How Britain exported homophobia

It is arguably true that the oppression of the LGBTQ+ community, including homophobia and transphobia, has a long and painful history that is deeply rooted in the legacy of white supremacy and colonialism. The impact of British imperialism on the lives of LGBTQ+ people in their colonies is immeasurable, and its devastating effects continue to be felt to this day.

It’s a little-known fact that prior to the arrival of the British colonial regime, many indigenous tribes in Africa and Asia were accepting people of same-sex intimacy and gender variance. For example, the Igbo and Yoruba tribes in Nigeria, as well as the Dagaaba people of Ghana, assigned gender later in life, not at birth. Meanwhile, the Imbangala people of Angola recognized men in women’s clothing as a cultural norm.

However, the introduction of anti-gay legislation by British colonisers in India in 1861, marked a significant turning point for the LGBTQ+ community. These laws, which were imposed on colonised territories in an attempt to set “standards of behaviour,” led to widespread discrimination and persecution, as well as marginalisation and stigmatisation. They not only undermined personal privacy and freedom but also created an atmosphere of fear and mistrust.

Sadly, out of the 69 countries where homosexuality is criminalised today, 36 of them are former British colonies. Many commonwealth African nations, for instance, still hold onto the colonial-era legislation and attitudes towards the LGBTQ+ community. 

As a member of the LGBTQ+ community from a commonwealth country in Africa, I know firsthand the challenges we face in society, including discrimination, persecution, and marginalisation. In my country, being gay or transgender is still considered a crime, punishable by 14 years imprisonment. The societal pressure to conform to “traditional” gender roles and heteronormativity forces many LGBTQ+ individuals to hide their identities or face persecution and violence from their families and communities. Not only are we denied basic human rights, such as access to employment, healthcare and education, there is little or no protection in the law from persecution and harassment.

Injustice, inhospitable hostile welcome for LGBTQ+

For many LGBTQ+ people, the only hope of escape from this persecution is to seek asylum in other countries. However, the UK’s hostile environment policies have made the asylum process a daunting and almost impossible task for many. As an LGBTQ+ asylum seeker, I know how difficult it can be to seek protection in the UK, especially given the “culture of disbelief” among decision-makers (DMs). Many LGBTQ+ asylum seekers are rejected because DMs do not consider them to be persecuted or at risk of persecution in their home country. The Home Office has even demanded “proof of sexuality” from asylum seekers, making it even more difficult for LGBTQ+ individuals to gain protection. The demand to provide ‘proof’ is hindered by the Home Office’s limited understanding of sexuality and lack of nuance. Sexuality is still largely seen by DM’s, and indeed wider society, as simply falling into ‘gay’ or ‘straight’. While it is of course traumatic and difficult for gay asylum seekers to apply for protection, a lack of knowledge and stereotypes around bisexuality, pansexuality or fluid sexuality makes it difficult to be believed.

The prevailing ‘disbelief culture’ reflects a broader inhospitable environment for migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. For individuals within the LGBTQ+ community who are seeking asylum, we face significant barriers to prove our sexual identity and providing the necessary evidence to support our claims. Living in secret and fearing the consequences of being outed, many LGBTQ+ people do not have the concrete evidence necessary to be granted protection. There is a contrast between having to hide your sexuality or identity in your country of origin to protect yourself, yet in the UK you have to amplify it in order to be given protection.

Furthermore, the long waiting periods and inability to receive benefits, work, open bank accounts etc, places LGBTQ+ individuals seeking asylum in the UK are at risk of abuse, exploitation, and destitution. The recent introduction of the Nationality and Borders Act, which requires higher standards of evidence, has only made it more difficult for LGBTQ+ asylum seekers to prove their sexuality.

We must demand better treatment for LGBTQ+ asylum seekers in the UK, including more hospitable and just asylum processes that do not rely on “proof of sexuality”. This is dehumanising.  We must also support local activists in their struggle for the decriminalisation of homosexuality, in Africa and other parts of the world, and in their fight for greater legal protections for LGBTQ+ individuals. The struggle for equality and justice is ongoing, but with persistence and solidarity, we can create a brighter future for all members of the LGBTQ+ community.


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