U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May called upon Commonwealth nations to repeal their anti-gay sodomy laws following pressure from the local LGBTQ community.
In a meeting with the heads of government who lead the former British territories, May claimed she “deeply regrets” the country’s history of pushing laws targeting homosexuality. During the colonial era, Britain imposed anti-sodomy codes on many of the cultures it occupied.
As May pointed out, the centuries-old laws have left a “legacy of discrimination, violence, and death that persists today.”
Thirty-seven of the 53 Commonwealth countries still have anti-sodomy codes on the books, according to the advocacy group All Out. A conviction for engaging in same-sex intercourse can lead to hefty fines or prison. In Jamaica, the sentence for contravening Section 76 of the Offenses Against the Person Act of 1864 is 10 years forced labor.
As former colonies like Trinidad and Tobago strike down their outdated laws criminalizing homosexuality, May encouraged others to follow suit.
“Nobody should face discrimination or persecution because of who they are or who they love and the U.K. stands ready to help any Commonwealth member wanting to reform outdated legislation that makes such discrimination possible,” she said on Monday.
May’s comments followed a petition from 15 LGBTQ advocacy groups urging May to take a stand on the anti-sodomy codes. Organizations like African Rainbow Family, NAZ Pakistan, Oogachaga Singapore, Out-Right Namibia, Sexual Minorities Uganda, and U.K. Black Pride joined All Out in singing onto the appealwhich has garnered 15,000 signatures to date.
The petition was accompanied by a planned action from All Out on Monday night. The advocacy group projected a message onto the Palace of Westminster proclaiming: “In 37 Commonwealth countries, love is illegal.”
Efforts on the part of queer rights campaigners appear to have been successful in pushing the envelope.
As All Out noted in a statement, May was not scheduled to address LGBTQ issues at Monday’s event. Executive Director Matt Beard claimed that if leaders “want the Commonwealth to be recognised as a credible twenty-first century global body, they must include an open and frank discussion of LGBTQ decriminalisation on their agenda.”
“Over the last year the British government has listened to the voices and the needs of LGBTQ activists on the front line to understand the most effective ways to advance LGBTQ equality,” concluded Paul Dillane, executive director of U.K.-based LGBTQ organization Kaleidoscope Trust.
The meeting is timed at a pivotal moment for global queer and trans rights.
Along with the April 12 verdict from Trinidad and Tobago’s High Court decriminalizing sodomy, the Commonwealth countries of Kenya and India are set to rule on the constitutionality of their anti-sodomy laws. Jamaica Prime Minister Andrew Holness reaffirmed his support on Sunday for a national referendum which would allow voters to sound off on the colonial codes.
But as Holness calls for an “extended period of public education” to build support for LGBTQ rights in Jamaica, there’s a lot of work left to do. Many international leaders still view the existence of queer and transgender people as antithetical to local values.
“Many Commonwealth leaders shamelessly scapegoat LGBTQ people for domestic political advantage,” said All Out’s Campaigns Manager in Nigeria Ifeatu Nnaobi in a statement. “They often exploit the false narrative that homosexuality is a ‘Western import’ and argue that for this reason it must be eradicated.”
“With the U.K. hosting this year’s meeting, we want to set the record straight,” he added. “It is not homosexuality that is a ‘Western import,’ but homophobia.”
Glenroy Murray, the policy & advocacy manager at the Jamaican LGBTQ advocacy group J-Flag hoped this week’s dialogues between Commonwealth leaders will help nations “begin to think about how colonialism has driven us to do immeasurable harm to our people and how we can begin to reverse that harm.”
The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) is scheduled to last until April 20. LGBTQ advocates believe that May and other world leaders must continue the conversation on decriminalization to ensure these laws are finally struck down.
“The statement is not enough,” said NAZ Founder Qasim Iqbal in a statement, who acknowledged May’s remarks were “important.”
“The Prime Minister needs to now present an advocacy framework on what role the U.K. government will play in ensuring that the entire commonwealth is a place where people have the freedom to love a person of their choice,” he continued.
“Having the U.K. acknowledge its role in spreading these laws is a critical and very important first step, but there is much more to be done to secure the rights of LGBTQ people across the Commonwealth,” added All Out Programs Director Leandro Ramos in a statement to INTO.
Ramos claimed LGBTQ advocates will “keep working to make that happen.”
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