Gay Sex Is Still Banned in India Thanks to a Victorian-Era British Law

How It Works
Dec. 12 2013 11:12 AM

A Bad Week for Global Gay Rights 

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Indian gay rights activists take protest against the Supreme Court ruling reinstating a ban on gay sex in New Delhi on Dec. 11, 2013.

Photo by Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images

All in all, it’s been a fairly grim week for gay rights around the world, starting with Vladimir Putin’s decision to name a notoriously ant-LGBT official to run the country’s new state news agency.

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

The top court of Australia has struck down the recent legalization of gay marriage in the country’s capital, Canberra, annulling the marriages of 27 couples in the process. The legislation had actually had larger implications as it allowed nonresidents of the city to get married in the capital as well. The court ruled that only Parliament has the power to decide who can get married. Polls show the majority of Australians support same-sex marriage, but a bill legalizing was voted down last year. Parliament also passed a law defining marriage as between a man and a woman in 2004.*

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Meanwhile in India, the country’s supreme court overturned a lower-court ruling legalizing gay sex. This means that consensual sex between same-sex adults can once again be punished by a 10-year prison term. As the Wall Street Journal reports, India’s ban on gay sex in a law that predates the country’s independence:

The colonial-era law at the heart of the decision Wednesday has existed since 1860. It prohibits people from engaging in "carnal acts against the order of nature," and was used against same-sex couples.
Many Commonwealth countries inherited the Victorian-era law during British colonial rule. Countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, among others, still have some version of it on their statute books, said Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia director of the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch.
Australia, Fiji, Hong Kong and New Zealand are among Commonwealth countries that had the law, but abolished it, she said. 

Britain decriminalized consensual gay sex in 1967, but the ban remains on the books in many countries that inheritied the British legal system. A study published last year in the journal Comparative Politics found that 60 percent of the countries where homosexual activity is prohibited by law have common-law systems based on the British model.

*Correction, Dec. 12, 2013: This post originally stated that the Australian Parliament prohibited same-sex marriage in 2002.

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