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Gay Times March 12 - Issue 403

The Empire Strikes Back

The year 1885 was one of those years such as 1939, 1968 or, indeed, 2011, when events in the UK and beyond shaped history for decades to come. In 1885 the British Empire found itself under threat from its colonial competitors, and in what governing men vaingloriously called the ‘Mother of all Parliaments’, MPs were debating the Criminal Law Amendment Act (CLAA). 

Its explanatory title was ‘An Act to make further provision for the Protection of Women and Girls, the suppression of brothels, and other purposes’. This made it sound worthy enough, but the ‘other purposes’ were more regressive; an amendment made ‘gross indecency’ (taken to mean homosexual behavior short of actual sodomy, which remained a separate crime) between two men illegal. The punishment was to be a prison sentence of less than a year, with or without hard labour.

This now relatively obscure Act of Parliament had far-reaching consequences. Not only did it effectively recriminalise homosexuality in the UK, but it ultimately took effect across the British Empire too. And although it was repealed in the UK between 1956-81 (and in the Republic of Ireland only 15 years ago), in 41 of the 54 members of what is now called the British Commonwealth, the CLAA remains the law.
‘The shadow of the British Empire still hangs over many parts of the world in relation to homosexuality, it’s part of the colonial legacy,’ says Bob Cant, a Brighton-based writer who’s researched the issue. ‘This makes it particularly difficult for people in these Commonwealth countries to complain about homophobic violence. Earlier this year Kaleidoscope, an international lobbying group, was set up to explore ways of tackling such violence, especially in the Middle East and Africa.’

Some Commonwealth countries have repealed the CLAA at their own pace, but often very slowly. Only in 2009 did India – once the Jewel in the Crown of the British Empire – remove it from its statute books, following a campaign that emphasised the problems the law generated for HIV prevention initiatives. There are also cultural ironies. ‘Covert male homosexual activity and cross-dressing have been widely tolerated in some of the 41 countries,’ explains Cant, ‘but neither is ever regarded as being equally valid to heterosexual relations or marriage.’

Other former British colonies are notable for their progress in terms of LGBT rights. In Canada, for example, same-sex marriage was legislated for ?? years ago, while in South Africa – only two decades ruled by an ‘Apartheid’ government – politicians long ago grasped the political implications of LGBT inequality. Sexual equality was even written into its constitution, while it too has embraced same-sex marriage. The eloquent Archbishop Desmond Tutu has been particularly vocal, declaring that ‘homophobia is every bit as unjust as Apartheid’.  
Words: David Torrance

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