Fri, 24 May, 2024


British Colonial rule: A Homophobic Legacy


By Kinjle Nepal

Image Source: Socialist Worker

"The Sun never sets on the British Empire." 
The largest Empire ever known, at some point in time or the other, the Brits ruled around 90% of the world. From stripping $45 Trillion from India to, hooking China up with Opium to, genocides and Concentration camps in African countries; they carried out a wide range of atrocities during their peak. The effects of their long, long reign can still be seen in most of their former colonies, now independent countries. But perhaps the one aftermath that has the strongest aftertaste of them all is Homophobia.

The Victorian era, which was guided by Christian values, deemed any form of intimacy that was not intended towards bearing children unacceptable. Hence, the Buggery Act was introduced in Britain in 1533. The act banned Homosexuality and declared gay sex worthy of capital punishment. When they began colonizing the world from the 16th to 19th centuries, they were keen on importing not only their lifestyles but also their laws on morality into the countries they would colonize. 

At the time, a multitude of social norms existed within the borders of the Indian subcontinent and African countries - which were the largest lands to be captured. Suggesting there was a singular attitude to anything in such countries was misleading because of the diversity that they were engulfed in. In contrast, there were rich and multifarious ways in which sexuality was understood. 

Let us consider pre-colonial Indian, for instance. Kama Sutra - the book of love - prevailed in the 4th century, where we could find numerous mentions as well as descriptions of male-male and female-female unions. Indira, a Bengali folklore of the 14th century praises the tale of sexual relations between two widows. Bhakts would disguise themselves as women to take part in the worshipping of Lord Krishna and Lord Shiva. In the Valmiki Ramayana, Lord Rama's devotee and companion Hanuman is said to have seen Rakshasa women kissing and embracing other women who had been embraced by Ravan. The sculptures in the Khajuraho temple, built around 12th century, of Madhya Pradesh are known for their homosexual imagery. Till the 1800s, poets like Insha and Rangin were comfortably writing about same-sex relations. 

Ancient African culture too was abundant with both erotic and non-erotic same-sex behaviours. Bisi Alimi, a Nigerian Human Rights campaigner, says that in his local language (Yoruba), there is a word for Homosexuals: Adufuro, an expression for someone who has anal sex. He adds that no matter how derogatory it sounds, the point is there exists a word for the behaviour; a word which is as old as the Yoruba culture itself. In the Buganda Kingdom, part of the modern day Uganda, Kinh Mangwa II was openly gay and faced no hate from his subjects until white men brought Christian Church and the doom with it. The ancient cave paintings of the San people near Guruve in Zimbabwe depict two men engaged in some form of ritual sex. In the 16th century, the Imbangala people of Angola had men in womens apparel, with whom they kept amongst their wives. The Igbo and Yoruba tribes, present day Nigeria, typically did not assign gender to babies at birth, and instead waited until later life. Similarly, the Dagaaba people (present day Ghana) assigned gender not based on one's anatomy, but rather the energy one presents. In the royal palaces of Northern Sudan, daughters were sometimes given slave girls for sex. Another example can be how Basotho women in present-day Lesotho, Africa, still engage in relationships with each other, calling each other their Motsoalle (a special friend).

The context and experiences of such relationships, in precolonial India and Africa, did not necessarily render homosexual relations as understood. But it is crystal-clear that same-sex intimacy was simply a part of life. Scholars have pointed out that while such queer conducts might not have been practised abundantly, they were never ridiculed or laughed at, the way the Brits did. 

Enze Han, author of "British Colonialism and the Criminalization of Homosexuality," said in an interview for CNN, “The British had this conception that the 'Orient,' the non-Western subjects, were overly erotic and over-sexed, and that's the reason why they were worried young colonial officers going abroad would be corrupted by those sexual acts.” The administrators were fearful that in the absence of the missus and in an alien environment, the officers would turn to criminalized sexual acts such as sodomy. Therefore, the Brits classified India’s openness towards sexuality as a symptom of  a ‘backward’ civilization and hence in 1860, Thomas Macaulay introduced Section 377 into the Indian Penal Code (IPC) in India, rendering Homosexual relation as a criminal offence. They imposed and institutionalized the Buggery Act as ‘The British Penal Code’ around the 1860s and later, became known as Section 377 overseas, too.

On the other hand, the other big colonial powers - France, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain  - did not leave such an legacy on criminalization of homosexual conduct. Due to developments in Enlightenment concepts of liberty and rights after the French Revolution, the French penal code of 1791 decriminalized sodomy between over-age consenting adults in private. Therefore, the French and the other Western European colonies presumably did not have such effects on its colonies as the British. 

Homosexuality was decriminalized in England and Wales in 1967 but as of 2021, there are 69 countries around the world that still condemn homosexuality as a criminal offense and it comes as no surprise that nearly half of these are African countries, once colonised by Britain. Out of the 54 countries in the Commonwealth - a loose association of countries, most of them former British colonies, - 36 have laws that criminalise homosexuality. This too, will not startle anyone. 

The English legislation against homosexuality has had, and sadly still has, ghastly after-effects on status of the present-day LGBTQ+ community because one a law is in effect, it is challenging to uproot, both legally and psychologically. In 2010, two gay men were sentenced to 14 years of hard labor in Malawi after being found guilty of “unnatural acts.” In 2018, 20 men were convicted of “illicit behaviour” after a raid on gay club in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Between 2010 and 2014, almost 600 people were hauled in court under Kenya’s anti-homosexual laws. Mistreatment and persecution of queer people is still widely practised in Uganda as oride parades are frequently shut down. In March 2020, a court in Singapore ruled in favor of keeping homosexuality unconstitutional, despite the high endeavours of LGBTQ+ activists. Jamaica is still known as the most homophobic country among the once-colonised colonies. Despite the demolition of Section 377 in September 2018 in India, the leading politicians and policymakers blatantly ignore the rights of homosexuals. And one thing all the aforementioned countries have in common is the stain of the British Empire. 

For centuries, across the African continent and Indian subcontinent, there was a completely different attitude towards sexual and gender identities. Many of the colonized countries did not see gender in the way that their European colonists did. In no country prior to colonisation do we see any persecution of LGBT individuals because of their sexuality, nor any anti-LGBT laws. The spread of fundamentalist Christian attitudes from the British meant that much of Africa and Indian subcontinent lost their previous cultural attitude towards sexual orientation and gender identity and were obliged to embrace “new” values from British colonists in the 19th and 20th centuries. One of the most heartbreaking effect of the colonial era is that generations later, many Africans and Indians now believe that homophobic attitude is a part of their culture and being an queer-ally is something “western”. The allegation is not just about the colonial era bringing and promoting Homophobic rules to their colonies but also of them corrupting the feasibilities of decriminalizing the Penal Code.

The then British PM Theresa May, at a meeting of Commonwealth Heads in 2018, expressed “regret” at the British Empire’s long legacy of homophobic legislation. A respectable but unpunctual gesture. As of 2021, at least 15 former-colonized countries have decriminalized the Penal Code post-independence. The Brits have already moved on but now, mock their former colonies for not harmonizing with the advances in the acceptance of the queer community. Ironic, isn’t it? 


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