by Arish Mudra Rakshasa
Fifty-three countries form the “voluntary intergovernmental association” known as The Commonwealth of Nations. Almost all of these countries are united by the fact that they were formerly British colonies, and thus share a ‘rich’ history of oppression and colonisation. Many of these countries gained independence from the UK within the last century, and have retained (intentionally or unintentionally) the legacy of British colonial laws. Another thing that the Commonwealth countries seem to share is a toxic legacy for anti-gay and anti-trans prejudice.
Anti-gay attitudes in British colonial administrators, combined with the great power they had over provinces or territories in the colonies they ruled, created somewhat of a trickle-down phenomenon of the ‘transmission’ of such prejudices.
Colonial Laws Die Hard
The British Empire itself has had a long history of discrimination against non-heterosexual individuals and trans individuals. Homosexuality was decriminalised in the UK only between 1967 and 1982, and even at this time, many British colonies were still under British control, or had only recently gained independence.
The UK cannot be blamed for its anti-gay laws, any more than we can blame one single country. The struggles of LGBTQ+ rights activists in the UK bore fruit when the nation decided to decriminalise homosexuality. That said, the UK certainly can be blamed for transporting and propagating its anti-gay prejudice to other countries – many other countries.
Anti-gay attitudes in British colonial administrators, combined with the great power they had over provinces or territories in the colonies they ruled, created somewhat of a trickle-down phenomenon of the ‘transmission’ of such prejudices. These prejudiced administrators used their immense power to create anti-gay laws, and these laws stuck, often even after a nation gained its independence from the UK.
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The result was an exceptionally effective mechanism of the propagation of anti-gay attitudes: a large majority of Commonwealth nations have had anti-gay laws in the past, and as of late 2015, 40 countries in the Commonwealth have active laws sanctioning anti-gay prejudice. 40 out of the 53 countries of the Commonwealth – a terrifying but unsurprising 75% – which means that approximately 90% of LGBTQ+ citizens of the Commonwealth Nations live as criminals or face discrimination.1 While it will be incorrect and inappropriate to say that all of these countries were accepting of queer individuals before colonisation, it will also be dishonest to say that colonisation did not introduce and exacerbate anti-gay attitudes as concrete laws in many of these countries.
Colonial Oppression, Modern Implication
Countries within the Commonwealth that criminalise homosexuality with staggering penalties such as maximum sentences of life imprisonment (Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sierra Leone, and others) and even death penalties (some states in northern Nigeria) represent the highly oppressive anti-gay prejudice and discriminatory laws that they inherited from British colonisation. However, the insidious effects of this legacy of anti-gay prejudice extends to modern global health: the exacerbation of the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
The 2015 Human Dignity Trust report presented to then-Prime Minister of UK, David Cameron, explains how “the Commonwealth accounts for approximately 30% of the world’s population but over 60% of HIV cases worldwide”2. As long as non-heterosexual identities (and trans identities) are criminalised, stigma attached to homosexuality as well as HIV/AIDS will continue increasing, and make it progressively more difficult to provide HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment interventions to LGBTQ+ folks in these countries. Jonathan Cooper, Chief Executive of the Human Dignity Trust report, even goes on to say2:
“You will never ever get the AIDS crisis under control while gay men are criminalized. It’s literally not possible while gay men are shamed and stigmatized.”
British colonialism might have gone from a lot of countries today, but its effects are still perceptible. The legacy of anti-gay discrimination that colonial administrators left make it nearly impossible for hundreds of thousands of people in Commonwealth Nations to obtain the healthcare they need. Some claim that with the end of the colonial era, the adversities of colonialism ended as well. The truth, on the contrary, is that colonialism continues to oppress people in Commonwealth Nations through its haunting imprints, which is often too ingrained in a country’s culture to be easily eliminated.
India, Exemplifying the Colonial Legacy
As one of the Commonwealth Nations, India shares the Commonwealth values – and, with them, a distinct attitude for anti-gay prejudice. India’s infamous Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code prohibits “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” – a vague (and thus pernicious) prohibition. Notably, Section 377 was put in place in 1860, 87 years before India gained independence: put in place, therefore, by British colonial administrators.
However, just as scholars and activists argue that British colonial laws become ingrained into a nation’s culture, Section 377 got passed down into the laws of free India. The vague nature of the law allowed it to arguably include homosexual behaviour, thus criminalising homosexuality. It wasn’t until 2009 – 52 years after India’s independence – that India’s queer community gained its independence. In a historic verdict, the Delhi High Court declared section 377 unconstitutional, and upheld consenting adults’ right to have sex without regard to their gender or sex. This win for LGBTQ+ rights meant that almost a billion more people in the world lived without a law that criminalised people’s very identities. It was not to last.
