestershire, he wrote a short essay on “The Nature of Spirit” in which it is clear that he still believed in spirits capable of existing independently of bodies. Perhaps he was imbued with the spirit of another notable gay atheist, A. E. Housman, who had lived for a time in the same house (then known as Fockbury House) over half a century earlier, because by 1936 “He would soon emerge as a forceful exponent of the materialist view and identify himself as an atheist. Christopher Morcom had died a second death and Computable Numbers marked his passing.”

Alan Turing’s independence and disdain for social convention did not always work to his advantage. In his post-war work on the ACE computer project at the National Physical Laboratory he was full of vision but frustrated by his inability to manipulate the bureaucratic system to achieve the results he wanted.

In the end, it seems that a combination of honesty and social naivety contributed to his downfall. When detectives turned up at his home in Wilmslow one day in February 1952 to question him about having had sex with a friend in the privacy of his own home, honesty was hardly a sensible option in all the circumstances (see Rex Batten’s article A Pest To Society, G&LH, Winter 2003-2004). But he told them everything and suffered the consequences. The connection, if any, between his death in June 1954 and his sexuality remains an enigma.

Alan Turing: the Enigma is not merely a detailed factual biography, but an interpretation of Alan Turing’s life in the context of the particular society and environment in which he lived. In addition, Andrew Hodges has permitted himself a few liberties: each chapter is headed by an epigraph taken from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and the main text is occasionally interwoven with allegorical strands based on works such as Back to Methuselah, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Wizard of Oz, and above all Through the Looking Glass. Intriguingly, in all this, Alan Turing is cast in the role of the innocent girl: Dorothy, Alice, and ultimately Snow White biting on the poisoned apple.

For some years now, the Alan Turing Website has provided what is in effect an online supplement to the book in the form of the Alan Turing Internet Scrapbook, which now runs to some 30 web pages. More recently, Andrew Hodges has introduced two further sections to the site. One is a series of more formal corrections and updates to the text of the book itself. The other is a selection of edited extracts from the book – currently three of them with an intention to increase the number to 16. Read here about Christopher Morcom, for example.

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Created : Sunday, 2004-08-15 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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