January 27, 2015
There’s a particularly pedantic moment in the particularly pedantic film The Normal Heart, a cinematic rendering of Larry Kramer’s play about his role in the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. Ned Weeks, a thinly-disguised version of Kramer, delivers a speech that seemed to presage the more recent film, The Imitation Game, about Alan Turing.
Did you know that it was an openly gay Englishman who's responsible for winning World War II? His name's Alan Turing and he cracked the Germans' Enigma code. After the war was over, he committed suicide because he was so haunted for being gay. Why don't they teach any of that in schools? A gay man is responsible for winning World War II. If they did maybe he wouldn't have killed himself and you wouldn't be so terrified of who you are.
The gay community is notoriously bad at history, reinventing actual events or blatantly mislabeling them in its relentless quest for respectability, a desire to prove that gay are the most persecuted minority on the planet, and an ongoing effort to tie everything possibly gay to the larger agenda towards gay marriage. So, it’s no surprise that Weeks’/Kramer’s version of Turing’s signficance and life is so skewed.
But Turing was not openly gay in the sense that we understand it today. Like many men of his time, whose lives were ruined when police discovered or entrapped them in alley or back room blowjobs, he was found guilty of charges of public indecency and it is quite likely that his career opportunities were severely curtailed thereafter. According to Anthony Hodges, whose Turing biography forms the basis of the new film, he never denied being gay and insisted he had done nothing wrong. But all of that is a far cry from being “openly gay” in the way we understand it, and to call him that is anachronistic and self-serving.
Weeks/Kramer goes on to insist that there is some historical connection between children not being taught Kramer’s histrionic history of Turing and what he identifies, with a viciousness that is typical of Kramer, as the self-loathing of the gay men around him (the scene involves all of them expelling him from Gay Men’s Health Crisis, an organisation he helped found). Weeks/Kramer places a high premium on “openly gay” men, ignoring the various and brutal systemic reasons that many men and women, not born into Kramer’s wealth and privilege (he comes from and is still part of a very wealthy family), may not choose to be out. In this vision of the world, where every gay man has a responsibility to be out regardless of the consequences, those who are still closeted are craven and cowardly while the others are brave outliers.
It’s not, of course, enough for Weeks/Kramer that Turing be misidentified as “openly gay;” the burden of history is made even more onerous by the blanket statement that he was “responsible for winning World War II.” In fact, there was no such thing, and such a summation reduces everything about a long, ugly war in which the goodies and baddies can be identified so clearly in large part because, well, the presence of Hitler and genocide make it difficult to think about it any other terms.
Winning a war with long embedded histories does not come about because of a singular man or action but Weeks’/Kramer’s inability to conceive of a gay identity outside a rigid framework of sex and desire demands nothing less than a simply rendered gay hero. There’s also a causality ascribed to all this, a clear and unbroken line leading from Alan Turing to the men standing around Ned Weeks circa 1980: as if somehow history itself would have been dramatically changed if schoolchildren knew Turing had been gay.
The Imitation Game extends the idea of Turing’s role even further than Weeks/Kramer does, by building upon the myth touched upon in this speech: that Turing is the father of the modern computer.
To be fair, such myth-making is hardly unique to what passes for gay history; Doris Kearns Goodwin and others regularly traffic in the “Great Man” version of history. Science, especially as it is taught to the schoolchildren invoked by Weeks/Kramer, is usually presented as a history of exceptional men toiling away in solitary genius; the very idea of “invention” is deeply embedded in the notion that a product or a theory can be located somewhere in the mental recesses of a particular man (and it is nearly always men who get credit for being scientific geniuses).
But as we know even from a cursory look at the history of the “discovery” of the AIDS virus, research springs back and forth, shuffling, halting, and starting again in sometimes several locations at once. Our investment in the idea of singular men creating singular inventions is rooted in a long-standing intellectual and cultural tradition that fetishises individuality. More significantly, it’s rooted in a capitalist production of science as a giant money-making venture which makes it impossible to think outside the idea of patents and huge, massive profits accruing to singular entities: Corporations.
