Debate: Do we beg your pardon?

Image credit: Umh Sapiens

This year, 50,000 gay and bisexual men have been posthumously pardoned for their choice of sexual partners.

Up until now, these thousands of men – including celebrated poet Oscar Wilde – have officially remained ‘criminals’ under an amendment act of 1885.

This law criminalised homosexual men, their actions referred to as “gross indecency with male persons”.

The new so-called ‘Turing Law’ – named after Mathematician, war-hero, and convict of the 1885 Act, Alan Turing – seeks to change this.

What we must ask, however, is whether this law really brings about change. Does a ‘pardon’ not inherently suggest guilt? This, initially, may seem to be the case.

A ‘pardon’ in UK Law is the exercise of ‘Her Majesty’s Royal Prerogative of Mercy’. Surely, to talk of having ‘mercy’ on the morally guiltless is at best a category mistake. Those in need of posthumous mercy here are the instigators of this act, not those who were abhorrently, unjustly punished.

This interpretation, though, doesn’t take into account the other crucial aspect of a ‘pardon’; a pardon is not just concerned with mercy, it is concerned with justice.

The pardon given to these men is not the ‘conditional pardon’ we might expect to be given to criminals. Those who are guilty, but for good reason deserve a commuted or waved sentence: This is a ‘free’ or ‘unconditional’ pardon, these, almost always, are attached to miscarriages of justice.

There have been other instances of these unconditional, posthumous pardons: 2006 saw shell-shocked soldiers from the great war pardoned of their desertion convictions, and in 2012 deserters from WWII were pardoned by the Irish Republic.

In both these historical cases, it is accepted that justice was not served.

These soldiers, psychologically tortured, were pardoned not as a nod to compassion, but because their conviction was unjust. If they were to be tried today, no sentence would be issued.

The same applies to those now pardoned by the Turing Law. A miscarriage of justice is being acknowledged. Rather than implying guilt, this free pardon endeavours to demonstrate guiltlessness.

This pardon, therefore, is clearly a necessary – and overdue – step in the right direction.

Having said this, though, we must remember it is just that: a step. An acknowledgement of injustice alone can never make up for the years of hard labour, brutal social ostracism and chemical castration, faced by these innocent men.

The Turing Law, therefore, should come with a caveat: we cannot allow it to mark the end of the change it seems to symbolize. It should serve as a permanent reminder of the suffering bred by injustice, a stimulator of further positive change.

As Turing himself said: “We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done.”

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