Don’t Blame Yesterday's Colonialism for Today’s Homophobia

Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation
July 3 2014 8:30 AM

Don’t Blame Yesterday’s Colonialism for Today’s Homophobia

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Thousands of Jamaicans hold a demonstration against the local lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in Half Way Tree, Kingston, on June 29, 2014.

Photo by Gilbert Bellamy/Reuters

Last Sunday, 25,000 Jamaicans rallied in support of their country’s explicitly homophobic anti-sodomy law, comparing homosexuality to rape and murder and arguing that anti-gay laws are “righteous and Godly.” Jamaica’s anti-sodomy law, as many Western news sources are eager to remind us, is a “colonial leftover,” a “holdover” from Britain’s bygone rule over the island. As controversy over the law swells, expect these whispers to turn into roars blaming Jamaican homophobia on the country’s departed colonial overlords.

Mark Joseph Stern Mark Joseph Stern

Mark Joseph Stern is a writer for Slate. He covers science, the law, and LGBTQ issues.

Don’t believe it. This idea that the British government must “answer for” modern homophobia carries an unfortunate currency among the Western left, which often tacitly excuses gay hate in former colonies as an inevitable vestige of colonialism’s anti-gay bent. You hear it in story after story about a developing country’s rampant, frequently violent homophobia: Anti-gay laws and attitudes are the “legacy” or the “inheritance” of Western colonialism, and the homophobes of today cannot be blamed for the sins of their former rulers. For a time, this was probably true. But the statute of limitations has long run on this kind of soft-core cultural relativism. And the homophobes of 2014—be they in Jamaica or Britain, Uganda or America—cannot toss their culpability onto a historical scapegoat.

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That’s not to say, of course, that British colonial overlords didn’t commit the original sin. Some of the most murderously anti-gay countries of this century were first introduced to codified homophobia via former Western rulers—especially Britain, a true path-breaker in anti-gay oppression. Shameful as this past may be, a homophobic history does not necessarily create a homophobic destiny. Britain itself neatly proves this point: Despite its anti-gay legacy, the country was somehow able to muster the strength to throw off the yoke of homophobia and legalize marriage equality.

Why can’t its former subjects at least take the most basic step of decriminalizing homosexuality itself? Some are stuck with laws that date directly back to British rule; in India, the Supreme Court has tussled with its own colonial anti-sodomy law in recent years, first loosening it then unexpectedly reinstating it. The survival of these backward statutes is somewhat understandable; the gay rights movement is relatively novel, and it takes time to build a mass movement against anti-gay laws.

But what about countries like Jamaica, where 85 percent of citizens boast that they are homophobic, and gay hate crimes are shockingly common? What about Uganda, which hasn’t just preserved old homophobic statutes, but supplemented them with even more extreme provisions? This groundswell of gay hate bears only the most attenuated connection to antiquated colonial laws. Britain may have planted the seed of homophobia in these countries. But anti-gay hatred has grown into a horrifying thicket far beyond what colonialists of two centuries ago could have possibly imagined.

Here, some fault does lie in the West—or more specifically, the American Christians who travel abroad to find a new audience for their homophobic ramblings. This noxious influence shouldn’t be underestimated: Conservative evangelicals are sowing homophobia throughout the developing world, spreading hate like a virus. Now that the virus is spreading, however, bemoaning its American genesis does nobody any good. When we dwell on Western meddling, from a hundred years ago or just this decade, we risk seeing anti-gay foreigners as victims of hate as opposed to purveyors of it. In reality, they’re both—but so long as they’re inflicting their hate on others, they deserve the full force of our condemnation.

There’s more at stake here than a debate over cultural relativism. The African presidents who have signed extreme anti-gay bills into law have played upon colonialist guilt, castigating gay rights as a neocolonial attack. They claim that that LGBT tolerance is a “Western” innovation being foisted upon their countries in violation of “traditional African values.” These euphemisms are devilishly effective, painting basic gay rights as a Western swindle by lumping them into the same category as other colonialist humiliations. And they inject patriotic pride into measures like Uganda’s “kill the gays” law, turning support for such odious bills into a symbolic severing of the colonialist shackles.

When we absolve developing countries for their homophobic laws and mores based on the calamities of colonialism, we risk playing right into this narrative. The merit of gay rights transcends cultural boundaries and historical fault lines; when we inject colonialism into the equation, it makes LGBT equality seem like a Western fad instead of a universal human right. Our collective guilt over our colonialist past—and the current anti-gay activism of some of our more radical preachers—is probably appropriate. But we shouldn’t let shame over past colonial sins temper our resolve for present-day justice. 

Mark Joseph Stern is a writer for Slate. He covers science, the law, and LGBTQ issues.

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