This week, the U.K. hosted the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in London, addressing shared global challenges and planning strategies for a brighter future. One issue human rights activists had been pressing Prime Minister Theresa May to address is the criminalization of homosexuality in former British colonies: Of the 53 countries in the Commonwealth, 37 ban same-sex behavior to one degree or another.
On Tuesday, May called on Commonwealth nations to overhaul “outdated” anti-gay laws, insisting “nobody should face discrimination or persecution because of who they are or who they love.”
The United Kingdom “deeply regrets” its historic role in imposing such measures, she added, which has led to discrimination, violence, imprisonment, and in some cases death. (An estimated one billion people live in former British colonies with sodomy bans.) “I am all too aware that these laws were often put in place by my own country. They were wrong then and they are wrong now.”
Her speech, which went further than past condemnations by sitting prime ministers, drew cheers at home. LGBT activist Peter Tatchell insisted it “[could not] be easily dismissed and disparaged by Commonwealth heads of government.” But it wasn’t so well-received elsewhere: Kingsford Sumana Bagbin, deputy speaker of Ghana’s parliament, vowed to push back against any pressure to impose Western sexual morality, and is urging President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo to condemn May’s remarks.
“Homosexuality is worse than atomic bomb,” he said on a morning radio show this week. “So for that matter, there is no way we will accept it in country.”
In Kenya, President Uhuru Kenyatta told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that homosexuality is not a human rights issue, but rather one of “our own base as a culture.”
Even in Trinidad and Tobago, which did repeal its sodomy laws this month, religious leaders accuse May of “bullying” former colonies into changing laws around same-sex relations.
“If homosexuality is gonna be decriminalized, it will criminalize Christian freedom,” Bishop Victor Gill told BBC Radio 4. “From the perspective of the Christian community, that this is something that is being forced on us by power brokers that are influencing our government.”
But while Jamaica still punishes homosexuality with up to ten years hard labor, Prime Minister Andrew Holness said he was open to having a gay person in his government. “Firstly, it’s not my business, neither is it my interest,” he said at the Commonwealth gathering. “Whatever is in my discretion to distribute politically, a person’s sexuality or sexual orientation is not a criteria for the use of my discretion.”
Jamaica has one of the worst records on anti-LGBT violence in the world, but Holness added that views are evolving slowly on the island. The world needs to give them time, he said, lamenting that his countrymen feel “targeted.”
“I think that Jamaica ought to be given space to find its own solution to the problem.”
In Nigeria, which criminalizes homosexuality with up to 14 years in prison, the Vanguard declared May had instructed heads of state “to return home and promote homosexuality.”
“Like a mother talking to her kids, she promised them lollipops in the form of aid to enable them dismantle all laws that criminalize or do not favor homosexuality.” Another columnist, for the Nigerian Guardian suggested May was just pushing for LGBT rights in Africa because she was a lesbian herself.
Femi Gbajabiamila, the majority leader in the Nigerian House of Representatives, said that he “seriously doubted” there would be any change in the law there. “As far as we are concerned in the National Assembly, this matter was conclusive and we will never revisit it.”
So if words don’t work, would sanctions? Even though many Commonwealth countries rely on substantial aid from the U.S. and U.K., their leaders say no.
“A country like Nigeria, that is strictly guided by Islamic and Christian codes respectively will not contemplate this act of immorality,” representative Alhassan Doguwa. “No matter what global consequences we may have to face.”