Last month marked the 20th anniversary of the landmark Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms case, (Delwyn) Vriend v. Alberta. There was some fine reporting in the Edmonton Journal and elsewhere on the case, including where Delwyn Vriend is now and what his experiences have been in the struggle to see gay rights entrenched in Alberta’s human rights legislation. Readers will gain an appreciation of what a long and arduous struggle is entailed in raising a Charter challenge, involving decisions by three levels of court, over a period of many years, culminating in Vriend in a ringing affirmation of the existence of gay and lesbian rights under s. 15 – the equality rights provision. The decision also removed any doubts about the positive duty to include protection for these rights in a human rights statute.
In 1990, about the time that Delwyn Vriend’s legal journey was just getting started, I attended the Citadel Theatre’s production of Breaking the Code, by Hugh Whitmore. It was directed by Bob Baker and rarely have I seen such a searing drama on an Edmonton stage. It was based on the life of the brilliant British computer scientist and pioneer, Alan Turing. The play can be viewed on DVD or on the web and is well worth watching or reading.
The British government responded with the “Turing Law” which was enacted in 2017. Pardons are extended to all gay men who had convictions for gross indecency and related offences as a result of consensual acts with those over 16.The play was first presented in 1986 in London by the Theatre Royal and starred Derek Jacobi as Turing and Isobel Dean as his mother, Sara. The BBC later produced a version for television, again starring Jacobi. In 1986 and again here in Edmonton in 1990, it was surely the case that most of us knew very little about Alan Turing. He was truly a mystery in British society on several levels. First, we learned during the production that he was the computer scientist with the key responsibility for decoding the German Enigma Code in the heroic days of World War II when the fate of the free world hung in the balance. Turing and his team were absolutely essential to the Allied war effort and their work saved countless lives. His work, though, would have gone largely unrecognized during his lifetime. His tragic death followed two years after his conviction for homosexual offences.
The play is one of the relatively rare examples of a successful modern tragedy. As Aristotle has so helpfully explained, tragedy is essentially the art form whereby an elevated figure is brought low by a series of events, shaped by an archenemy, which bring about his or her downfall. It is evident from the plots of Classical and Shakespearean tragedy that the figures are leaders of their societies, possessing many virtues but at least one significant flaw. Further, we are made aware that the eventual destruction of the hero foreshadows some major harm to the society in which they rule or otherwise play a leading role. The challenge for modern tragedy in the Western world is for the playwright to embed within the dramatic action a citizen in contemporary democracies who possesses rare qualities without in fact displaying the obvious heroic grandeur of an Oedipus Rex or a Cleopatra.
Turing is no doubt an unconventional “hero”, but as the play progresses we learn of his brilliant work as a computer scientist in World War II, who possesses the determination and spirit of critical inquiry that enable him to achieve remarkable breakthroughs. Yet like his classical counterparts, the quiet but compelling man has a deep flaw. It is quite likely linked to his autism – he simply must tell the truth and seems to think little of the consequences. The central scenes occur in the local police station in Manchester in the north of England where he has gone to report a robbery that took place at his home. He naively indicates that he is in a homosexual relationship. The officer is unwilling to drop the matter – the interviewee has admitted to committing a criminal offence. As one can imagine, British society was particularly hypocritical in many respects in its treatment of homosexuality. A number of writers, politicians, lawyers and other professional men were in fact gay but were extremely discreet. Others who committed their acts in places where the police might locate them were not only charged, but faced serious consequences – jail time and loss of employment and reputation. Indeed, in the very era when the play is set, the Home Secretary was specifically directing that police forces across Britain vigorously enforce the law.
At trial, there is little counsel can do for his unfortunate client. His client has admitted his guilt and to avoid jail, Turing is provided with the option of taking chemicals to end all sexual desire – that is, of accepting chemical castration. The worried man accepts the offer but is shown drifting further and further into despair.
As one can imagine, British society was particularly hypocritical in many respects in its treatment of homosexuality. Another element of Turing’s life that is interwoven into the drama is his involvement with the British Secret Service. His stellar war record has led to offers to do some part-time work in peacetime. A by-the-book intelligence officer interviews Turing at various points and we see the continuing dangers that Turing’s unfortunate propensity to tell the truth, the whole truth, has created. It becomes clear that his actions and travel arrangements will be carefully monitored and attempts to travel to the Continent freely will be reviewed and quite likely denied.
The play ends with one final scene after Turing’s shocking death – as Ross, the investigating officer, meets with the hero’s mother, Sara. She poignantly recalls the incredible efforts he made to attend university and excel there, as prelude to a marvelous career. A debate follows as to whether or not he did in fact commit suicide, which I note as an aside, remained a criminal offence at the time.
Whitmore’s play successfully dramatizes this mysterious hero’s life and layers the investigation with dialogue revealing the unique quality of his mind and its ability to work through to the last possibility the prospects for establishing the truth of his theories.
Turing is no doubt an unconventional “hero”, but as the play progresses we learn of his brilliant work as a computer scientist in World War II, who possesses the determination and spirit of critical inquiry that enable him to achieve remarkable breakthroughs. English law has gradually moved toward equal treatment of gay men. In 2013, after a petition was delivered to the government, a posthumous pardon was issued for Turing. A further petition, which gathered 640,000 signatures, was launched in 2015, calling for a much wider pardon for all gay men who had been unjustly convicted. The British government responded with the “Turing Law” which was enacted in 2017. Pardons are extended to all gay men who had convictions for gross indecency and related offences as a result of consensual acts with those over 16. Commenting specifically on the pardon for the great Bletchley Park code breaker, Turing’s great niece Rachel Barnes stated on a televised program: “[He] so, so deserves this. To think that this 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 …in 1952 is still unbelievable to us.” She also emphasized that it is vital to think about her great uncle as a man who achieved much in his life, rather than simply as a gay man who was victimized.
It is appropriate here to invoke the statement attributed to Martin Luther King, that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but bends toward justice.” We do have to stop every once and a while to reflect on the capacity of societies like Britain’s and Canada’s to progress towards greater equality and understanding, even if in the cases of men like Turing and, in recent times, Delwyn Vriend, it takes much longer than we would think possible.