Monday, January 26, 2015

Alan Turing: Genius Gay Marathoner Murdered by British Government

I got a chance to watch The Imitation Game this past weekend. First and foremost I would highly suggest you watch it. It is not a documentary, so let’s just nip all the “it plays loosey-goosey with the facts” talk in the bud right here. Much of history is a series of mundane details which eventually add up to amazing things. A movie cannot encapsulate all of that and keep its excitement all at once. So, deal with it.  A movie can, however, ignite passion to learn more about, or even remember forgotten, details about history.

In high school, I was blessed to have a computer teacher who has, 21 years later, remained a good friend.  Mr. Karl Engleka made computing an enjoyable thing, long before the internet was anything but a BBS (google it, you damn millenials.) I could only dial-up (*gasp*) for about 15 minutes a day before school started. In fact, he made programing so fun I actually was decently proficient in BASIC and a few other hence-forgotten programming languages. He also introduced me to many different figures in history I might not have otherwise known. 

Alan Turing was one of them.

Turing’s involvement with the Enigma device which coded German communication finally became widely known in the 1990s.  I just so happened to be in one of Karl’s classes at that time. I learned a great deal about Turing but many details of his life remained hush-hush. His homosexuality and subsequent punishment for were one of the things I don’t remember reading much about then. Another was his running career.

Perhaps I heard about the running but as someone who was not interested in the sport, I quickly forgot. The fact remains, however, that Turing was an excellent runner.  His best time of 2:46:03 in the marathon was only 11 minutes slower than the winner in the 1948 Olympic Games. In fact, in a 1948 cross-country race he finished ahead of Tom Richards who went onto win the silver medal in the Olympics. Obviously a cross-country race and a marathon are quite different but this shows his abilities were obviously quite high.

This led me to wonder how much his teammates may have known about his homosexuality. I did some research and it appears some seemingly knew nothing about Turing’s attraction to men. One teammate said “We never had any indication whatsoever [of his being gay.] There was our dressing room, with 20 or 30 young men, running around naked, darting in and out of the showers. He never approached one of them, invited them out for a drink or anything.” This makes me question if this ignorance was actually a company line or if it was that really well-kept of a secret. Regardless, I have a feeling that if some knew (I have no doubt some had an inkling) that by and large, even in a time where being gay was a crime, it would have been gladly accepted by his running mates.

How can I make such a bold claim of tolerance in a time of little of the same? Mostly because runners and the sport of running have long been ahead of the rest of society as a whole when it comes to accepting the new. Be it gender, race, or sexual orientation, the over-riding feeling amongst runners has been “Can you keep up?” 
When Kathrine Switzer was afraid of running in her first Boston Marathon, her spirits were buoyed by so many men who were supportive of her being there. Ted Corbitt, the grandson of slaves was the founder and first president of the Road Runners Club of America and the founding president of the New York Road Runners Club. Janet Furman (formerly Jim) experienced some shock when she had a sex change but for the most part, runners seemed to be rather accepting of the choice she made. (This acceptance was perhaps selfishly made when they saw the surgeries and hormones made her run far slower as a female than as a male but you take acceptance where you can get it sometimes.)

Turing’s story is a sad one inevitably, which is where the title of my article comes into play. When found out to be a homosexual years after being one of the people who helped end World War II, he was given a choice by the courts in England: either two years in jail or chemical castration to “curb his sexual desire.”  Turing chose the latter for what was probably a variety of reasons. Around a year later, still being forced to take these drugs, experiencing both breast enlargement, sickness, and physical bloating of his entire figure, Turing committed suicide. (There is some ambiguity into his death by cyanide poisoning that leads some to believe he may have accidentally killed himself.) In essence, the same country he kept from getting bombed on a daily basis, more or less gave him a death sentence. 

I know some may still feel this was a fine punishment even today. In fact, I would bet my life savings if given Sodium Pentothal there is a member or two of our own Congress who would still agree with this punishment. But my belief is that those feelings are far outnumbered by others and do not represent those in the running community, then or now.

Perhaps it is na├»ve or revisionist of me to believe Turing was accepted by his fellow runners, regardless of his sexual orientation. Projecting views on the morality and decisions of the populace in the 1950s with a 2015 perspective can be one fraught with peril. But when you hear Turing say “I have such a stressful job that the only way I can get it out of my mind is by running hard” one can only hope that by his side were a group of supportive running friends, running just as hard. 

If nothing else, hopefully his story can resonate and help people see how just like prejudices against races and genders needed to be broken down, so do those against those in the gay communities. Keep in mind, Turing was only pardoned "for being gay" in 2013 and that was only after immense public scrutiny. Estimates for the nameless others who received the same punishment are easily over 50,000. 

When we look at life we realize in the end we all run in one race: the human race. As a society the only way we are going to win this race is if everyone makes it to the finish line together.


Tom said...

Nice article, Dane. I completely agree. I only recently learned that Turing was a runner, but have long known of his horrid treatment by the British government.

Willy said...

I had no idea he was a marathon runner. Great article. Well written.

Anonymous said...

Wow-so sad. My mind can barely wrap around this. Thanks for writing this Dane. So much is swept under the rug. I agree, the running community is and always should be a safe haven for all.