Jesse Monteagudo

Jesse's Journal: Sodomy and the British Raj

Filed By Jesse Monteagudo | June 09, 2009 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: anti-gay legislation, british empire, colonial America, sodomy laws

In 1860, the British rulers of India criminalized homosexual activity in the subcontinent. Originally drafted by the historian Lord Macaulay, Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code decreed that "whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine. . . . Penetration is sufficient to constitute the carnal intercourse necessary to the offense described in this section." India's Penal Code later became the model for similar legislation in other British colonies in Africa, Southeast Asia and the South Pacific.

Last December, the Human Rights Watch ( issued a 66-page report, "This Alien Legacy: The Origins of 'Sodomy ' Laws in British Colonialism," about the enduring legacy of Section 377. "Half the world's countries that criminalize homosexual conduct do so because they cling to Victorian morality and colonial laws," said Scott Long, director of HRW's lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights program. "Getting rid of these unjust remnants of the British Empire is long overdue."

To the British Raj, their newly-acquired Asian and African colonies were sexually corrupt and in need of moral supervision from their imperial masters. The Brits feared that their own soldiers and settlers would be corrupted by the natives' more permissive sexuality. In the words of one British Viceroy of India, they would succumb to "replicas of Sodom and Gomorrah" as they acquired "special Oriental vices." Section 377 and other similar laws were intended to introduce "higher" standards of sexual morality into the Empire where the sun never sets. British sodomy laws were also used to oppress sexual or gender nonconformists, like India's transgender hijras.

Today, thirty-five former British colonies in Africa, Asia and Oceania have sodomy laws modeled after Section 377. In Asia and the Pacific, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Brunei, India, Kiribati, Malaysia, Maldives, Marshall Islands, Myanmar (Burma), Nauru, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Singapore, Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Western Samoa retain versions of this British sodomy law. The same goes for Britain's former African colonies Botswana, Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Mauritius, Nigeria, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Swaziland, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Countries that inherited Section 377, but has since abolished it, include Australia, Fiji, Hong Kong, and New Zealand. Meanwhile, eleven former British colonies in the Caribbean, including Jamaica, also retain sodomy laws derived from British rule, though from a different British model than the one imposed on India.

"From Malaysia to Uganda, governments use these laws to harass civil society, restrict free expression, discredit enemies, and destroy lives," HRW's Long said. "And sodomy laws add to the spread of HIV/AIDS by criminalizing outreach to affected groups." Though India, where all this started, is seriously reconsidering Section 377, the other former colonies insist on retaining their colonial masters' oppressive laws. Homophobic heads of state like Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, who recently called gays and lesbians "un-African" and "worse than dogs and pigs," forget that the laws that they support so vehemently are remnants of their countries' colonial past.

Jesse Monteagudo is a South Florida-based, freelance writer and activist. Reach him at [email protected]

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