After winning gold in the 10m synchronised diving event at Australia’s Commonwealth Games last month, diver Tom Daley took the opportunity to bring to light the fact that homosexuality is still illegal in nearly forty Commonwealth countries. Though he has been criticised for speaking out against countries formally under British rule whilst competing for Britain, it rightfully brought the issue into mainstream headlines. Additionally, it started many discussions about what more should be done to stop the oppression of homosexuality around the globe. At the same time, Theresa May was addressing the subject at the annual Commonwealth leaders summit.
Yet there’s more to the issue, especially regarding Britain’s history of outlawing homosexuality. Under the Victoria penal code, British colonists made it illegal to be gay in a step which was consequently implemented in every country under British rule. The UK has mostly abandoned these outdated laws; however, the stark truth remains that thirty-six Commonwealth countries have kept them in place, meaning millions of gay and lesbian citizens are oppressed in the countries that are home to a third of the world’s population.
In the Commonwealth, paradoxically, progress and regression seem to be happening alongside one another
As perfectly explained in a recent PinkNews article, ‘‘anti-gay laws originating in Britain aren’t an archaic part of history – they are an archaic part of the present’’. Despite making considerable progress on home territory in the five decades since homosexuality was made legal, the UK still has work to do with regards to LGBTQ+ equality. Sex education in schools needs the inclusion of those outside of heteronormativity, and a survey recently carried out by Stonewall shows only 51% of people believe more should be done to tackle discrimination against transgender people.
Meanwhile in the Commonwealth, paradoxically, progress and regression seem to be happening alongside one another. Australia legalised same-sex marriage in December, and in 2015, Sydney was named as one of the ten best places in the world to be gay. In Kenya, where fourteen years in prison is the sentence for homosexuality, its High Court has meanwhile been discussing whether or not to legalise being gay, as a group of human rights lawyers argued against the laws together as the Kenyan National Gay and Lesbian Rights Committee. Despite this, events such as India’s restoration of colonial-era outlawing of homosexuality in 2013 still reflect the progress which needs to be made.
There has been some positivity regarding this back in the UK, however. Addressing the Commonwealth Heads of Government at the summit, Theresa May took the opportunity to raise the issue and urged the audience to overhaul the laws, which she ‘deeply regrets’ and described as ‘outdated’. Receiving praise and applause, she added that ‘nobody should face persecution or discrimination because of who they are or who they love’. Human rights activist Peter Tatchell approved the move but felt it should have been delivered directly to the leaders of the nations with the oppressive laws in place.
Regardless, the Prime Minister’s words will have no doubt been heard by those in charge and hopefully will serve as a catalyst for progress. Having previously acknowledged last year that Britain has a ‘special responsibility’ to change opinions on anti-gay laws, she is in fact doing more than her political predecessors to try and put things right.
righting the wrongs that failed LGBTQ+ citizens then, and now, is long overdue
Similarly, on the back of her recent scandal surrounding her involvement and knowledge of the government’s immigration removal targets in the Windrush controversy and resignation, former home secretary Amber Rudd pledged last week that the UK is to spend more than £5m in a programme aiming to reform the harsh laws against homosexuality in Commonwealth countries. Though little is known as of yet about the contents of the programme, it will involve close work with organisations including the Kaleidoscope Trust among others after 100,000 signatures were received in a petition calling for change.
Only time will tell how much progress has been made and whether the UK’s recent actions are enough of a wake-up call to make Commonwealth countries revoke the oppressive laws put in place in Britain’s past. May’s invitation that the ‘UK stands ready to support any commonwealth member wanting to reform outdated legislation’ assuredly asserts the expectation of repeals. The 2022 Commonwealth Games will no doubt once again bring the issue closer to home – quite literally as Birmingham is hosting the event – but hopefully, substantial strides will have been made to put an end to the preposterous illegality of being gay. Of course, this process will take time, and righting the wrongs that failed LGBTQ+ citizens then, and now, is long overdue. However, the events of the last weeks symbolise that Britain is facing up to its past and is attempting to do something about it.