In marking London Pride I wanted to reflect on Britain’s LGBT legacy.
In the space of 46 years we in the United Kingdom have gone from discriminating homosexual acts in 1967 to same-sex marriage in 2013, offering homosexual couples the same legal status, rights and protections as heterosexual couples.
I am proud of the UK’s evolution on LGBT rights in such a short period of time, yet for all the progress made at home the continued onslaught in demonizing and criminalizing the LGBT community in our beloved but ill-fated Commonwealth family is sickening and demands condemning. In keeping with a family structure, when a child displays bad behaviour you don’t blame the child, you blame the parents for allowing such behaviour to fester; a perhaps over-simplistic analogy, but one which proves my point. Blame resides in the British, British imperialism is the root cause of the Commonwealth’s appalling treatment of the LGBT community. For an organization based on civil society, freedom, tolerance, equality and all other words the Commonwealth can conjure up to describe itself, the fact is 36 of the 52 Commonwealth countries have legislation which criminalises the LGBT community in one way or another. I hold consecutive British governments responsible for the modern day treatment of the LGBT community in the Commonwealth.
Sodomy laws played a key role in Britain’s LGBT legacy in the Commonwealth. Criminalization laws were based on British imperial statutory law such a Section 377 of the Penal Code of many colonies such as the British Raj, which criminalized homosexual acts. Section 377 later served as a model for sodomy laws colonial administrators enforced in other colonies. Scott Long, director of the LGBT program at Human Rights Watch stated ‘half the world’s countries that criminalize homosexual conduct do so because they cling to so-called Victorian morality and colonial laws. Getting rid of these unjust remnants of the British Empire is long overdue’.
After the French Revolution, the French Empire decriminalized sodomy between consenting adults, and spread this Enlightenment legacy among its colonies under the protection of private sexual conduct. However the British were far more aggressive in their approach to implementing Judeo-Christian morality. Section 377 was introduced without any cultural consultation or understanding. In India colonial administrators demonized the Hijras, transgender, population in branding them a ‘criminal tribe’ as they were prone to sodomy. The British believed that the natives did not punish ‘perverse’ sex enough; however Section 377 was soon used to target and persecute the masses, creating resentment amongst the natives towards the Hijras and so when India become independent Section 377 remained.
Despite the dismantling of the British Empire, many laws including those on sodomy remained. The following countries still retain colonial sodomy laws or versions of;
In Africa – Botswana, Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Mauritius, Nigeria, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Swaziland, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
In Asia & Oceania – Bangladesh, Bhutan, Brunei, India, Kiribati, Malaysia, Maldives, Marshall Islands, Myanmar (Burma), Nauru, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Singapore, Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Western Samoa.
In the Caribbean – Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Belize, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica Saint Lucia, St Kitts and Nevis, St Vincent and The Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago.
What’s even more sickening is that colonial-era sodomy laws make no distinction between consensual and non-consensual sex. As a result, these laws leave many rape victims and child victims of abuse without effective legal protection, gay or straight. Thus the separate Penal Code provision addressing rape, Section 375, remains restricted to only a man’s rape of a woman as is the case in India and Malaysia. This means that if a man rapes a man it would come under Section 377 as an act of sodomy, in which both would be prosecuted. Which leads me to my next point – forms of sexual protection and prevention are not easily available in many Commonwealth countries and so sodomy laws add to the spread of HIV/AIDS. Countries like Uganda use British colonial laws such as Section 140 of the Penal Code which criminalizes ‘carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature’, as justification for not including the LGBT community in the country’s HIV/AIDS prevention policy due to homosexual acts being illegal and therefore the authorities work on the misguided assumption that homosexuality does not exist.
What’s worse is that as a direct effect of Britain’s inaction since the dismantlement of the British Empire to repeal colonial laws, Commonwealth citizens and governments in Africa, Asia and Oceania having gained independence, adopted colonial laws such as Section 377 and 140 as their own; proclaiming them as part of indigenous culture and tradition. When President Obama visited Kenya in 2015 he aimed to create a dialogue on LGBT right, Kenyan President Kenyatta stated ‘there are some things that we must admit we don’t share. Things our culture, our societies don’t accept’, this is the same argument other African leaders use to justify anti-gay laws, calling homosexuality ‘un-African’. Prior to British colonisation, there were no known records of any African laws against homosexuality.
Homosexuality is no new phenomenon in Africa. In the ancient Yoruba language, a dialect dating back to the end of the Stone Age is the word adofuro, a colloquial meaning for homosexuals – though under colonialism native languages were oppressed. In the former Buganda Kingdom, now part of modern day Uganda, King Mwanga II was openly known for engaging in homosexual acts with his people, yet under British colonialism and with the spread of Christianity in Africa, the King was forced out and later exiled by the British. In northern parts of Nigeria, yan daudu is a term used to describe effeminate men in the tribal Hausa language.
However not all is doom and gloom. In Botswana, the Seychelles, Samoa and St Lucia they have included anti-discrimination clauses in employment laws, which protect people on the basis of their sexual orientation. In Malta and Fiji they have amended their constitutions to include the rights and protection of indivudals based on sexual orientation. And in Kenya, the Supreme Court in 2015 ruled that ‘all persons living within the republic of Kenya despite their sexual orientation has the right to freedom of association’. Progress has been made, but in unevenly spread.
So, as people celebrate London Pride this weekend let us reflect on Britain’s disturbing LGBT legacy in the Commonwealth and recognize that Britain must write the wrongs of its colonial past by placing LGBT rights on the agenda at the next Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting which the UK is set to host.