Colonialism holds a dark legacy for LGBTQ people

Queen Elizabeth II passed away on September 8.

The relentless coverage of the death and impending funeral for Queen Elizabeth II continues. The death of the 96 year old monarch, who reigned for 70 years — the longest reigning monarch in British history and the second-longest reigning in world history after Louis XIV — remains the lead news story on every network. 

This despite killer climate crisis fires and floods nationwide, former president Donald Trump under investigation for violating the Espionage Act and other crimes, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) proposing a nationwide abortion ban less than 60 days from the midterm election and Covid-19 surging again.

Wall-to-wall coverage continues despite the U.S. having divorced itself from the British monarchy right here in Philadelphia with the writing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776.

I won’t pretend to understand the love of monarchy and am grateful never to have been a subject under a “liege lord,” as King Charles III was described in the formal proclamation by the Privy Council on Sept. 10: “Our only lawful and rightful liege lord, Charles III, by the grace of God, of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland, and of his other realms and territories, King, head of the Commonwealth, defender of the faith, to whom we do acknowledge all faith and obedience with humble affection, beseeching God, by whom kings and queens do reign, to bless His Majesty with long and happy years to reign over us.”

It’s frankly astonishing to hear this read aloud in 2022. 

It’s also astonishing that the history of colonialism that was a brutal and bloody thread that ran through Queen Elizabeth’s reign has largely been reduced by mainstream media to mere malcontented grumblings on social media. 

One horrific example of this was when Kenyans were massacred and others rounded up and tortured during the 8-year Mau Mau rebellion. Actions which Elizabeth approved. In 2013, after 50 years, Britain agreed to reparations ($23 million) for over 5,000 Kenyans who had been tortured during the Mau Mau revolt.

“The Queen leaves a mixed legacy of the brutal suppression of Kenyans in their own country and mutually beneficial relations,” The Daily Nation, Kenya’s biggest newspaper, wrote on Sept. 10. 

“What followed was a bloody chapter in Kenya’s history, with atrocities committed against a people whose only sin was to demand independence.”

But Kenya’s was just one of many fights for independence from the British who, at the zenith of their Empire, controlled a significant part of the world. The British National Archives notes that “By 1913 the British Empire held sway over 412 million people, 23 percent of the world population at the time, and by 1920 it covered 35.5 million km2 (13.7 million sq mi), 24 percent of the Earth’s total land area. As a result, its constitutional, legal, linguistic, and cultural legacy is widespread.” 

That legacy is still harming people, even though there are only 14 colonies left of the 70 controlled when Elizabeth was coronated in 1953. Among those people are millions of LGBT+.

In 2018, during an annual meeting of 53 British Commonwealth leaders, then British Prime Minister Theresa May “urged the Commonwealth nations to overhaul ‘outdated,’ colonial-era legislation that treats more than 100 million lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people across the member countries as criminals.” 

May said, “Nobody should face persecution or discrimination because of who they are or who they love.”

Same-sex relations are still illegal in 36 Commonwealth member states, including nine that have a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.

May said: “I am all too aware that these laws were often put in place by my own country. They were wrong then, and they are wrong now. As the UK’s prime minister, I deeply regret both the fact that such laws were introduced, and the legacy of discrimination, violence and even death that persists today.”

There are 69 UN member nations that have laws that criminalize homosexuality and consensual same-sex activity. Nearly half of these are in Africa and former British colonies. Two-thirds of the countries that still criminalize same-sex relations were, at some point, under British control.

Before India legalized consensual same-sex relations in 2018, at least one billion people in Asia lived with some form of anti-LGBTQ legislation put in place by the British. On September 6, 2018, a five-judge bench of the Indian Supreme Court made a landmark judgement to repeal Section 377, which criminalized same-sex relations and intercourse. 

The Indian Penal Code (IPC), a colonial legacy devised by Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay, was applied throughout Asia from 1862. IPC contained section 377 which stipulated that anyone who “voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal” would be punished with imprisonment or fines. Macaulay crafted Section 377 from Britain’s 16th Century Buggery Act. The law was applied in Pakistan, Singapore, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Brunei, Myanmar and Sri Lanka — all formerly under British rule and not all of which have divested of it.

As the history, “British Colonialism and the Criminalisation of Homosexuality” by Enze Han and Joseph O’Mahoney explicates, many laws that make homosexuality a crime today were imposed by the British. The authors assert that “former British colonies are far more likely to still have these laws in place than the former colonies of other European states.”

Jessica Stern, executive director of LGBTQ rights group OutRight International and U.S. Special Envoy To Advance The Human Rights Of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer And Intersex (LGBTQI+) Persons, told BBC that these laws are dehumanizing and have a daily impact that is cumulative. “If you’re a walking criminal, you’re living with a burden every day. Whether you internalize it or not, it affects you and everyone who loves you.”

As I report regularly here for international news, the nations where LGBT+ people still fight against repressive laws often are linked to British colonization. Jamaica remains part of the British Commonwealth and in 2021 the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights called on Jamaica to repeal laws prohibiting consensual same-sex conduct saying Jamaica’s 1864 Offences Against the Person Act, which punishes the “abominable crime of buggery” is a violation of human rights. 

When Forbes listed the “20 Most Dangerous Places For Gay Travelers,” nearly all were former British colonies or protectorates. Journalist Lyric Fergusson created the LGBTQ+ Danger Index for travelers. Fergusson details anti-LGBT+ laws in place. Among countries with the most restrictive and dangerous anti-gay policies, like Nigeria and Brunei, Fergusson notes, “In almost all cases, the laws outlawing consensual gay sex were put into place under British rule and were left in place following independence.”

And so as the pageantry over Queen Elizabeth II continues, one would do well to remember that among her “subjects” have been millions of LGBT+ people whose lives have been criminalized and even taken due to British laws governing already oppressed people. The Queen never cried for them.