'Turing law' to pardon thousands of gay men convicted under former UK law

The Government's support for the 'Turing law' means that thousands convicted of 'gross indecency' could see that conviction wiped off the books, including many thousands of men who are no longer living.

Melanie Stetson Freeman
A statue of King Richard the Lionhearted stands outside the Houses of Parliament on a gray spring day, on April 14, England, Great Britain.

In a rare and sweeping gesture, Britain announced on Thursday that it plans to posthumously pardon thousands of gay and bisexual men who were convicted under now-repealed laws for "gross indecency."

Several of Britain’s most prominent artists and intellectuals were convicted under the former laws, including World War II codebreaker Alan Turing and writer Oscar Wilde. Critics of those laws say that individuals wrongly convicted under the statutes should no longer have to carry it on their record.

"It is hugely important that we pardon people convicted of historical sexual offenses who would be innocent of any crime today," said Justice Minister Sam Gyimah, according to Reuters.

In 2013, Queen Elizabeth II granted Dr. Turing a rare posthumous pardon for the indecency conviction that stripped him of his job and security clearance and eventually led to his suicide. Thursday's announcement of the "Turing Law," as some call it, acknowledges the emotional and mental anguish that indecency convictions caused Turing and thousands of other men.

"Alan Turing just so, so deserves this," his great-niece Rachel Barnes told BBC radio. "To think that this is the man who cracked the enigma code and saved countless of millions of lives during World War Two and to think of the treatments that he went through at the hands of the government in 1952 is still unbelievable to us."

"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 peoples' lives," Ms. Barnes told the Independent

Approximately 65,000 men were convicted under the indecency laws, which were repealed in 1967 to allow consenting relations between adult men over the age of 21. Another statute passed in 2001 reduced the age of consent for homosexual and bisexual men to 16, the age of consent for heterosexual individuals.

About 15,000 of the men convicted under the repealed laws are still alive today, and some say that a pardon is not enough.

"To accept a pardon means you accept that you were guilty. I was not guilty of anything. I was only guilty of being in the wrong place at the wrong time," George Montague told BBC TV.

The "Turing law" was proposed as an amendment to the Policing and Crime Bill by Liberal Democrat peer Lord Sharkey, who says that although some might object to the concept of a pardon, it is the best way for the government to express its regret for the "unjust and cruel homophobic laws" of previous generations.

Posthumous pardons will now be granted automatically for convictions of crimes that would not be illegal today. Men currently living with the convictions can apply to have their names cleared. The government has announced it will also introduce a new statutory pardon for men whose cases were deleted through a "disregard process," although it does not support a Private Members bill that would grant a blanket pardon to all those still living.

"A blanket pardon, without the detailed investigations carried out by the Home Office under the disregard process, could see people guilty of an offence which is still a crime today claiming to be pardoned," Mr. Gyimah said in a statement.

In Scotland, the LGBT charity Stonewall says that it is in discussions with the Scottish government to pursue a similar measure to the Turing law, the BBC reports. The Policing and Crime Bill amendment would apply to England and Wales, but not Scotland or Northern Ireland.

Britain is not alone in trying to apologize for now off-the-books anti-gay statutes. Since 2002, Germany has been overturning convictions the Nazi regime imposed on gay men, but not those handed down since World War II. In May, the government announced a plan to overturn post-war convictions, as well.

"We will never be able to eliminate completely these outrages by the state, but we want to rehabilitate the victims," German Justice Minister Heiko Maas said in a statement at the time. "The homosexual men who were convicted should no longer have to live with the taint of conviction."

This report includes material from Reuters.

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