June 7th, 1954 saw the demise of one of humankind's greatest minds in recent history when Alan Turing committed suicide. He only lived to the age of 41.
Instrumental in the code-breaking efforts of the British and other Allied forces during the Second World War and the development of computer science as we know it, Turing is even today recognized as one of the founders of today's computer-based systems as well as fundamental artificial intelligence research. Tragically his life was cut short due to a highly personal aspect of Turing's life, namely his affinity for members of the same sex.
After being caught he faced the choice of either getting sentenced to prison for this 'act of indecency' or to undergo chemical castration. Opting for the latter, he referenced this fact in a letter to a friend and fellow mathematician, Norman Routledge:
I've now got myself into the kind of trouble that I have always considered to be quite a possibility for me, though I have usually rated it at about 10:1 against. I shall shortly be pleading guilty to a charge of sexual offences with a young man. The story of how it all came to be found out is a long and fascinating one, which I shall have to make into a short story one day, but haven't the time to tell you now. No doubt I shall emerge from it all a different man, but quite who I've not found out.
Alan wrote this in 1952. Two years later, having undergone the chemical castration, the subsequent depression he suffered led to his decision to end his life.
By every reference and standard Alan Turing's story is a tragic one, yet a question which rarely gets asked is whether something similar could happen today. If not to Turing himself, were he alive today, then to someone else in a similar situation. Sadly, I have to admit that after giving it a lot of thought the past years - ever since I heard Turing's story - I cannot say with any reasonable amount of certainty that Western society has progressed to the point where such a thing would not be possible any more.
True, same-sex relationships are in general not illegal any more in Western societies - ignoring the areas where it's still an unhealthy idea - yet at the same time the sheer resentment and hatred which was noticeable back in the 1950s is still very much prevalent today. One only has to notice how for example homosexual men are referred to in the media. The stereotypical image of a homosexual man is one who is physically and mentally weak, is very feminine, and performs disgusting acts with other men which heterosexual men would rather not talk about. This all in light of research showing that in general homophobes tend to feel the most sexually excited at the thought or viewing of homosexual acts.
So while someone like Turing would be unlikely to face the human rights-infringing prospects of either imprisonment or castration courtesy of the British government, he would still face the public scorn and derision which comes with not being a white, heterosexual male in Western society. Every report I have seen or heard about so far indicates that non-heterosexuals are less happy than their heterosexual counterparts, with depression and an increased rate of suicide being the obvious results. One can also not ignore the countless reports about 'gay therapy' being applied in virtually every Western country, from the Netherlands to the US. This involves the - sometimes government-sponsored - brainwashing of an individual to contort his or her sexual preferences, which generally leads to severe depression and all too often suicide.
What has always hit me in Turing's story was the complete unfairness and irrelevance of what he was accused of. Even today Western governments feel the necessity to regulate and rule over both the biological sex, general sexuality and sexual preferences of their citizens. A truly fair government would not care about the gender of its citizens beyond a simple registration right after birth but no mark on official documents. It also would not care about the sexual preferences of the same citizens, nor would it feel called upon to limit partnerships through what amounts to simple discrimination. In the end Turing died because of how society treated him for something he was born with and which should have had zero impact on his daily life if the government hadn't interfered.
In contrast, when it comes to intersex individuals it's still the 1950s. Like how homosexuality wasn't allowed to exist back then with it actually being a criminal offence, so too are infants born with intersex characteristics immediately accused, judged, found guilty and subjected to forced and medically unneeded genital surgery on a similar level of cruelty as the chemical castration Turing was subjected to. It's a good indication of how far we as a society have come in the 60 years since Turing's death. Not a single step. The same mistakes are still being repeated and the innocent continue to suffer for what isn't their fault and which should never be a concern of society to begin with.
Those of us who celebrate Turing's accomplishments today still wish that we didn't have to also mourn his tragic and needless death.