by Jay Bernard
Regina v Turing and Murray uses theatre and virtual reality (VR) to re-tell the story of Alan Turing’s trial at Knutsford in 1952. The project aims to not only retell the story of Alan Turing as part of Britain’s commemoration of fifty years since the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality, but to examine Turing’s place in history from a critical perspective.
The prevalence of the digital computer and huge advances in the development of artificial intelligence show the scale of the debt owed to Alan Turing. His contribution to the war effort has been widely acknowledged – it is estimated that his work shortened the war by two years and saved hundreds of thousands of lives. But his story shows in stark terms how recent the liberation of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Intersex and Queer (LGBTIQ) people really is, and how much must be done to protect this progress.
Turing was relatively unknown at the time of his death, and the official story – that he committed suicide by eating an apple laced with cyanide – has long been disputed. In the years since, his work at Bletchley Park decoding the Nazi’s Enigma machine thus helping to win the Second World War, has given him legendary status; his ambiguous death is a part of that status.
However it is also important to note the part of Arnold Murray, a young printer from Manchester, in the Turing mythology. In this project, we have attempted to give him some interiority via an immersive VR experience, in order to coax him back into the story and to redress the tendency to erase working class, poorer people from queer history in order to create an acceptable dramatic narrative.
Take for instance The Imitation Game, the Hollywood biopic that regurgitates the image of Turing as a lone genius who changes the world. In the film, the revelation of Turing’s homosexuality comes about after accusations of being a Soviet spy, instead of the far grittier truth of Turing picking up the younger man, sleeping with him, offering him money for sex, then accusing him of theft. We know that Hollywood shapes history for its own purposes, but to what end? Who is served when the very man who was in the docks alongside Turing is written out of history? What does it mean to ostensibly commemorate a queer man but to minimise the queerness of his story? How far have we really come when the truth of the matter is still too distasteful to be shown on screen? And how do we avoid the lionisation of some figures at the cost of erasing others?
The story was simple. The two men had initially met on the Oxford Road, and after a few meetings, Turing noticed money and other items were missing – which Murray maintained an acquaintance named Harry stole. In what would turn out to be a historical act of self-sabotage, he informed the police but tried to cover up his relationship. When pressed, he revealed the intimate details of what had occurred. The police called it a “lovely statement”, and he and Murray would end up as two names among 75,000 others prosecuted for sexual relations with other men.
Turing’s punishment? “To submit for treatment by a duly qualified medical practitioner”, or, chemical treatment designed to reduce his libido. He grew breasts and was rendered impotent. He was stripped of his honours and became a social and professional outcast.
It is true that Turing bore the brunt; after a month in prison, Murray got off comparatively lightly – “bound over to be of good behaviour for twelve months” – and lived a life of relative obscurity before his death in 1989.
Although Turing took the brave stance of defending himself as a gay man, protesting that there were imminent moves to legalise homosexual relations, it would be a further fifteen years before partial decriminalisation in 1967. Being homosexual was not a crime, but the acts associated with it were, and this criminalisation continued in the form of a higher age of consent for gay men until it was equalised at 16 in 2000. Therefore Turing’s sexual relations with Arnold Murray would still have been illegal, since he was under 21 at the time; this age difference between the two men, as well as the class difference, was an important factor in the trial, and Turing was punished more harshly because of it.
In 2009, the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, officially apologised to Turing. However this did nothing to address or overturn his conviction, nor did an official pardon in 2012. After further campaigning, the Alan Turing Law1 received royal assent on January 31st 2017. This pardoned gay men convicted under gross indecency laws that would not be a crime today. During the debate around Turing’s pardon in 2012, the minister of state Lord McNally argued that instead of pardoning past convictions, we must ensure “instead that we never again return to those times.”
But what does this mean today? Britain is currently governed by a coalition that includes a political party that actively opposes gay marriage and challenges the validity of queer people’s identity and relationship choices. Post-EU referendum, homophobic attacks rose 147%2, a clear indicator of the underlying resentment towards the struggle for LGBTIQ rights. Moreover, the dog whistle politics used during the Brexit campaign showed how easily the public can be persuaded to turn on minorities, to hark back to “those times”.
Although LGBTIQ people in Britain enjoy the protection of the law, as a nation we withhold and in some cases even undermine the experiences of those who do not fit into socially accepted ideas of normality. This can be seen in the enduring discomfort with transgender people (despite the recent successes of the movement against transphobia), the ridicule of non-binary and genderqueer expressions, and in the enduring invisibility of those with intersex characteristics, many of whom have been operated on as children without their consent. LGBTIQ migrants are regularly sent back to places where they will be persecuted, despite the UK’s admonishment of the anti-gay laws and attitudes in those same regions.
Many queer people still exist, as Turing did, at the tricky intersection between criminalisation, medicalisation and tokenisation. We are accepted so long as we are useful indicators of other people’s tolerance.
It’s telling that Turing’s work on computing is given more attention than his work around morphogenesis, which investigates the question of how an organism develops its shape. How are spirals formed? Which chemicals are involved? Are they internal or environmental? Turing’s strange, bizarrely naive approach to his own situation asks the same question: How do we become who we are? Why do we remain that way even when it disadvantages us?
Now we find the treatment of Turing, Murray and the thousands of others who were prosecuted shocking, and it is tempting to say that in the years since his trial we have become a more compassionate society. This is true to some extent. But we can’t only congratulate ourselves. We must also ask what injustices are still being perpetrated, against whom, and how we are complicit.
If you’re interested in learning more about the LGBTIQ community, and some of the issues mentioned then Stonewall campaigns nationally, and LGBT Foundation operates in Manchester. For further information on gender, including trans, intersex and non-binary identities, visit All About Trans, and IntersexUK. You can learn more about this project and its participants at http://re-dock.org/about.