Victorian morals still criminalising gay people via colonial sodomy law

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A law that criminalises homosexuality in several countries was originally implemented by British colonists in India, according to a new report from Human Rights Watch.

The Alien Legacy: The Origins of Sodomy Law in British Colonialism, states that Section 377,  introduced under the Indian penal code in 1860, is responsible for the persecution of homosexual people that still occurs in more than 35 countries, from Uganda and Nigeria to Papua New Guinea.

It punishes “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” and was introduced because the British felt the new colonies needed a code of behaviour in order to “reform”, as well as a fear that the new colonies could “corrupt” some of their own.

Today homosexuality is still a crime in many countries. Seven nations retain the death penalty, including Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Iran.

In the early 1990s Robert Mugabe made the headlines when he described gay and lesbian people as “un-African” and said they were, “worse than dogs and pigs.”

Scott Long, director of the LGBT rights programme at Human Rights Watch said:

“Half the world’s countries that criminalise homosexual conduct do so because they cling to Victorian morality and colonial laws.

“Getting rid of these unjust remnants of the British Empire is long overdue.”

Different variations on the 1860 law soon spread across most of the British colonies.

Later, when many of them achieved independence, a great number kept the sodomy laws.

Although initially only meant to penalise against certain acts, the laws ended up discriminating against entire groups of people.

In India, people listed as “eunuchs” (the British term for Indian hijras or transgender members of the population) were seen as a “criminal tribe” and could be arrested and jailed for simply even appearing in public.

Homosexuality was decriminalised in England and Wales in 1967.

In 1994, the United Nations Human Rights Committee declared that sodomy laws violate a person’s right not to be discriminated against.

Despite these moves forward, the laws still stand amongst many of Britain’s old colonies, including India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Bhutan, Myanmar (Burma) and Sri Lanka.

The report concludes:

“Sodomy laws encourage all of society to join in surveillance, in a way congenial to the ambitions of police and state authorities.

“That may explain why large numbers of countries that have emerged from colonialism have assumed and assimilated their sodomy laws as part of the nationalist rhetoric of the modern state.

“Authorities have kept on refining and fortifying the provisions, in parliaments and courts-spurred by the false proposition they are a bulwark of authentic national identity.

“The campaigns for law reform are not merely for a right to intimacy, but for the right to live a life without fear of discrimination, exposure, arrest, detention, or harassment.

“Reform would dismantle part of the legal system’s power to divide and discriminate, to criminalise personhood and identity, to attack rights defenders, and to restrict civil society.

“Removing the sodomy laws would affirm human rights and dignity. It would also repair a historical wrong that demands to be remembered.

“The legacy of colonialism should no longer be confused with cultural authenticity or national freedom.

“An activist from Singapore writes: “It’s amazing” that millions of people “have so absorbed Victorian prudishness that even now, when their countries are independent – and they are all happy and proud they’re free from the yoke of the British-they stoutly defend these laws.”

“He concludes:

“”The sun may have set on the British Empire, but the Empire lives on.”

“These last holdouts of the Empire have outlived their time.”