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Theresa May urged to apologise for Britain’s anti-gay colonial laws

The prime minister is facing calls to address the issue at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting this week.

By Will Stroude

Theresa May has been urged to apologise for Britain’s anti-gay colonial laws.

Gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has called on the prime minister to address Britain’s role in the continued persecution of millions of LGBT+ people around the globe as the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) gets udnerway in London this week.

36 of the 53 Commonwealth member states criminalise same-sex relations; nearly all under laws enacted by the British government in the nineteenth century.

In a statement, Tatchell said: “I urge Theresa May to acknowledge and apologise for the wrong Britain did by forcing homophobic laws on colonial peoples. These laws remain today and are menacing the lives of millions of LGBT people in Commonwealth countries. 

“An apology would wrong-foot homophobes in the anti-gay member states by highlighting the non-indigenous nature of their current homophobic legislation.”

The call comes after British diver Tom Daley marked his gold medal win at the Commonwealth Games in Australia’s Gold Coast by publicly calling for the repeal of anti-gay laws around the Commonwealth.

A Downing Street spokesperson told the Guardian: “This is an important issue and one many people across our country rightly feel strongly about.

“As the prime minister has said, we have a special responsibility to help change hearts and minds, and we will ensure that these important issues are discussed during the Commonwealth summit week.”

Read Peter Tatchell’s full letter to the prime minister below:

Dear Theresa May,

Commonwealth summit: UK should apologise for imposing anti-gay laws

I am writing to urge you to make an official apology on behalf of the UK government at this week’s Commonwealth summit; expressing regret and sorrow for Britain having imposed anti-gay laws on Commonwealth nations in the nineteenth century, during the colonial era. 

36 out of 53 Commonwealth member states still criminalise homosexuality, mostly based on laws enacted by Britain and its colonial administrations. Nine of these countries have a maximum penalty of life imprisonment for same-sex acts, under imperial-originated statutes.

Britain exported its homophobic laws through colonialism. These laws continue to treat over 100 million LGBT people in Commonwealth countries as criminals. They give de facto official legitimacy to anti-LGBT prejudice and discrimination and, with the threat of imprisonment, inhibit LGBT people from living open, fulfilled lives. 

The time has come for the UK to apologise.

The humility and remorse of an apology would be far more powerful and effective than neo-colonial lecturing and denunciation of homophobia by the UK government – especially given that the criminalisation of same-sex behaviour only fully ended in all four UK home nations in 2013.

An apology by you, on behalf of the UK government, would help change the narrative around anti-LGBT legislation; highlighting that these laws are not indigenous and were not originated in most of the countries that still retain them.

It would make the point that, contrary to populist propaganda in many Commonwealth countries, Britain’s real export to their nations was homophobia, not homosexuality.

An apology by the UK government would underscore this reality and aid the heroic LGBT and civil society defenders in Commonwealth member states who are pressing for decriminalisation.

Yours sincerely,

Peter Tatchell

Director, Peter Tatchell Foundation