The Curious Case of Countries Where Being Gay Is a Crime

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While the cause of gay rights has made remarkable progress in the United States over the past year—with recent court rulings in New Mexico and Utah mandating recognition of same-sex unions—the situation has been bleak in other corners of the world. Two weeks ago, the Ugandan parliament passed a long-debated bill imposing lifetime sentences for gay sex acts, as well as harsh penalties for those who “promote” homosexuality. The latter clause is similar to the notorious law passed unanimously by the Russian Duma in June, which bans “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships.” But perhaps the most surprising development occurred in the world’s largest democracy, India, where that country’s Supreme Court overturned an earlier ruling striking down a ban on sodomy as unconstitutional.

India and Uganda are located on separate continents and boast different religious traditions, yet they share a common history: both are former colonies of the British Empire. And it is in this shared legacy where many gay activists have located a culprit responsible for the two countries’ latter-day anti-gay sentiment. “Gays have been marginalized like crazy since British rule came to India,” an Indian expatriate protesting the ruling outside the country’s embassy in Washington told the Washington Blade, a gay newspaper. “It’s only when the British came that they marginalized the third-gender [transsexual] people that they’ve been living on the edge of society. And we’ve somehow failed to move beyond that.”

This view was echoed by the bestselling gay Indian author Vikram Seth, who told The Guardian that, “You find homosexuality in the Kama Sutra … In the Hindu tradition, the Muslim tradition, the syncretic [tradition] … there has never been intolerance of this kind.”

That Victorian-era British laws—namely, section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, inherited from the Raj, or British imperial government, which prohibits sexual relations “against the order of nature”—are responsible for the official homophobia in the now-independent countries of the former empire is a persistent theme of today’s global gay rights movement. “Half the world’s countries that criminalize homosexual conduct do so because they cling to Victorian morality and colonial laws,” Scott Long, former director of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights program at Human Rights Watch, said in 2009. “Getting rid of these unjust remnants of the British Empire is long overdue.”

Of course it is. But is homophobia in decolonized countries merely a “remnant of the British Empire?”

Today, no society that outlaws homosexual acts—which by their invidious and discriminatory nature condemn all gay people themselves—should be deemed decent or humane. As this shocking list attests, homosexuality remains illegal in nearly 80 countries; it is punishable by death in Mauritania, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Yemen, and parts of Nigeria and Somalia. With last month’s court ruling in India, gay sex is illegal now in 42 of the 53 members of the Commonwealth of Nations, the concert of independent countries once ruled by the British. Nigeria, Sudan and Somalia, former British colonies all, opted to go further and instate the death penalty after independence, indicating that their anti-gay fervor is very real, not just a matter of an unforced law that they haven’t gotten around to repealing. Likewise, in Uganda, the attempt to heighten punishment for homosexuality comes over four decades after the country gained independence from Great Britain.

As unjustified as the British’s proscription of homosexuality in the lands of their Empire (itself a reflection of the country’s own Victorian mores on the mainland, where homosexuality would not be decriminalized until 1967) undoubtedly was, it is wrong to lay blame for contemporary non-Western homophobia at their feet. Places like Uganda and India do not outlaw homosexuality today “because” of “Victorian morality and colonial laws,” as Long would have us believe. Such an explanation assumes that pre-colonial lands were places of Edenic sexual tolerance and permissiveness, paradises of sexual enlightenment where all colors in the LGBTQI etc. etc. rainbow were able to express themselves without fear until the big bad Limeys entered the picture. Not only was homophobia of some sort present in many of these places, but few of them had any written legal code comparable in sophistication to that introduced by the British, rendering comparisons of unwritten pre-colonial customs with the highly formalistic conventions of the British Empire sketchy at best.

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