Prime Minister Theresa May has told Commonwealth leaders that the UK “deeply regrets” its legacy on anti-gay laws.
36 of the 53 countries in the Commonwealth continue to criminalise same-sex acts, primarily under laws imposed during the British Colonial era that were never repealed.
More than a billion people live under anti-gay laws in the Commonwealth.
Speaking at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) meeting in London on Tuesday, May responded to calls from LGBT activists for an apology over the UK’s legacy on the issue.
Addressing heads of government at the event, May said: “Across the world, discriminatory laws made many years ago continue to affect the lives of many people, criminalising same sex relations and failing to protect women and girls.
“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 United Kingdom’s Prime Minister, I deeply regret the fact that such laws were introduced, and the legacy of discrimination, violence and even death that persists today.”
She added: “As a family of nations, we must respect one another’s cultures and traditions, but we must do so in a manner consistent with our common value of equality – a value that is clearly stated in the Commonwealth charter.
“Recent years have brought progress. The three nations that have most recently decriminalised same-sex relationships are all Commonwealth members, and since the heads of government last met, the Commonwealth has agreed to accredit its first organisation for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
“Yet there remains much to do. Nobody should face discrimination or persecution because of who they are or who they love.”
“The UK stands ready to support any Commonwealth member wanting to reform outdated legislation that makes such discrimination possible, because the world has changed,” May added.
May said: “If the Commonwealth is to endure in such a world, we must demonstrate our purpose anew. We must show what the Commonwealth is capable of, and this summit can be the moment where that change begins to happen.”
The Prime Minister’s comments come following pressure by campaigners, with more than 100,000 people signing a petition calling for the issue to be raised at the meeting, alongside pressure from the Commonwealth Equality Network (TCEN).
TCEN Secretariat Paul Dillane, Executive Director of Kaleidoscope Trust, told PinkNews in a statement: “This year’s Commonwealth summit in London was a test for how the UK government approaches its commitment to advancing LGBT rights globally, but also how it addresses its legacy of exporting anti-LGBT laws during the colonial era.
“In the majority of Commonwealth countries that criminalise LGBT people, these laws endure to this way with LGBT people experiencing endemic discrimination and violence.
“Over the last year the British government has listened to the voices and the needs of LGBT activists on the front line of the struggle for equality.
“We welcome the Prime Minister’s statement, which recognises the progress that has been made in Commonwealth countries including Belize, Seychelles and most recently Trinidad and Tobago.
“It is our hope that other Commonwealth countries will work together with civil society to ensure LGBT people can live their lives freely and in safety.”
TCEN chair Rosanna Flamer-Caldera, Executive Director of EQUAL GROUND Sri Lanka, added: “I am extremely pleased that finally the UK has acknowledged its wrongdoing in bringing such insidious laws to our countries.
“We appreciate Prime Minister Theresa May expressing regret for the UK’s role in criminalising same-sex love in colonial times. It paves the way for making some positive change for the LGBT communities of the Commonwealth.”
Jamaican LGBT activist Glenroy Murray responded: “The Prime Minister made a necessary step in acknowledging and expressing regret about a historical reality that has impacted LGBT people everywhere.
“It challenges the idea that anti-sodomy laws are indigenous to Commonwealth territories, particular those in the Caribbean and Africa. As she notes, it was a bad move to export those laws and it is a bad move to keep them.
“I am hopeful that this apology can shift the conversations we have been having in our various countries and begin to think about how colonialism has driven us to do immeasurable harm to our people and how we can begin to reverse that harm.”
Qasim Iqbal, of the Pakistan-based NAZ Male Health Alliance, added that the Prime Minister must now build on her statement with action.
He said: “The Prime Minister’s statement of ‘regret’ is important because it reinforces my belief that homophobia is a western import. But the statement is not enough.
“The Prime Minister needs to now present an advocacy framework on what role the UK government will play in ensuring that the entire commonwealth is a place where people have the freedom to love a person of their choice.”
LGBT+ campaigner Peter Tatchell told PinkNews in a statement: “We thank Theresa May for heeding our appeal and expressing deep regret for Britain’s imposition of homophobic laws during the colonial era.
“It is a positive and welcome move. But it should have been made in front of the Commonwealth leaders who oversee the enforcement of these repressive laws, not at a NGO side event.
“This statement of regret cannot be easily dismissed and disparaged by Commonwealth heads of government.
“It acknowledges the wrongful imposition of anti-LGBT legislation by the UK, shows humility and helpfully highlights that current homophobic laws in the Commonwealth are mostly not indigenous national laws. They were exported by Britain and imposed on colonial peoples in the nineteenth century.
“The Prime Minister’s regret for Britain’s imposition of anti-gay laws valuably re-frames the LGBT issue in a way that it is likely to provoke less hostility in Commonwealth countries.”
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Director of the African Equality Foundation Edwin Sesange told PinkNews previously: “We have a problem in countries like Uganda, Nigeria and Kenya where there is a myth that homosexuality was imported from Western countries, which is wrong.
“[Our petition was] putting that back to Britain and the Commonwealth to put things right. It’s not that the west introduced homosexuality, it’s that they introduced homophobia. It’s entirely up to them to get rid of these roles and start discussing them.
Sesange said that Britain doesn’t just need to apologise because it is hosting this year’s CHOGM, but because the ‘myth’ that the West introduced homosexuality rather than homophobia is still highly believed in some African nations.
“People in those countries have been deceived by anti-gay people into thinking that the West introduced homosexuality,” said Sesange.
“What we don’t want Britain to do is overlook that. What Britain needs to do is apologise first, and let these people know that they are the ones who created these laws.”
“Surprisingly, in the 60 years since its existence, they have never discussed LGBTQI rights. The Commonwealth does deal in controversial issues – it got involved with the Apartheid – so we strongly believe that the Commonwealth is capable of dealing with homophobia in these countries.”
In a speech at the PinkNews Awards last year, Prime Minister Theresa May said that “anti-LGBT laws in Commonwealth countries are a legacy of Britain’s colonial past.”
“On this 50th anniversary of decriminalisation reminds us of the power we have to make a change.”