How are these three disparate entities connected? The answer is – very closely.
When is an appropriate time to review this subject? Any time is, but especially now as the UK hosts the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) between 16 – 20 April 2018 in London and surrounding locations.
The Commonwealth consists of 53 member states and 80 organisations that exist in locations around the globe and work together to promote democracy and peace. Over 40% of the world’s young people (640 million out of 1.8 billion) are members of the Commonwealth.
The Commonwealth countries include 19 in the African continent, 7 in Asia, 3 in Europe, and 11 in the Pacific: these are all locations where the footprint of colonialism has been stamped, and where the legacy of the imperialist laws relating to same-sex relations, are still being experienced. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in conversation with Reni Eddo-Lodge, comments that colonialism is not historical, it is contemporary: the effects are present everyday.
Of the 72 countries in the world where same-sex intimacy is categorised as a criminal offence, 36 of them are member states of the Commonwealth, and 9 of these have life imprisonment as a penalty, whilst in two there is risk of execution. The colonial legal legacy from the British Empire in 1860 criminalised ‘unnatural carnal desires’ under section 377 of many country’s penal systems. This conservative Victorian edict has remained entrenched in the legal structures of 36 Commonwealth member states.
In March 2018 there were 37 member states against equality for same-sex Commonwealth citizens. However, a recent challenge to these homophobic colonial laws, which deny a legal right to privacy, was made in 2017 in the High Courts of Trinidad and Tobago by the UK based LGBT activist Jason Jones. The pronouncement, on 12 April 2018, has become a landmark ruling as homosexuality has been decriminalised in Trinidad and Tobago. Justice Devindra Rampersad, delivering his ruling from the High Court of Trinidad and Tobago agreed that Section 13 and 16 of the Sexual Offences Act, which criminalise anal sex, were unconstitutional and violate Jones’ right to privacy, liberty and freedom of expression – the colonial sodomy laws are an inbuilt Imperial homophobic threat carved into the common law of many countries.
The colonial ‘saving clause’ dictated that laws could not be changed after independence, yet the Government of Trinidad and Tobago have twice amended the Sexual Offences Act since the country’s independence from Britain in 1962: in 1986 the Trinidad and Tobago parliament increased the maximum sentence for sodomy to 10 years imprisonment, and in 2000 the penalty for ‘the offence of buggery’ was again increased to 25 years. The government changes to the law enabled Jason Jones to bring his case to the courts as the Government’s 1986 and 2000 Sexual Offences Act changes nullified the ‘saving clause’.
Following the April 2018 ruling, the Attorney General of Trinidad and Tobago, Faris al-Rawi, said “Our society has changed significantly in its view on tolerating homosexuality, and radically so within the last generation,” yet Stuart Young from the Ministry of the Attorney General, confirmed that the State will appeal Justice Rampersad’s decision.
The week of the CHOGM has seen protests outside of Commonwealth House in London, where activist groups such as African Equality Foundation, and the Peter Tatchell Foundation, along with members of the public have been lobbying the Commonwealth Heads of Government to discuss LGBT issues at the meeting. This proposal has not been accepted in over 6 decades of meetings, with any discussions on LGBT matters being sidelined to NGOs.
There are some Commonwealth leaders who are supporters of equality, however these people, for example Desmond Tutu, Christopher Senyonjo, Festus Mogae, and Joaquin Chissano have historically not been given a voice in the global Commonwealth forum. A petition, by Edwin Sesange, of the African Equality Foundation, calling for an end to LGBT+ persecution in the Commonwealth, was delivered to the Commonwealth headquarters with over 104,000 signatures the week before the summit began. This petition appealed for all Commonwealth countries to:
- Decriminalise same-sex relations
- Prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation & gender identity
- Enforce laws against & violence, to protect LGBTI people from hate crime
- Consult and dialogue with LGBTI organisation
At the start of the CHOGM Peter Tatchell, who has been campaigning against anti-gay laws for over 30 years, wrote a letter to Theresa May, as the British Head of State hosting the Commonwealth summit, asking her to apologise for imposing anti-gay laws – the full apology did not happen, although in a NGO Commonwealth Forum, that ran concurrently with the Heads of States meetings, the UK Prime Minister did express ‘deep regrets’ for Britain’s historical legacy of homophobic laws across the Commonwealth.
The criminalisation of LGBT+ people is a clear breach of the human rights of the Commonwealth citizens and goes against the Section II on Human Rights as written in the Commonwealth Charter that starts with the words:
“We the people of the Commonwealth …”
We are committed to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other relevant human rights covenants and international instruments. We are committed to equality and respect for the protection and promotion of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to development, for all without discrimination on any grounds as the foundations of peaceful, just and stable societies. We note that these rights are universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated and cannot be implemented selectively. We are implacably opposed to all forms of discrimination, whether rooted in gender, race, colour, creed, political belief or other grounds. (Section II on Human Rights)
The last sentence of this Human Rights section confirms that the member states of the Commonwealth are opposed “to all forms of discrimination, whether rooted in gender, race, colour, creed, political belief or other grounds.” Unfortunately, by their continual refusal to openly discuss the matter of colonialism and the legacy of homophobia on the formal agenda, the Commonwealth Heads of Government are denying their commitment to equality and protection of civil, social, social and economic rights of the citizens of their individual nations.
However, following the victory in the Trinidad and Tobago courts on 12 April 2018, Jason Jones said, “This victory is much more than just the legal challenge and constitutional reforms. It is a rallying cry for the LGBT community and our allies to stand up and be counted! This represents the first moment in the history of the English speaking Caribbean that we have become truly visible and in a populist and meaningful manner. Yes, there was pushback but we are pushing forward in ways never seen before. This is the Rosa Parks moment for LGBT people of the Caribbean and we shall NEVER sit in the back of the bus again.”
In Britain, UK Black Pride – led by Phyll Opoku-Gyimah – and the African Equality Foundation, continue to work alongside other LGBTI activists to campaign for full equality for all within the UK and the Commonwealth.
Opoku-Gyimah was widely reported for turning down a MBE in 2016, some of her reasons were relating to the toxic legacy of colonialism on LGBT+ people, she stated: “I don’t believe in, and actively resist, colonialism and its toxic and enduring legacy in the Commonwealth, where – among many other injustices – LGBTQI [lesbian, gay bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex) people are still being persecuted, tortured and even killed because of sodomy laws, including in Ghana, where I am from, that were put in place by British imperialists.”
As the CHOGM 2018 closed in London on the 20 April 2018, the resistance that Opoku-Gyimah expressed in 2016 must be continued by all equality activists until there are full human rights for all Commonwealth citizens regardless of nationality or sexuality.
Marjorie H Morgan © 2018