Undoing colonialism: Angola lifts ban on homosexuality

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On 23rd January, Angola adopted a new penal code, its first since its independence from Portugal. The former penal code was in effect from 1886 and had not undergone reforms since 1975. In doing so, it removed an article that prescribed a jail sentence of six months to three years for “vices against nature”, an archaic reference to homosexual acts.

Although the anti-homosexuality law was not known to be actively enforced, local gay rights lobby Íris Angola have stated that the law contributed to wider prejudices and institutional barriers that gay people face. These include equal access to health, housing, employment and education. This echoes similar situations in other countries with seemingly unenforced anti-homosexuality laws, such as Singapore.

About 69 countries (depending on one’s classification) in the world still criminalise consensual same-sex conduct. However, the actual act in question is usually indirectly described instead, such as being called “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” or “abominable crime of buggery”. In about eight countries, the punishment may be the death penalty.

“Anti-sodomy laws, although only seemingly targeting gay men, affect entire LGBT communities.”

Angola’s move to decriminalisation follows other former Portuguese colonies like São Tomé and Principe (2012) and Cape Verde (2004). More recently and perhaps more well-known, India decriminalised homosexual intercourse last year after a lengthy court battle.

What all these countries have in common is that they were former colonies of present-day European countries like Portugal and the United Kingdom. The majority of countries today that still criminalise same-sex conduct are former colonies of the British Empire. Anti-homosexuality laws in these former colonies usually go by the label ‘Section 377’ because of how the Indian Penal Code served as a model for penal codes in other corners of the Empire.

Other former European empires had less impact in spreading anti-sodomy laws. For example, France decriminalised consensual homosexual conduct in 1791, although it did impose sodomy laws on certain colonies as a means of control, which still survive in places like Senegal and Cameroon.

Yet, these former colonial powers seem to have done little to persuade their former colonies to reverse such inhumane laws. But perhaps this is not surprising since few, if any, major European colonisers have fully acknowledged the atrocities of their colonial past and made proper amends and reparations.

“Westerners who think countries in Africa and Asia are “backwards” for criminalising homosexuality need to educate themselves about the legacy and actuality of Western imperialism.”

Although “traditional” colonialism ended in the 20th century, the Western spread of anti-LGBT sentiment still persists today. It seems like the USA has taken up the baton through American evangelical groups. Zambian Anglican priest Rev. Kapya Kaoma, in his book “American Culture Warriors in Africa: A Guide to the Exporters of Homophobia and Sexism”, argues how US groups seek to “impose their intolerant – and even theocratic – interpretations of Christianity on the rest of the world.” Examples of US-based religious groups encouraging the legalisation of anti-LGBT intolerance include the Catholic group Human Life International, the Mormon-founded Family Watch International, and the American Centre for Law and Justice. Although attention on this issue has largely focussed on Africa, US-based evangelicals spreading homophobia (and other kinds of intolerance) also operate in other parts of the world. South Korea, where Christianity has grown rapidly in recent years, is an obvious example.

Anti-sodomy laws, although only seemingly targeting gay men, affect entire LGBT communities. It is easy to imagine how prejudice against “sodomy” can lead to biphobia and lesbophobia. But the popularisation of the acronym ‘LGBT’ in recent decades across the world has meant a gross conflation of these identities and issues. People who are just homophobic will easily call themselves anti-LGBT, even if they were not initially biphobic or transphobic. The assumption that ‘LGBT’ refers to a homogenous group of people and issues means that homophobia will lead to transphobia and vice-versa, which I have witnessed in my birth country of Singapore.

Perhaps the best way for us to support the decriminalisation of homosexuality across the world is to support local, grassroots efforts and groups such as Íris Angola or ‘Pink Dot’ in Singapore. As briefly explored, international pressure can often have the opposite effect. Given how much Western Europe and the United States have directly caused so much suffering for LGBT peoples in the rest of the world, and how little they have done to reverse the effects, I personally find it extremely difficult to consider the West a beacon of LGBT rights. And Westerners who think countries in Africa and Asia are “backwards” for criminalising homosexuality need to educate themselves about the legacy and actuality of Western imperialism and neo-colonialism.

Image credit: David Stanley via Wikimedia Commons (cc-by-2.0)