But the truth is often messier and far more complicated and discovery is often a collaborative process. There are almost always long histories of study and teamwork and sponsorship that make it easier for a person to come up with, yes, perhaps, the definitive moment, but it’s unlikely that the event could have happened without collaborators that, if we were to be fair, would have to include the unseen labour of the minions in labs and those who literally clean up after them.
As Christian Caryl points out,
In reality, Turing was an entirely willing participant in a collective enterprise that featured a host of other outstanding intellects who happily coexisted to extraordinary effect. The actual Denniston, for example, was an experienced cryptanalyst and was among those who, in 1939, debriefed the three Polish experts who had already spent years figuring out how to attack the Enigma, the state-of-the-art cipher machine the German military used for virtually all of their communications. It was their work that provided the template for the machines Turing would later create to revolutionize the British signals intelligence effort. So Turing and his colleagues were encouraged in their work by a military leadership that actually had a pretty sound understanding of cryptological principles and operational security. As Copeland notes, the Nazis would have never allowed a bunch of frivolous eggheads to engage in such highly sensitive work, and they suffered the consequences. The film misses this entirely.
The Imitation Game follows the injunctions of gay history to the letter, inventing singular gay genius and victimhood (in reality, unlike what is claimed by Kramer and the film, Turing’s death may not have been a suicide but a tragic accident) at the cost of anything more complicated.
To date, critics have tiptoed around the the film. The New York Times’s A.O. Scott wrote a review whose entire point seems to be that he simply cannot take a position on it. Caryl’s is one of the critical reviews, and probably the best one so far, fiercely denouncing the mythologising of Turing and unpacking the layered histories that the film distorts. But even he stops short of taking stock of why the film should eventually come up with such a gay-friendly piece of pablum, skating close to the edge of the truth but then veering away from it
In perhaps the most bitter irony of all, the filmmakers have managed to transform the real Turing, vivacious and forceful, into just the sort of mythological gay man, whiney and weak, that homophobes love to hate.
This is indicative of the bad faith underlying the whole enterprise, which is desperate to put Turing in the role of a gay liberation totem but can’t bring itself to show him kissing another man—something he did frequently, and with gusto.
In fact, this “mythological gay man, whiney and weak,” is exactly the kind of gay man the gay community would insist upon in this context, even if invoked as a victim rather than weak. If Alan Turing had in fact been represented as anything else, say, a man happily buggering several anonymous tricks during the course of a night or as anything less than a singular genius, or as a man who moved on from the death of a long-dead schoolmate instead of pathologically defining himself by the death of a childhood friend as the film implies...if Alan Turing were represented in any other way, there would be no way to explain that, in fact, the Krameresque theory that all gay men have been exactly the same throughout history and that they are defined by their oppression is a ridiculous and patently useless way of understanding the contingency of identity itself.
To be both fair and clear: I don’t mean to imply that Kramer directly influenced the hagiographic depiction of gayness that we see in The Imitation Game. But the Kramer view of gay identity requires mythological renditions of gay life, and it is so prevalent in the gay community that anyone who dares provide a more realistic portrayal of gay people and lives runs the risk of public denunciations for homophobia (consider, for example, Milk, a film so banal and broadly told it might as well have been an animated comic book).1 For that reason, Weeks’ reductive understanding of Turing’s life and its relevance is an unsurprising presage to the reductive representation of Turing’s homosexuality.
Nothing excuses what was done to Turing, and to countless other men and women before and after him. The Queen’s 2013 pardon for his homosexual infractions was ridiculous because it should have been an apology to him.
Everything done to Turing for his homosexuality was wrong, but so was so much done in the cause of the war. No one person, not even a fictionalised heroic gay genius, was responsible for “winning” a war whose convoluted political stakes have long been drowned out in public blather about the forces of good and evil. When we, queer/gay and straight, gloss over the complications of gay identity and the equally complicated and vexing set of questions in which it takes root and develops over time, we risk turning a cultural confabulation into an oppressive lie.
1 Like a very bad, banal comic book, I should add: I grew up devouring comics, and this is not meant as an insult to the genre.
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Sources and Further Reading