Although swathes of the British Empire collapsed in the late 20th century, following independence movements, attitudes from this colonial era still persist. The UK’s rhetoric is characterised by liberal acceptance of sexual minority identities, juxtaposing it with the supposedly contrary ‘global South’. Such discourses are oblivious to ongoing homophobia and transphobia in the UK, however, and ignore the fact that homophobic laws elsewhere predominantly originate from British colonial rule.
Discourses which romanticise the Western world as wholly accommodating to LGBT individuals ignore the fact that the many national laws which criminalise homosexuality remain in place from the British Empire. Colonial rule was often particularly destructive for indigenous people who were not heterosexual or who did not adhere to gender norms. In Nigeria, prior to colonisation, there was not a clear gender binary. The Hijra in India, sometimes known as the third gender, were seen as sacred. Despite this cultural significance, the British criminalised them in 1871.
These examples illustrate how the Empire enforced heterosexuality as the default, and solely acceptable, way of engaging in sexual or romantic relations. The imposition of such Victorian cultural attitudes has left many post-colonial states with deeply embedded homophobia and a legacy of heteronormativity, despite the formal end of the Empire decades ago. This is felt strongly in both cultural attitudes and through the lack of legislative protection.
A 2008 report from Human Rights Watch found that the criminalisation of homosexuality among adult men in more than half of the countries with those laws today, emerges from lingering colonial-era legislation. Eleven countries can still enact the death penalty for same-sex activity; Britain exercised significant power over domestic policy in nine of these countries, with all but one being formal protectorates. Slowly, it seems some laws are being abolished. In 2019, the Indian Supreme Court repealed a clause criminalising homosexuality from the Indian Penal Code, originally implemented by the British Raj in 1860.
Although vaguely addressed by Theresa May in her 2018 speech during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, governments still fail to take genuine responsibility for the detriment that their legacy has caused for the lived experiences of sexual minorities in post-colonial states.
Turning back to the contemporary UK, it was only since December 2020 that all gay and bisexual men have been able to donate blood, following a modification to donor rules. Such change triggers discussion around just how accepted, and legally protected, sexual minorities really are in Britain. This alteration, which the Government called a “landmark change”, is just one reason why it is not productive for Britain, or the West more generally, to be seen as the ideal framework for the acceptance and integration of sexual minority identities.
Cultural constructions of sexuality are shaped by both implicit attitudes, as well as the actions of those in power and the codification of rights. In the UK, symbols of LGBT activism are commonplace, including pride demonstrations and marches. From these gestures, one might conclude that Britain is truly accepting of diverse sexual and gender identities. But such rhetoric remains centred around ‘tolerance’, rather than ‘acceptance’.
In Angels of America, playwright Tony Kushner highlights that tolerance is not enough, because “underneath is intense, passionate hatred”. These attitudes materialise in daily life, particularly through the stigmatisation of sexual minorities, and the ongoing mainstream use of derogatory slurs. These displays of homophobia translate into real life violence, with hate crimes against sexual minorities in the UK tripling in the last five years, as reported by the BBC in 2020.
This implicit, and explicit, demonisation of non-straight individuals embodies the extent to which heteronormativity remains the hegemonic discourse in the UK, just as the British once imposed elsewhere. This should be dealt with, as stigmatisation and abuse has real, internalised effects on the health and wellbeing of LGBT persons, evidenced in a landmark research paper by Mink et al. in 2014.
Domestically, the Government should promote strong rights and encourage a more inclusive rhetoric surrounding sexual minorities in the media. The UK must also deconstruct its outlook of superiority over countries in the ‘global South’, and admit there is significant work to be done within Britain to improve the lives and protection of LGBT individuals. This requires a fundamental switch in how we conceive of sexual minorities: they are not something to be ‘tolerated’, but rather, real people who deserve to be celebrated and admired for their diversity.
April Whitworth is reading Anthropology at the University of Bristol.