49,000 gay men to receive pardon after “Alan Turing law” announced in UK

A massive global campaign inspired by the 2015 Academy Award-winning film “The Imitation Game” will soon lead to pardons of an estimated 49,000 men in the UK who were previously convicted under a now-defunct law that criminalized homosexuality. This campaign was also sparked by a petition on Change.org with more than 630,000 signatures calling for justice for these men.

This week, the UK government announced the “Alan Turing law,” named after the British code-breaking genius and war hero who was arrested and convicted as a felon for being gay in 1952. A punishment of chemical castration led to his death by suicide two years after his sentence.

Turing received a pardon posthumously in 2013, but upwards of 49,000 other gay men were still on the book as convicted felons just because of their sexual orientation. The passage of the “Alan Turing law” will forever remove that conviction from their records with a similar pardon for those who have passed. Those men who are living will be automatically pardoned so long as any offenses don’t break the current laws.

UK Justice Minister Sam Gyimah said of the decision: “It is hugely important that we pardon people convicted of historical sexual offences who would be innocent of any crime today. Through pardons and the existing disregard process we will meet our manifesto commitment to put right these wrongs.”

The movement on Change.org -- thanks to a petition started by Matthew Breen, editor-in-chief of The Advocate, a leading source for LGBT news -- was fueled by the support of many stakeholders, including:

  • The more than 630,000 signers from more than 70 countries worldwide

  • The film’s cast members: Benedict Cumberbatch, Allen Leech, Keira Knightley, Rory Kinnear, Alex Lawther and more

  • The Weinstein Company, GLAAD and the Human Rights Campaign

  • Other public figures such as Channing Tatum, Stephen Fry, Jessica Alba, Emily Kinney, Ryan Reynolds, Matthew Morrison, Lee Daniels and Bryan Cranston

In early February 2015, members of Turing’s family delivered more than 500,000 petition signatures that had been collected at the time to 10 Downing Street as the campaign gained momentum. Upon hearing of the government’s recent decision, Turing’s great niece, Rachel Barnes, spoke about what this meant to her.

“This is a momentous day for all those who have been convicted under the historic laws, and for their families. The gross indecency law ruined people's lives. As Alan Turing received a pardon, it is absolutely right that those who were similarly convicted should receive a pardon as well. It is great news for all those who have worked so hard for years to bring about this new legislation.”

The petition also garnered support from men who were convicted under the law (or others that they knew). Here is one of the notable comments among the many shared from petition signers:

Frederick Carson from Barnwood, United Kingdom: "More than twenty years ago I visited a public lavatory for the legitimate purposes it was built for and a very attractive guy about 30yo approached me and asked me in graphic language if I wanted to take part in a sexual act. Because he was so nice, I thought for a moment and said ‘Hmm. Have you got anywhere we can go?’ I would not have done anything with him in the toilet. He replied, ‘you're nicked’ ‘Come with me. I'm arresting you for soliciting or persistently importuning by a man for immoral purposes s.32 SOA 1956 & s4 SOA 1967."”

In the wake of the announcement, some campaigners were not completely thrilled with the decision, noting that the government should make a public apology to the men as well as consider compensation for their suffering under the previous laws.

British gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell shared his sentiments, “The word ‘pardon’ has unpleasant connotations; it implies forgiveness for a crime committed. Most people in society would now agree that consenting adult same-sex behavior should have never been a crime in the first place, so no forgiveness is required. The crucial thing is a public apology on behalf of the British people. A pardon is waving a conviction without acknowledging that the conviction was wrong in the first place.”

George Montague is a gay rights activist who was convicted under the indecency laws in the 1970s. He said in response to the announcement, “I was only guilty of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. My name was on the ‘queer list,’ which the police had in those days. And I will not accept a pardon.”