This Alien Legacy: The Origins of African “Sodomy” Laws in British Colonialism

In a 2009 case before the India’s Delhi High Court, the home ministry argued that “objectively speaking there is no such tolerance to [the] practice of homosexuality/lesbianism in Indian society.”[i] Arguments like this one suggest a curious brand of colonial amnesia. The section of the Indian Penal Code used to defend this ruling – Section 377 – at its origin, did not at all attempt to respond to Indian society’s moral architecture.[ii] Instead, British colonial governors imposed it on India undemocratically, reflecting the British Judeo-Christian values of the time.

While this law has since been declared unconstitutional in India, more than eighty other countries around the world still criminalize consensual homosexual conduct between consenting adults.[iii] More than half of these countries have these laws because they once were British colonies.[iv] In Africa, this list includes 17 countries: Botswana, Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Mauritius, Nigeria, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Swaziland, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.[v] The British brought in the legislation because they thought ‘native’ cultures did not punish ‘perverse’ sex harshly enough. In other words, the colonized needed compulsory re-education in sexual practices. Curiously after 40 years of liberation struggle, African judges, public figures, and political leaders have begun defending these imperial legacy laws as citadels of nationhood and cultural authenticity. Flipping history, they now claim that homosexuality was imported from the colonizing West, forgetting that the West brought in the first laws enabling governments to forbid and repress it.

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[i]         Human Rights Watch, This Alien Legacy: The Origins of "Sodomy" Laws in British Colonialism, December 2008, 1-56432-419-2, available at:  

[ii]        Human Rights Watch, 1.

[iii]       Human Rights Watch, 4.

[iv]       Human Rights Watch, 5.

[v]        Human Rights Watch, 6.