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How Britain's colonial legacy still affects LGBT politics around the world

Pinterest Reddit. By Vikram Doctor. During the recent hearings in the Supreme Court over the criminalisation of same sex relations by Section of the Indian Penal Code IPC there was a moment that really made legal analysts sit up. This case from the Caribbean posed a clear challenge to the Supreme Court: if a judge in another country could use an Indian verdict to strike down a law against consensual same sex relations, how could an Indian court not do the same?

Particularly when two of the judges in the court had written exactly that verdict, which had been invoked in another part of the world?

Homosexuals and the death penalty in colonial America.

The decision was front page news in most major countries. This international impact should not come as a surprise because Section is a law that has always cast a shadow beyond India. The history of the law shows how it has had an influence way beyond India. The colonies were passive laboratories. Laws controlling sexual activity were an important part of this. There was a practical reason for them — the fear that uncontrolled sexual activities could weaken the soldiers on who British rule depended. The British passed laws to regulate brothels, until the influence of missionaries forced them to close them altogether.

But when it came to same sex activity the only option considered was total prohibition. In the current hearings on Section there was a curious echo of these feelings in the arguments made by Suresh Kumar Koushal, the petitioner who successfully won reinstatement of criminalisation in He said he and others would appeal the ruling.

The Kenyan ruling came on the same day, however, that Taiwan had its first same-sex weddings , which were legalized last week by the legislature. More than 70 countries criminalize gay sex , most of them Muslim countries or former British colonies, according to advocacy groups. In the 19th century, British colonial rulers — far more than their counterparts from other European countries — outlawed same-sex relations in dozens of colonies on multiple continents. After gaining independence, most of those nations kept the bans in place, often using a version of the Victorian language the British had left behind.

At a meeting last year of Commonwealth heads of state, Prime Minister Theresa May said Britain regretted that history , and she urged other nations to change their laws. Britain did not repeal its own law against homosexual acts in England and Wales until , with similar laws repealed later in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

In the United States, gay sex was illegal in 13 states until a Supreme Court ruling in The highest courts in three nations that were once part of the British Empire have recently struck down such laws: Belize in , Trinidad and Tobago in April and India last September.


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A court case in Botswana is pending. But other former British colonies, particularly Uganda , have become more harsh in pursuing discrimination and punishment for gay sex.