Turing, homosexuality and espionage

By Tim Groenendyk

Professor of European History, Robert Aldrich is the author of Gay Life Stories, a volume of more than 80 essays on the lives and times of influential homosexuals around the world and stretching back as far as 2400BC. Aldrich explains why homosexuals - like Alan Turing - were once considered a great threat to democracy.

Gay life stories cover

"There was a certain amount of concern with homosexuality because it was thought to be linked to Communism. To sabotage.” Professor Robert Aldrich

For Gay Life Stories, which will be published this March, Robert Aldrich aimed not to merely write biographies from around the globe and since antiquity on homosexuals, but to compose over 80 short essays, each illustrating an important individual in homosexual history who reflected “aspects of politics, culture, society in those different times and places.”

Aldrich has been editing and authoring texts on gay history since 1992, with particular interest in the British and French empires from ancient history to the mid-1900s.

Although Turing didn’t make it into Gay Life Stories, Aldrich is keenly aware of public attitudes towards same sex relationships throughout the mathematician’s lifetime.

In 1952 Alan Turing was convicted of gross indecency for homosexual acts. He was punished with chemical castration and barred from continuing his work for the British government.

Two years later Turing was found dead at his home, an apparent suicide.

“Homosexual acts were criminal in the UK from the early 1500s, in fact until the late 1800s they could be punished by death,” said Aldrich.

“By Turing’s time such heavy penalties were never enforced, although there were still episodes of very severe police harassment and arrests and penalties for gay men in particular.

“But, there was a certain amount of concern with homosexuality because it was thought to be linked to Communism, to sabotage.”

“In the 1950s and even after, I think it’s hard for us to realise now how much of a problem homosexuality was in many societies.”

“In a place like Britain the church considered it a sin, the medical profession considered it an illness, psychologists considered it a mental illness, the law considered it a crime, and society in general considered it a vice and a source of great shame.

“Many gay people internalised those ideas and sought some sort of cure, or had to live a life of clandestinity.”

Furthermore, the Red Scare of the 1950s, which reverberated to Britain, cast greater suspicion on homosexuals. A stereotype often attached to homosexuals was that they were politically dangerous.

People believed that because homosexuals were “living in clandestinity, and had these perverted desires, they could easily be blackmailed, and seduced into working for the Communists.”

“There was a whole circle of men who’d gone through Cambridge, who had been recruited in the 30s and afterwards to work for the Soviets, one or two of them had defected to the Soviet Union.”

The British government discovered that among the ‘Cambridge Five’ three of these men - Donald MacLean, Guy Burgess, and Anthony Blunt - were homosexual.

“So someone like Turing working anywhere that was politically sensitive was considered to be just about the worst possible position for someone like that,” said Aldrich.

Aldrich acknowledges that not all homosexuals suffered in the same way as Turing.

“I think there was quite a lively gay life. Many people seemed to have lived perfectly happily lives in long term relationships, and with casual encounters.

“But there was always that fear outside the door of public shaming.”

A challenge Aldrich faced researching Gay Life Stories was writing on people - such as Turing - whom the research world is saturated with information on.

“Look into Oscar Wilde and you’ll probably find dozens of books in Fisher Library and tens or hundreds thousands of references on Google. In many cases it was very difficult to write such short pieces about people who have had many thousands, millions, of words written about them.”

Aldrich hopes, however, that this book sheds light on lesser known homosexuals outside the Western World.

“There’s been a lot of research in the last decade or so on same-sex life in Africa, Asia, other parts of the world where, of course, it has very different construction than it does in Europe and European influenced countries.”

“These people broaden our understanding of what this whole phenomenon is in different places.”