After India strikes down gay sex ban, advocate hopes other colonial-era laws face repeal

India's Supreme Court struck down a colonial-era law criminalizing gay sex. Some activists hope that this victory could spark a new wave of decolonization.

British colonial laws criminalizing gay sex were exported to India in 1860, says activist

An LGBT activist celebrates the news that Section 377 was struck down Thursday, Sept. 6, in Bengaluru, India. (Abhishek N. Chinnappa/Reuters)
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The Supreme Court of India's decision to scrap a ban on gay sex could be the start of a global push to repeal similar colonial-era laws, hopes one LGBT advocate.

"The dismantling of this law in India is hugely symbolic," said Téa Braun, executive director of Human Dignity Trust, a U.K. group fighting discriminatory laws around the world.

British colonial laws that criminalized consensual same-sex intimacy were exported to India in 1860, Braun told The Current's guest host Piya Chattopadhyay. From there, they spread across the British Empire.

"So it's where this colonial legal legacy started, and it's hopefully the beginning of where it will really continue to unravel globally."

Section 377, introduced more than 150 years ago, prohibited "carnal intercourse against the order of nature," which was widely interpreted as referring to homosexual sex. On Thursday, a five-judge bench in India's Supreme Court was unanimous in overturning the ban — which carried a punishment of up to 10 years in prison — but it could face legal challenges from conservative groups.

Activists celebrate in Mumbai, India, on Thursday, but there are still more than 70 countries criminalize same-sex relationships. (Francis Mascarenhas/Reuters)

More than 70 countries criminalize same-sex relationships, according to the UN, with Braun noting that a large swath of those are in the Commonwealth.

"Most of these laws do originate from British colonial legal systems, unlike for instance other European colonizers — the French, the Spanish, the Portuguese," she said.

"By the time they were colonizing, their penal codes had already decriminalized under the Napoleonic Code."

In April, British Prime Minister Theresa May said she "deeply regrets" the country's legacy of anti-gay laws across the Commonwealth. She urged leaders to overhaul "outdated" legislation.

Laws that are "stuck in Victorian times" don't just affect LGBT people, Braun noted.

"In much of the Commonwealth, rape in marriage is lawful," she said. Rape laws also aren't gender neutral, she added, and the age of consent can differ for males and females.

Laws that are 'stuck in Victorian times' don't just affect LGBT people, Braun said. (Francis Mascarenhas/Reuters)

Some countries, like the Seychelles and Mozambique, have already started to review and repeal the laws handed down from colonial times.

But Braun said that changes may not be seen as "politically expedient" in countries where there is opposition to LGBT equality and "it may not be the kind of thing that gets votes."

"What it takes is real leadership — genuine political leadership — that says every citizen is equal, and every citizen is entitled to be protected not only from discrimination but from violence which these laws enable."

Listen to the full discussion near the top of this page.


Produced by Samira Mohyeddin and Zena Olijnik.

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