An alien legacy

Human Rights Watch has detailed how laws forbidding consensual homosexual conduct were introduced into countries that had been colonized by Europeans. The group says that more than 80 countries around the world still criminalize consensual homosexual conduct between adult men, and often between adult women.

These laws invade privacy and create inequality. They relegate people to inferior status because of how they look or who they love. They degrade people’s dignity by declaring their most intimate feelings “unnatural” or illegal. They can be used to discredit enemies and destroy careers and lives. They promote violence and give it impunity. They hand police and others the power to arrest, blackmail, and abuse. They drive people underground to live in invisibility and fear.

The group says that more than half those countries have these laws because they once were British colonies. Other countries were also affected by their colonial past, and some former British colonies were affected differently, but Human Rights Watch looked most closely at countries whose law was modeled on a law passed in India under British rule known as Section 377.

According to the Report called “This Alien Legacy” which was released last December:

Colonial legislators and jurists introduced such laws, with no debates or “cultural consultations,” to support colonial control. They believed laws could inculcate European morality into resistant masses. They brought in the legislation, in fact, because they thought “native” cultures did not punish”perverse” sex enough. The colonized needed compulsory re-education in sexual mores. Imperial rulers held that, as long as they sweltered through the promiscuous proximities of settler societies, “native” viciousness and “white” virtue had to be segregated: the latter praised and protected, the former policed and kept subjected.

In Asia and the Pacific, colonies and countries that inherited versions of that British law (India’s Section 377) were: Australia, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Brunei, Fiji, Hong Kong, India, Kiribati, Malaysia, Maldives, Marshall Islands, Myanmar (Burma), Nauru, New Zealand, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Singapore, Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Western Samoa.

Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Hong Kong (before being returned to China) has repealed these laws.

In Africa, countries that inherited versions of the Indian law were: Botswana, Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Mauritius, Nigeria, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Swaziland, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

Much of the opposition to changing colonially imposed law regarding homosexuality comes from the churches, which were themselves brought in by colonists:

Some reasoned voices spoke up. Nelson Mandela, steering a country proud of its human rights reforms, told a gathering of southern African leaders that homosexuality was not “un-African,” but “just another form of sexuality that has been suppressed for years … Homosexuality is something we are living with.”[35] Over the years, though, the desperate defense of Western mores in indigenous clothing grew more enraged, and influential. Nigeria’s President Olusegun Obasanjo perorated to African Bishops in 2004 that “homosexual practice” was “clearly un-Biblical, unnatural, and definitely un-African.” A Nigerian columnist echoed him, claiming those who “come in the garb of human rights advocates” are “rationalizing and glamourising sexual perversion, alias homosexuality and lesbianism … The urgent task now is to put up the barricades against this invading army of cultural and moral renegades before they overwhelm us.”[36]

From Singapore to Nigeria, much of this fierce opposition stemmed from Christian churches-themselves, of course, hardly homegrown in their origins. Archbishop Peter Akinola, head of the Anglican Church of Nigeria, has threatened to split his global denomination over some Western churches’ acceptance of lesbians and gays. He acknowledges that the missionaries who converted much of Africa in colonial days “hardly saw anything valid in our culture, in our way of life.”[37] Yet he also interprets the most stringent moral anathemas of the missionaries’ faith, along with an imported law against homosexuality, as essential bulwarks of true African identity.

But the embrace of an alien legal legacy is founded on falsehood. This report documents how it damages lives and distorts the truth. Sodomy laws throughout Asia and sub-Saharan Africa have consistently been colonial impositions. No “native” ever participated in their making. Colonizers saw indigenous cultures as sexually corrupt. A bent toward homosexuality supposedly formed part of their corruption. Where precolonial peoples had been permissive, sodomy laws would cure them-and defend their new, white masters against moral contagion.

Read the rest here.

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