Britain has no moral high ground on Commonwealth homophobia

The colonial practice of exporting homophobia and contemporary anti-migrant policies should give pause to Britain’s triumphalist rhetoric, argues Sean O’Neill

Tom Daley took the opportunity at this year's Commonwealth games to call out the 37 countries of the Commonwealth that still outlaw homosexuality. Daley is pictured above at the London 2012 Olympic & Paralympic Games Victory Parade, 10th September. Photo: Jim Thurston (CC.20)

‘I hope one day every athlete from every nation in the Commonwealth will be free to compete openly as who they are too!’ So said British diver Tom Daley last week, celebrating his gold medal win at the XXI Commonwealth Games. The openly gay athlete, a familiar figure in the British LGBT+ community, took the opportunity to call out 37 countries of the Commonwealth that still outlaw homosexuality.

Daley's intention is admirable. Too frequently these international competitions gloss over the exploitative and exclusionary practices of their participants. Yet the comments portray gaps in how we understand the struggle for global LGBT+ rights. The widely applauded statement came with no recognition of one powerful fact: nearly all of the Commonwealth countries that outlaw homosexuality do so through colonial-era British laws. The hostility towards LGBT+ people across the Commonwealth is a legacy of Britain’s empire.

Victorian imperial policy was preoccupied with a desire for social control, and there are few areas where the policy was as hardline as on same-sex relations. As the British grip on the colonies tightened, anti-sodomy laws proliferated. Instead of the convoluted and antiquated structure of British law, imperial policy strove for simplified codes, which could be applied in more or less undifferentiated fashion to different colonies.

The Indian Penal Code and the Queensland Penal Code were two such examples. Their provisions against ‘unnatural offences’ were fast exported across the Empire, from Kenya to Fiji. There is a marked difference between codifying pre-existing homophobia and suppressing local sexual practices that included homosexuality – but British colonial policy consisted of the latter as well as the former. The laws expressed a very British contempt for perceived vice and immorality in the colonies.

Just last month, a Kenyan Court of Appeal found that conducting forced anal exams on those suspected of same-sex relations was unconstitutional. These exams were deployed in defence of Section 162 of the Kenyan Penal Code. This condemns, in words unchanged from the British era, ‘carnal knowledge against the order of nature’. These medical intrusions are a legacy of one of Britain’s most shameful exports. The greater picture is that over half of the countries that criminalize same-sex relations today were once British colonies.

This is not to exonerate politicians across the Commonwealth. Many African leaders, for example, have honed a specific form of homophobia which dictates sodomy as un-African and LGBT+ human rights as a form of Western cultural imperialism. As recently as 2014, Nigeria signed in a new law outlawing same-sex relationships with a 14-year prison sentence. Yet the role of Britain in planting and entrenching these ills is undeniable. The British LGBT+ community must not just speak out of fellow-feeling across borders, compelling as such solidarity is. We must speak boldly against the imperial legacy from which Britain continues to profit, while LGBT+ people in the Commonwealth suffer.

As the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting takes place in London this week, a 100,000-strong petition is demanding the inclusion of LGBT+ rights on the agenda. Last year, Theresa May recognized the colonial legacy of homophobia and promised to discuss LGBT+ issues at this meeting. It is doubtful how effective the unbinding, vague structures of the Commonwealth might ever be in liberating the marginalized. In any case, reports are now circulating that the government is reneging on May’s previous approach in favour of a friendly post-Brexit pitch for trade with Commonwealth nations. It seems ‘Empire 2.0’ will borrow much from the homophobia of the first version.

We must demand better: a vocal and global apology for anti-sodomy laws from the British government, as part of a long-overdue strategy for dealing with the recalcitrant abuses of Empire, would be a good place to start. This apology must clarify on the world stage that homophobia, not homosexuality, is the true Western export.

Indeed, we need more than an apology. Britain needs to stop harming the international victims of queerphobia through its draconian immigration law. There are countless stories of LGBT+ people who come to Britain for sanctuary from persecution, only to be turned away by a callous Home Office. We must stand with the Stansted 15, who chained themselves to a secretive charter flight to stop Home Office deportations. One deportee onboard was a lesbian woman being threatened by an ex-husband in Nigeria. The 15 activists are now being tried under anti-terror law.

Such work will require dislodging Britain’s self-image as a guarantor of LGBT+ rights. It is easy to forget amid Britain’s triumphalist rhetoric that the first country to constitutionally prohibit discrimination based on ‘sexual orientation’ was post-apartheid South Africa, where leaders and activists built commonalities between the experiences of homophobia and racism. This should be a reminder to all that LGBT+ activism is not a preserve of the West. It is also a case for hope.

That hope endures. This week, gay Trinidadian activist Jason Jones won his case to decriminalize homosexuality in Trinidad & Tobago, bringing that fated number of Commonwealth from 37 to 36. Jones relocated to London in the 1980s for refuge before building a brave case for freedom – but would he have been able to do so today, with the government’s ‘hostile environment’ policies that involve deporting Commonwealth citizens? We will all watch with admiration as activists across the Commonwealth rise up against homophobic laws. We must also remind ourselves what our government did, and still does, to harm them.