Photo: Rex Features

OPINION

Britain exported anti-LGBTQ+ laws around the world – and we need to stop ignoring it

The decriminalisation of homosexuality in India is fantastic, but other countries still have similar laws, thanks to colonialism

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By Jasmine Andersson on

“This is the growth of the British Empire over 100 years,” said my history teacher, standing at the front of the classroom eight years ago.

It was our first sixth-form lesson and we were looking at four maps on the wall. The final map, showing the empire at its peak, was daubed in large splashes of red, the colour of blood.

“It looks nothing like this today,” he added, mournfully.

Just as the neo-colonial fallout of the UK’s rule after that point is not often mapped out today, the devastating impact of Britain’s imperialist rule on LGBTQ+ communities across the world is still widely ignored.

Many of us celebrated the decriminalisation of homosexuality in India last week, but a surprisingly small number of people appear to realise that the very law that was revoked to make this change – Section 377 – was put in place by Britain.

The rule, which was created in 1861 by the British Empire, prohibited homosexuality under the guise that it was anti-Christian – and India is one of many post-colonial nations that criminalised homosexuality because of the imposition of British law.

"Before British colonisation, there were no laws against same-sex relations. Indeed, some Hindu traditions positively celebrated homosexuality alongside heterosexuality, as part of the spectrum of human sexuality and erotic desire,” LGBTQ+ campaigner Peter Tatchell told me. “The homophobic law that was struck down by judges was therefore never an authentic, indigenous Indian law.

"Similar anti-gay sections exist in the laws of neighbouring Commonwealth countries, such as Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. They were also imposed by Britain nearly two centuries ago,” he added.

History teachers strangely fail to mention that, from 1860 onwards, the UK introduced penal clauses that criminalised homosexuality across colonised countries in Africa and Asia. Of some 70 countries with laws making homosexuality illegal in May 2018, at least 38 of them were once subject to some sort of British colonial rule, according to academic site The Conversation.

Enze Han, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong, and Joseph O’Mahoney, a lecturer in politics and international relations at the University of Reading, say that Britain was far worse than other empires for this: “In contrast with the British experience, the other major colonial powers did not leave such an institutional legacy on criminalisation of homosexual conduct.”

The homophobic law that was struck down by judges was never an authentic, indigenous Indian law

Two hundred years after these laws were introduced, the ramifications of the legalised prejudice affect the communities based both in the India and abroad.

Ruchira, who a bisexual woman of Indian heritage who lives in London, has felt the impact of India’s colonial law in her own life.

She said that she hopes that the repeal of Section 377 will help the South Asian diaspora to reconcile and accept their queer status. “It's always been a source of sadness to me that a country that has so many beautiful elements to it can feel so alienating to me in terms of its treatment of women and LGBTQ+ people,” she said.

“The fact that homophobia and anti-trans rhetoric feeds its way into diaspora Indian families is one of the many heartbreaking ways this has impacted more than just a country, too – for many young people, a history of stigma and repression has fed into their daily lives as a result of a colonial law that was adopted.”

Ruchira says she struggles with being a member of the LGBTQ+ community in ways that white, British queers cannot understand. “The law might feel really separate from 'modern Western Indian families' in the UK, but it really isn't,” she explained. “The repeal is the first time in a long time where it feels like there has been some social progression that mirrors how I feel as a displaced Indian with the upbringing I've had here.

“In all honesty, my heart just goes out to anyone my age in India who hasn't even had the luxury of hiding their sexuality easily, like many South Asian LGBTQ+ people do in the UK,” she added.

While those from the diaspora are rendered deeply affected by one of Britain’s most toxic imports, this pain is left to be internalised by those living in the countries where homosexuality is still illegal – they are shouldering the homophobia of Victorian Britain.  

For the first time this year, the British government finally said that it was ready to take responsibility for the legacy of prejudice against queer people. After the rallying of campaigners from the likes of Britain, Kenya and Uganda, prime minister Theresa May apologised in April for the “legacy of violence” created by the UK and urged former colonies to reform their “outdated” laws.

Although the apology is considered to be “a groundbreaking, first-ever acknowledgement of this grave injustice”, according to Tatchell, until history lessons acknowledge the past as much as politicians, it is just a baby step towards resolving the colonial hangover that is still causing damage around the world.

@the__chez

Photo: Rex Features
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