Rampant anti-gay prejudice combined with an exaggerated focus on gender roles and masculinity meant that even today, gay men in India are ostracised and targeted.
Anti-gay legislation are not the only legacy anti-gay British colonial administrators left. They also sparked an intense anti-gay prejudice amongst the population, and this prejudice has thrived ever since. Rampant anti-gay prejudice combined with an exaggerated focus on gender roles and masculinity meant that even today, gay men in India are ostracised and targeted. The general attitudes towards homosexuality are that of extreme discomfort or outright hate. As a result, merely four years after Delhi High Court’s verdict, India’s Supreme Court decided to uphold Section 377 and criminalise homosexuality once again.
The primary reason stated by the Supreme Court for overturning the High Court’s verdict was that amending or repealing Section 377 should be decided by the Parliament, not the judiciary. Despite several petitions and protests, the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled in favour of Section 377 since then. In the Parliament, former Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations Dr. Shashi Tharoor (who now serves as a Member of Parliament) introduced a bill to amend Section 377 in December 2015, but the bill was defeated 71-24. Dr. Tharoor reintroduced the bill in March 2016, but was defeated again, 58-14. (Listen to Dr. Tharoor’s podcast on LGBT rights with Firstpost India here.)
India’s resistance to pro-LGBTQ+ laws does not come as a surprise, especially when one considers the severe anti-gay prejudice India has inherited from its colonial era. When Dr. Tharoor first introduced the bill to amend Section 277 in the Parliament, several MPs allegedly remarked that “Tharoor needs this bill more”.3 These comments reflect just one way in which the queer community is belittled and attacked in India; Dr. Tharoor, who has never identified openly as gay, was assumed to be ‘one of them’ simply for standing up for the queer community. That is the elegance of Section 377: even as a little-enforced law, it provides anti-gay people just the right leverage to discriminate against and bully queer individuals. Most queer activists cannot speak only, for fear of the law being enforced, and that silencing creates the perfect mechanism for oppressing an entire group of people effectively.
There is no question that queer people in other countries have it much worse. India’s Section 377 is considered as “not enforced”, even though, according to Dr. Tharoor, 578 people have been arrested under the section since the Supreme Court verdict in 2013. If I was to take a stroll across the borders of my nation and visit India’s neighbouring countries, Pakistan or Bangladesh, I would find myself under the rule of a much stricter – and much more strongly enforced – anti-gay law, and face a much more real chance of imprisonment for my identity. However, India’s Section 377 works well to terrorise and silence its queer community while not being as overtly discriminatory as would inspire large-scale political outrage. This elegant oppression, combined with India’s culture of anti-gay prejudice, results in a resistance to equal rights for LGBTQ+ folks that exemplifies the anti-gay legacy of British colonialism.
Many Commonwealth Nations, including India, are still recovering from the economic damages that colonisation inflicted upon them. How do we overcome the more deep-rooted cultural damage of anti-gay prejudice that colonisation brought us?
The UK decriminalised homosexuality in the mid-to-late 20th century. It did nothing, though, to reverse the adverse effects its anti-gay laws and prejudiced colonial administrators had on the people of its former colonies. The UK certainly did not introduce anti-gay prejudice in all its colonies, and it alone cannot take the blame for such prejudices in the Commonwealth. It did, however, severely aggravate the situation through prejudiced colonial administrators that created discriminatory laws, which in turn pushed anti-gay prejudice further into the cultures of the colonies. Many Commonwealth Nations, including India, are still recovering from the economic damages that colonisation inflicted upon them. How do we overcome the more deep-rooted cultural damage of anti-gay prejudice that colonisation brought us?
Arish is a rising sophomore from Ghaziabad, India studying at Earlham College, Richmond, IN. He plans on double majoring in Biochemistry and Neuroscience and is on the Pre-Medicine track, aspiring to obtain an MD and a PhD. He is also quite passionate about politics and social justice, and wants to enter international politics to counter hate, prejudice, and fear in the world. He likes ‘science, languages, and occasionally people’, and enjoys pushing the liberal agenda on Facebook and binge watching TV shows with ice cream in his free time. He is excited to draw on his experiences to discuss global issues through the lens of a young immigrant for the column.
The views expressed in this article are those of the writer, The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion.
1 Leftly, Mark for The Independent. “Baroness Scotland uses new role as secretary‑general of the Commonwealth to call for LGBT rights”. November 29, 2015. Web link.
2 Tan, Sylvia for Gay Star News. “Anti-gay laws worsening the AIDS crisis in Commonwealth countries, says new Human Dignity Trust report”. November 22, 2015. Web link.
3 Vetticad, Anna MM for Firstpost India. “Section 377: It’s imperative that we strike down this regressive law for India’s future”. February 2, 2016. Web link.