'Imitation Game,' Alan Turing and the Chemical War on U.K.'s Gays

Jack English/The Weinstein Company
Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

In the Oscar-nominated movie, Benedict Cumberbatch portrays a celebrated British war hero forced to endure years of chemical castration to "cure" his homosexuality. Will Turing's tragic story finally bring justice for Britain's 49,000 other gay victims?

"It's definitely not a documentary," said Keira Knightley, the Oscar-nominated star of The Imitation Game, when asked how she researched her real-life cryptanalyst character, Joan Clarke. "I'd say to screenwriter Graham Moore, 'No, no, no, that's not how it happened,' and he'd say, 'It's a drama!' " But when asked to play Alan Turing, the socially challenged, exceedingly gifted mathematician at the center of the movie, Benedict Cumberbatch was determined to imitate reality as faithfully as possible. In preparation for the role, he spoke to several of Turing's colleagues and came away with a new appreciation of the scientist's brilliant, tortured life. "To see him there, it was Alan Turing, it wasn't Benedict," Turing's great-nephew, Neville Hunt, recently remarked. "He really brought my great uncle to life."

Turing's vital role in the defeat of the Nazis is difficult to overstate. Though he would one day be recognized as a hero, in his lifetime Turing (pictured below, right) was doomed to a more ignominious fate. Less than a decade after cracking the German's Enigma code in 1943 — saving 14 million lives and making what Winston Churchill hailed as "the single biggest contribution to the Allied victory" — the master cryptologist was arrested for engaging in homosexual acts. Turing was allowed to choose his punishment: He could either spend two years in prison or submit to two years of estrogen hormone therapy, a form of chemical castration. Unwilling to give up his work, Turing chose the latter option. Soon after, a slow-release device that leaked a steady drip of synthetic estrogen was implanted into his leg. He committed suicide two years later at age 41, reportedly by biting into a cyanide-laced apple. When he died, his wartime contributions were still a national secret.

At the time, "hormone therapy was considered a more enlightened, modernized approach to dealing with homosexuality," screenwriter Moore tells THR. "Whereas in the 1940s and earlier homosexuality had been thought of as a crime, in the 1950s the prevailing attitude among doctors was that it was a disease. They wanted to cure it." The side effects of this grim "cure" ranged from severe mood swings and dramatic weight gain to loss of motor skills. Turing's colleagues reported that he even started growing breasts. Though the implant was supposed to stop releasing the chemical at the end of two years, it remained in Turing's body months after he had completed his sentence. Publicly impassive about his plight, the increasingly disillusioned computer scientist finally took matters into his own hands. "[He] went into a kitchen one dark night of the soul, opened up the kitchen draw, took out a carving knife and gauged his leg open to try and remove it," Cumberbatch says. "That one anecdote made a huge impact on me, because it not only tells of Turing's stoicism, but also tells of how destructive [the treatment] was."

Neither the producers of The Imitation Game nor The Hollywood Reporter could locate any living survivors of chemical castration. Many gay men undergoing the treatment killed themselves, and the practice was discontinued in the early 1950s. But in 2009, as Turing's tribulations became more widely known, prime minister Gordon Brown apologized to the war hero on behalf of the U.K. government. An official pardon from Queen Elizabeth II followed in 2013. But no apologies were forthcoming to the thousands of less celebrated gay men who shared Turing's fate. "When I spoke in the House of Lords I said that it would have been better to get a similar pardon for everyone … than to make Alan a special case," says Lord Martin Rees, who spoke out in favor of overturning Turing's criminal record. "I think others felt the same way."

Encouraged by the publicity generated by the movie, Matthew Breen has launched a Change.org petition urging full pardons for all 49,000 people convicted of engaging in same-sex relations under the British "gross indecency" law, which was finally repealed in 2003. The "49k measure" as it's now called, has won the support of such high-profile British figures as Stephen Fry, Imitation Game director Morten Tyldum and Cumberbatch. It's up to the government to decide what happens next.

For his part, 91-year-old George Montague, one of the 49,000, would like an apology as well as a pardon. Montague, who authored the autobiographical The Oldest Gay in the Village, has spent years protesting his arrest in 1974 for "sexual activity in a public lavatory." "Yes, I was in the 'cottage,' as small toilets were known," Montague conceded in a letter to the Ministry of Justice. "Before the Internet, they were the only places where men of the same persuasion could meet one another. … Not only were the police institutionally homophobic then, but the whole of the heterosexual community were." Montague ends his letter with a determined vow. "I have lived with this injustice now for 40 years. I am very fit, wealthy, and, at 91 years old, have every intention of living way beyond 100. I shall not give up."

Some activists believe the 49k measure doesn't go far enough, since it doesn't cover the thousands of men convicted under indecency laws from Turing's death in 1967 to 2003. The bill also does not cover British veterans found guilty in military courts. Stephen Close, a soldier serving with the Royal Fusiliers in Berlin, was arrested for gross indecency in 1983 and spent six months in military prison. He says his life has never recovered. "I had never experienced sex with another person before, male or female," Close says. We believed we were in private. But another soldier witnessed us and reported us to the military police." Close wasn't the only soldier prosecuted under this statute. Though the U.K. decriminalized homosexuality in 1967, it remained a crime under military law until 1994. Even since then, he has continued to face legal and social obstacles. "The only employment that doesn't require criminal checks is low-paid," says Close. "Because of this I have no savings or company pension. When I was sentenced to six months in prison, I was also sentenced to 30 years of hardship."

Still, supporters of the Change.org petition are hopeful that the movie will convince Parliament to make another step toward amends for a dark moment in Britain's history. Of course, the U.K. is hardly the worst offender when it comes to prosecuting gay people. Sixty-one years after Turing's death, homosexuals in other parts of the world are still subject to even more draconian punishments. In the U.S., where a landmark Supreme Court decision finally abolished Federal Sodomy laws in 2003, homosexuality remains technically illegal in 13 states and "ex-gay" groups continue to offer controversial treatments to people seeking to rid themselves of their impulses. In many African states and Islamic countries, homosexuality is still punishable by death. (Even the ostensibly enlightened UAE — home of Dubai — offered hormone therapy as a "treatment" for gay men as recently as 2005.)

While they wanted their movie to celebrate Turing and to dramatize the human toll of homophobia, both Cumberbatch and Moore know that a single movie can barely make a dent against centuries of ingrained intolerance. But if nothing else, Turing's against-the-odds achievement is a testament to the global change made possible by the expansive vision of a single man. As young Turing is quoted in the film, "Sometimes the people we expect nothing from are the people who do the things we never expect."

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