The Bank of England has announced, following a public poll, that the new £50 note will feature mathematician, cryptographer and computer science pioneer Alan Turing. While this might seem like unambiguous good news, the issues it raises are more complicated than they first appear. Here’s a guest post from LGBT+ mathematician Calvin Smith with his thoughts on the decision.
It’s obviously fabulous that Alan Turing is being recognised on the new £50 note, but this joy at seeing a gay mathematician given this recognition is tainted with the memory of his cruel treatment by the society of the day and the ongoing persecution of queer and trans people today.
It’s absolutely right that we celebrate the achievements of Turing the mathematician, and I’m hoping that this also creates an opportunity to talk more about the amazing work he did away from his well-known code-breaking in the field of mathematical biology, where he developed models which help us to understand the formation of shapes and patterns in biology. As a gay man working in mathematics I’m also hoping that the additional prominence given to Turing’s work acts as a further catalyst to drive inclusion in STEM subjects and that more young queer people consider study and careers in these areas.
If we are committed to doing the best science and solving modern problems then we need the most diverse set of thinkers available and for each of them to be able to bring their whole authentic selves to work. There are some wonderful organisations like Pride In Stem and events like the LGBT STEMinar which bring together and give voice to a diverse mix of queer scientists who can otherwise feel invisible or over-exposed in their local work environment. Stonewall’s work in making workplaces (especially universities) more LGBT+ inclusive cannot be underestimated as a driver for positive change. Hopefully the greater awareness and visibility afforded by Turing can drive improvements: the future of science is fabulously queer and intersectional. Fire the glitter cannon!
However, setting aside my maths-joy at seeing another mathematician celebrated I’m also filled with a cocktail of bitterness and seething rage at this announcement. Turing and society’s treatment of him is hugely symbolic and cannot be underestimated. Turing’s appearance on a bank note does not excuse society its historic treatment of him of other victims of homophobia. Just because we now have same-sex marriage does not mean the fight for queer inclusion is over. I grew up under Section 28 telling me that homosexual relationships were “pretend families” and while I am now a proud gay dad to two lovely scamps it is worth reflecting that Section 28 was only repealed in 2003, same-sex adoption introduced in 2005. Many of our recent victories seem fragile and culturally we still have a long way to go to eradicate the homophobia, lesbophobia, biphobia and transphobia which continues to lead to assaults on queer people to this day. Turing is also a call to action and constant vigilance so that we don’t turn the clock back on acceptance without exception, on inclusion for all, and for no outsiders.
July is LGBT wrath month: a Turing banknote cannot be allowed to become a pinkwashed sticking plaster over the underlying issues of intolerance, and we need LGBT+ people and their allies to continue the fight so that it remains a call to action – and not the undeserved pat on the back which leads to complacency and the further loss of queer and trans lives.