“Enigma”—“An inscrutable and mysterious person” (Merriam-Webster)
“Homosexuality is an Enigma.”—title of a 1967 CBS documentary by Mike Douglass
I went to see “The Imitation Game” on Christmas day with some of my children and grandchildren. The film is about Alan Turing and other cryptanalysts and mathematical geniuses and their success in cracking of the infamous Nazi “Enigma” code during the Second World War. The group labored furiously to break the code since the Nazi war machine was wreaking hell and havoc throughout the British Isles and across Europe during the first years of the war. But mainly the film is about Turing (played brilliantly in the film by Benedict Cumberbatch) whose instincts and intuition were determinative in breaking the code. The subplot of the film is Turing’s homosexuality which, at the time of the War was considered criminal in Britain.
Throughout the film we see flashback’s to Turing’s prep school years and his infatuation with an older fellow student named Christopher Morcom, who influenced Turing’s early interest in cryptography. Turing’s adolescent loneliness and vulnerability, both exacerbated by his eccentricity and gayness, are painful to watch, especially when Turing waits expectantly at the beginning of the next term for Christopher to arrive, only to be shocked at the news of his death from a rare illness. When the headmaster tells Turing the dreadful news, Turing pretends not to have been close to his friend, but is shattered by this revelation. The film leads us to conclude that Turing never recovered from the shock of this early lost love.
In the film Turing is shown as a brilliant eccentric—characteristics that make life difficult for him and for others with whom he works and associates. The tension in the film is two-pronged-1) the urgency to break the Nazi code–which is made all the more challenging because the Nazi’s change a key element of the code every twenty-four hours—and 2) the internal and external conflicts engendered by Turing’s sexual orientation. The first conflict drives the film’s central drama because the stakes are ultimate—the Third Reich is bent on occupying the whole of Europe and is terrifyingly efficient in doing so. First one country falls and then another. With the incessant bombings and Germany’s superior military power, it seems as if Britain’s days are numbered.
At Benchley Park, the government’s Code and Cypher school and code-breaking center, Turing and his colleagues work furiously—and largely in the dark, to find the key to the Enigma, with British losses of life and war material mounting daily. Frustrated by his colleagues’ lack of confidence in his code-breaking machine and his government overseers’ threat to withdraw funding for his work, Turing appeals directly to Winston Churchill, who, out of either desperation or conviction, gives Turing and his team full reign, including the funding they need to build their code-breaking machine, a sort of precursor of the modern computer. Eventually, they succeed in breaking the code but are compelled to keep their success a secret, even from the British military, for fear the German’s will find out and create a newer, even more impenetrable code. After the war, Churchill credits Turing with having shortened the war by from two to four years, thus saving millions of lives.
The supreme irony of the film is that Turing was instrumental in saving the lives of millions but ended up losing his own life. After the war he was arrested for “gross indecency” when it was discovered that he was involved in a relationship with a younger man. He was given the choice of imprisonment or “chemical castration” through hormone (estrogen) injections designed to eliminate his libido. Because of his conviction, Turing was denied entrance into the United States and lost his security clearance with the British government. Within two years, Turing was dead from self-administered cyanide poisoning.
The full extent of Turing’s accomplishments were kept secret until recently as were some of the details of his own enigmatic secret. It wasn’t until just last year (2014) that Queen Elizabeth issued a formal pardon to Turing—although what she should have done was to pardon the British government for its byzantine, barbaric treatment of a man who literally saved her nation.
At the end of the film a message across the screen informs viewers that between 1885 (when homosexuality was criminalized in Great Britain) and 1967, “49,000 homosexuals were prosecuted by the British government for ‘gross indecency.’” It is impossible to calculate the humiliation, the suffering, the ruptured lives and tragic deaths resulting from such a policy. I couldn’t help but reflect on the number of Latter-day Saint boys and girls, men and women both in Europe and the United States who suffered during the same period because Latter-day Saint leaders and members considered homosexuality not simply an enigma but, in the words of one leader, “an abominable and detestable crime against nature.”
Fortunately, we live in more enlightened times, but there are still far too many gay and lesbian Latter-day Saints with broken hearts and broken lives and far too many fractured Latter-day Saints families who suffer the opprobrium of having a gay family member. Just recently, I had a conversation with a woman in Utah who, because she and her husband, stated in fast and testimony meeting that they support their gay son, were released, respectively, from the relief society presidency and the bishopric After marching in the annual Gay Pride Parade in Salt Lake City, they had their temple recommends rescinded. Faithful their entire lives, they find themselves foreigners in their own congregation.
I have other friends some of whose fellow congregants refuse to take the sacrament from their faithful gay son. Just recently, I have been engaged in correspondence with a transgender investigator whose desire to be baptized has been thwarted at both the ward and the mission levels because no one seems to know how to deal with him (and insist on calling him “her”). This summer while visiting the Ogden shelter for homeless youth, I met a group of gay and transgender Latter-day Saint youth who had been put out of their homes. And on almost every trip I take to Utah, I read an obituary of a young Latter-day Saint, the details of which, though not explicit, point to a gay suicide.
Alan Turing is credited with doing some of the essential pioneering work that led to the development of the modern computer, an invention that has transformed the modern world perhaps as no other. The enigma that has surrounded homosexuality for centuries did not need a brilliant scientist nor technological wizard to solve it; rather, all it has needed is the simplest , most fundamental of human virtues—compassion, empathy, understanding and love. The real enigma of human history is why it is so difficult for us to manifest these virtues, including toward those most in need of them.
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