Britain’s Colonial Legacy Still Affects LGBTQ+ Laws Globally
"Queer lives and livelihoods and expressions might look different from the freedoms and the technicolor pride you so hold in such high esteem, but these people are living, dancing, loving, fighting and they are and going absolutely nowhere for anybody. There is queer joy and love on the ground, there always is. You just have to look for it." - Otamere Guobadia
British imperialism has undoubtedly left scars on its former colonies. A repressive and exploitative system, colonialism exported valuable resources out of nations, but also imported and enforced new ways of thinking - like homophobia. “In many countries around the world which were colonised by the British Empire, anti-LGBTQ+ laws and queerphobic attitudes often have vestiges of, or find their origins in, colonial-era laws implanted as part of their crusade,” says Otamere Guobadia, queer activist and writer, in an interview with us.
This was first seen with British implicated law Section 377. It criminalised male sexuality and all sexual acts which were considered to be “against the order of nature.” The law was first enforced in India in 1861 and was put into place by colonial administrators who were keen to push their notions of morality onto their ‘subjects.’ The penal code was based on conservative Victorian-era values, where sexual activity outside of the purpose of procreation was considered taboo. Enze Han, author of 'British Colonialism and the Criminalisation of Homosexuality', explained in an interview to CNN that the British also instilled these laws as they perceived non-Western subjects to be overly-erotic. “They were worried young colonial officers going abroad would be corrupted by those sexual acts.”
India’s Section 377 law was used as a blueprint and spread across the Empire after 1861. “It would take 150 years for the law to be repealed” by India, explains Otamere. These British imported anti-LGBT penal codes are still exercised in some former colonies like Singapore, Myanmar and Jamaica today. In 2021, of 69 countries that have laws that criminalise same-sex relations, approximately 45 of these were once British colonies or protectorates.
Former British Prime Minister, Theresa May, recognised at the 2018 Commonwealth Heads of Governments meeting, Britain’s role in introducing anti-LGBTQI+ legislation, which, for some countries, has now become entrenched in cultural values. "I am all too aware that these laws were often put in place by my own country. They were wrong then, and they are wrong now." She urged countries still upholding the century-old law to repeal it, calling it “outdated.”
Some countries like India, Botswana and Trinidad & Tobago have changed their stance. In a landmark 2018 ruling, the Indian Supreme Court declared Section 377 to be “unconstitutional.” This change was largely thanks to grassroot activists like Dhrubo Jyoti who said in an interview, “this law was not ours. This was not a law that has organically developed in our society".
In many countries colonised by the British, anti-LGBTQ+ laws did not exist before the UK introduced them. As stated by Zing Tsjeng of VICE World News in her series ‘Empire of Dirt', “many of Britain’s former colonies don’t have histories of being hateful towards LGBTQ people.”
Otamere would agree, and says “there's plenty of evidence to suggest that many countries, like my native Nigeria, had conceptions and expressions of gender and sexuality that might to our modern eyes be ostensibly queer.” It’s still important to recognise, though, that this is a complicated subject. Some countries have never been acceptant of same-sex relations and many countries have only strengthened their anti-LGBT laws post-independence. There runs the risk, says Otamere, of “anachronistically fetishising the idea of these pre-colonial societies as these sorts of queer utopias. Rather, it’s important to realise, “how much was lost, and how incomprehensible it is to us now. A whole world, whole ways of being, whole paradigms, stolen, erased, lost irrevocably to us forever.”
Some accounts of historic acceptance are still available to us though. Hijra, a term which refers to transgender and intersex people in South Asia, were largely accepted and revered by society pre-colonisation.
They are mentioned in ancient texts (e.g. the Kama Sutra), have a 4000 year-old history and were considered to have religious authority. As stated by the BBC, the British, however, saw them as “ungovernable” and made efforts to erase and target them with laws -- it was only in 2014 that India overturned these laws and recognised them as a third gender.
Sheba Akpokli, an LGBTQ+ rights activist from Togo, explained in a Euronews podcast that Togo also has historical words referring to the third gender, like nousugnon o nononusun. Sheba explains they were once esteemed parts of Togolese society -- in 2021, however, homosexuality is illegal in Togo. Some African countries had less binary gender norms before colonisation and the spread of Christian fundamentalism -- both are seen to have caused a loss in cultural attitudes toward gender and sexual identity. Overall, there are many accounts that suggest same-sex relations were "tolerated among many ethnic groups" across the continent prior to colonisation.
Some countries, though, have further tightened their inherited anti-gay laws such as Nigeria and Uganda. Currently, over half of the countries that still ban LGBTQ+ relations are in Africa with the laws often left in place following independence. Unfortunately, many nations which previously had more tolerant views towards same-sex relations are now unwilling to change their laws.
Otamere attributes this to fears of neo-colonialism and that many nations are apprehensive to once again be morally led by the United Kingdom. It does not help when officials (like David Cameron in 2011) financially threaten countries to change their anti-LGBT stances. “Attempts at moral or cultural imposition, particularly those made on global stages under threat of sanction and censure, can feel incredibly paternalistic, and just more attempts at imperialism" Otamere says.
Generations later, many African nations may view these anti-LGBTQI+ laws as ingrained parts of their culture, viewing homosexuality as a Western import. This is highlighted in how the former President of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe labelled homosexuality as a “white disease.”
Travelling when Queer
Even though countries have anti-LGBT laws, Otamere wants to stress to queer travellers that the world is still for you to travel, explore and experience. “I think the best way to feel safer travelling as a queer person, first and foremost, is to recognise that laws are not the people they govern.” Governments may not always represent the views and opinions of their people. There are often thriving scenes where you may not expect, even with the strictest of governments.
“For every country with the most oppressive and prohibitive anti-LGBT laws on the books, there's a thriving, persevering community of people living and breathing resistance. Oftentimes their resistance necessitates diplomacy, sometimes it requires that they make themselves smaller and hide their truths to survive, but their truths, endure, glimmer, are legitimate as any others.
Their queer lives and livelihoods and expressions might look different from the freedoms and the technicolor pride you so hold in such high esteem, but these people are living, dancing, loving, fighting and they are and going absolutely nowhere for anybody. There is queer joy and love on the ground, there always is. You just have to look for it.”