The legacy of colonial laws and their impact on LGBTQ+ people around the world

Did you know that a significant number of discriminatory laws against LGBTQ+ people around the world originate from the British colonial era? Conduit member Charlotte Minvielle, Head of Development at the Human Dignity Trust, explains why and how the British need to take responsibility for their damaging legacy.

Activists in Bristol made new history on 7 June by throwing the statue of British slave trader Joseph Colston into the city’s harbour. Their actions triggered a national and global movement to topple similar statues and have sparked debate on the need to educate the public about the deeds of people who have been glorified in our cities for centuries. Events like these are also urging us to reflect on our European history and to look at how we can address the impact and legacy that colonisation has on global society today.

Laws criminalising LGBTQ+ people originate from colonial times

There are still over 70 countries around the world that criminalise LGBT people because of who they are and who they love. Some of these criminalising laws, particularly in the Middle East, come from Sharia law, but a significant number originate from the British colonial era.

These ‘sodomy,’ ‘buggery’ and ‘gross indecency’ laws were first enacted during Victorian times by the British Empire. Beginning with the Indian Penal Code of 1860, they were then replicated throughout the Empire. Before colonisation, criminalisation simply did not exist in these countries and cultures, many of which were tolerant of homosexuality and gender diverse people. Shockingly, as a consequence, adult, consensual, same-sex relations are still illegal in 35 Commonwealth countries, including nine that have a maximum penalty of life imprisonment for men who have sex with men.

Even though these laws outlaw ‘sodomy’ and mainly target gay men, they affect lesbian and bisexual women and trans people. Some countries specifically criminalise women, and studies from across the globe have repeatedly shown that criminalisation fosters an environment in which women who have sex with women are discriminated against and subjected to sexual violence on the basis of their sexual orientation, often known by the brutal phrase ‘corrective rape’. Additionally, 15 countries criminalise the gender identity and/or expression of transgender people, using ‘cross-dressing’, ‘impersonation’ and ‘disguise’ laws, the majority of which have roots in the colonial era.

These archaic laws are also often part of a wider set of laws that fail to protect women, children and other marginalised groups, such as people with disabilities. For example, they do not acknowledge marital rape and stigmatise people living with disabilities through deeply offensive language such as ‘idiots’ and ‘imbeciles.’

Impact on global health

In the Caribbean, it is starkly apparent that all countries colonised by the British criminalise same-sex activity, while those colonised by other European states do not. The legacy of these discriminatory laws dramatically affects the daily lives of LGBTQ+ people. They face a wide range of human rights abuses, including imprisonment and blackmail by members of the police force, to family and community violence, discrimination in housing, education and employment. 

Additionally, these laws have a severe impact on global health. Research by UNAIDS shows that the rate of HIV infection in Caribbean countries where same-sex sexual activity is criminalised is four times higher than in non-criminalising countries. Again and again, LGBTQ+ people say that the fear and stigma they face in accessing healthcare where they are criminalised profoundly reduces their ability to access HIV prevention and treatment.

The UK’s role  

In a speech at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 2018, Theresa May said: ‘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. As the UK’s prime minister, I deeply regret both the fact that such laws were introduced, and the legacy of discrimination, violence and even death that persists today.’ She added, ‘The UK stands ready to support any Commonwealth member wanting to reform outdated legislation that makes such discrimination possible.’

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office honoured their word and did indeed put forward £5.6 million in funding for a two-year programme to support countries wanting to reform these discriminatory laws. As part of this programme, the Human Dignity Trust provided technical legal and communications assistance to the governments of Belize, St Vincent and the Grenadines, and Mauritius. Unfortunately, while there is still an urgent need for this work to continue, renewed funding has been put on hold due to the Covid-19 crisis. The UK government and charities like the Trust must continue to play their part in this vital decolonisation work, as must all members of society.

Change is coming

I’d like to note that even if legal journeys are long and take their time, the global trend is moving in the right direction as the number of criminalising countries continues to fall. Last year, the Court of Appeal denied the Belize Government’s final appeal of a 2016 ruling decriminalising adult consensual same-sex relations in the country. Speaking of the 2016 judgment, Simone Hill, a leading LGBTQ+ activist in Belize, said: ‘It was such a victory. It was like a burden, a stone, a stack of stone lifted off you.’

When discriminatory laws are removed, LGBTQ+ people cease being criminals in their own countries overnight. The Human Dignity Trust will continue to work with activists, lawyers, governments, and other organisations around the world to eradicate these laws that persecute people on the basis of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.

We are at a pivotal moment where there are real prospects for much-needed reform and repeal of discriminatory laws in relatively short timeframes in countries such as Kenya, St Vincent and the Grenadines, and Mauritius. As Martin Luther King said, ‘Let us realise the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’

Charlotte Minvielle is Head of Development at the Human Dignity Trust, a charity that uses the law to defend the human rights of LGBT people. She oversees the Trust’s fundraising efforts by managing the support of our current donors as well as developing and implementing our fundraising strategy to acquire new donors from trusts and foundations, companies, and private donors in particular to fund our vital work.

Charlotte has over ten years of experience working in fundraising for organisations in the international development sector including War Child, Save the Children, Plan International, Mercy Corps and WaterAid. Charlotte is also a Trustee at Pan Intercultural Arts, a charity using arts for social change.