One of the many things that I love about our island in the sun is the ‘live and let live’ approach of its people. No, I don’t mean the thousands of tourists, but the true Canarian people, those who were born and have stayed in this little corner of Paradise. As long as it is broadly legal and does not interfere with anyone else, in the main, anything goes. For many of its present day ex-pat population, with its heady mix of faith, culture, colour and sexuality, it takes time to get used to not being judged. Maybe this stems from the time, it is said, when Spain’s General Franco, intolerant of gay men in the military, would ship them off to Gran Canaria, which became a kind of penal colony for homosexuals. Whether there is real historical substance to this claim or whether it is an urban myth, I do not know for sure, but it sounds reasonable enough to me!
For me, one of the real unsung heroes of the Second World War was the code-breaker, Alan Turing. It was thanks to this mathematical genius that the war against Nazi Germany ended when it did. He managed to intercept and crack ingenious coded messages that gave detailed information to the Allies about the activities of German U-boats. However, there was only one problem with Alan Turing - he was gay.
Alan’s reward for his pivotal role in cracking intercepted messages was quickly forgotten when, in 1952, he was prosecuted for ‘indecency’ after admitting a sexual relationship with a man. As an ‘alternative’ to imprisonment, this unsung war hero was given ‘chemical castration’ - a newly devised treatment for such ‘disorders’ at the time. In 1954, at the age of 41, he killed himself by eating a poisoned apple. I rather like this part of the tragedy - the ending is just so dramatic!
Or was this the end of Alan Turing? This amazing man is also credited with creating the beginnings of computer technology and artificial intelligence, which led to the development of one of the first recognisable modern computers. Alan Turing's brilliance and personal life came to the attention of present day computer programmer, Dr. John Graham-Cumming, who began a petition asking for a posthumous apology from the government. Many thousands of people signed it and the previous UK Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, finally apologised for how Alan Turing was treated in the 1950s. Whether it was through political motivation or genuine compassion for this brilliant man, and I like to think it is the latter, he said that "on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan's work, I am very proud to say: we're sorry, you deserved so much better.”
My thoughts also go out to the many thousands of gay men and woman who have been persecuted over the years - just for being themselves.
All this serious stuff brings me back home to Gran Canaria. Spain’s General Franco certainly had his faults, but I cannot help thinking that being shipped off to a life in the sun in the penal colony of Gran Canaria, just for being gay, was a far preferable alternative to ‘chemical castration’!
© Barrie Mahoney
First published in 2010
From the 'Letters from the Atlantic' series by Barrie Mahoney
Living the Dream: ISBN 978-0992767198