Resources // “Sodomy” laws and colonial legacy

“More than half of the world’s remaining ‘sodomy’ laws -criminalizing consensual homosexual conduct –  are relics of British colonial rule” – this was what Human Rights Watch report This Alien Legacy The Origins of “Sodomy” Laws in British Colonialism (PDF) showed back in 2008.

This 66-page report describes how laws in over three dozen countries, from India to Uganda and from Nigeria to Papua New Guinea, derive from a single law (section 377) on homosexual conduct that British colonial rulers imposed on India in 1860. Delhi High Court order had decriminalised homosexual acts in 2009. The Supreme Court ruling reversed this decision in 2013.

Section 377 was, and is, a model law in more ways than one. It was a colonial attempt to set standards of behavior, both to reform the colonized and to protect the colonizers against moral lapses.  It was also the first colonial “sodomy law” integrated into a penal code—and it became a model anti-sodomy law for countries far beyond India, Malaysia, and Uganda.  Its influence stretched across Asia, the Pacific islands, and Africa, almost everywhere the British imperial flag flew.
In Asia and the Pacific, colonies and countries that inherited versions of that British law were: Australia, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Brunei, Fiji, Hong Kong, India, Kiribati, Malaysia, Maldives, Marshall Islands, Myanmar (Burma), Nauru, New Zealand, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Singapore, Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Western Samoa.

In Africa, countries that inherited versions were: Botswana, Gambia, Ghana16, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Mauritius, Nigeria, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Swaziland, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

Other colonial powers had far less impact in spreading so-called sodomy laws.  France decriminalized consensual homosexual conduct in 1791. (It did, however, impose sodomy laws on some French colonies as means of social control, and versions of these survive in countries such as Benin, Cameroon, and Senegal.)
Germany’s notorious Paragraph 175 punished homosexual acts between men from Bismarck’s time till after the Nazi period. German colonies were few, however, and the legal traces of its presence evanescent (and most of its colonies passed to Britain, France, or Belgium after the First World War).

Human Rights Watch, This Alien Legacy

Other resources (in chronological order):

PDF – Louis Crompton (1976), Homosexuals and the Death Penalty in Colonial America

LINK – Scott Long (2003), Before the law: Criminalizing sexual conduct in colonial and post-colonial southern African societies (PDF article available in Human Rights Watch and The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, More than a name: State-Sponsored Homophobia and Its Consequences in Southern Africa, pp. 256-299)

PDF – Human Rights Watch (2004) Hated to Death: Homophobia, Violence, and Jamaica’s HIV/AIDS Epidemic

PDF-  Christelle Taraud (2008), Genre, sexualité et colonisation. La colonisation française au Maghreb

PDF- Douglas E. Sanders (2009), 377 and the Unnatural Afterlife of British  Colonialism in Asia

PDF – Amr. A. Shalakany (2011), Islamic Legal Histories (Chapter “Dominanant historiography applied: Scriptural Sodomy Law”, pp 39-59)

PDF- Zeb Tortorici (2012), Contra natura: sodomy and homosexuality in colonial Latin America.

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