Theresa May urges Commonwealth nations to overhaul legislation criminalising LGBT individuals

On the second day of a week-long meeting in London, Prime Minister of Britain, Theresa May, addressed a wide range of humanitarian and environmental issues at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, including laws that outlaw same-sex activity in 37 of its 53 member nations.

May said she “deeply regrets” Britain’s historical legacy of anti-gay laws across the Commonwealth, as its 53 leaders gathered in London for their annual summit focused on reinvigorating the Commonwealth, a network of mostly former colonies, as Britain seeks new post-Brexit ways to project its influence in the world and establish a role as a leader of free trade.

The prime minister urged the Commonwealth nations to overhaul “outdated”, colonial-era legislation that treat more than 100 million lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people across the member countries as criminals.

There is a global trend towards decriminalising homosexual acts, but some countries, like Nigeria and Uganda, have imposed stricter laws. While there are African voices using media like Twitter and film making to speak against criminal offenses and human rights of LGBT individuals, there is still a long way to go. The laws were passed under British rule and are still used in 37 of the Commonwealth’s 53 member nations.

May drew cheers from some in the audience on Tuesday when she said, “Nobody should face persecution or discrimination because of who they are or who they love.

“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. As the UK’s prime minister, I deeply regret both the fact that such laws were introduced, and the legacy of discrimination, violence and even death that persists today.

“Across the world discriminatory laws made many years ago continue to affect the lives of many people, criminalising same-sex relations and failing to protect women and girls,” May continued, adding that the UK stands ready to support any Commonwealth member wanting to reform outdated legislation that makes such discrimination possible.”

The number of states that criminalise same-sex relations is decreasing annually, with Belize and the Seychelles repealing such laws in 2016. But in many socially conservative and religious countries in Africa, where homosexuality is a taboo, there has been resistance to calls to decriminalise same-sex relationships.

A gay pride parade in Johannesburg, South Africa, March 2014. SAMANTHA MARX/CREATIVE COMMONS

South Africa, which rejoined the Commonwealth after the end of white-minority rule in 1994, is one of the exceptions. The first African country to legalise same-sex marriage in 2006, the country has one of the most liberal constitutions in the world, which protects gay rights.

This year’s summit is officially hosting gay rights activists under the umbrella of the Commonwealth Equality Network, giving grassroots campaigners the opportunity to lobby international government ministers and officials directly.

Human rights activist Peter Tatchell described the move as “positive and welcome” but suggested it should have been made in front of Commonwealth leaders who oversaw the enforcement of the repressive laws rather than at an NGO side event. He, however, emphasised the importance of the British prime minister’s statement.

“This statement of regret cannot be easily dismissed and disparaged by Commonwealth heads of government,” Tatchell said. “The prime minister’s regret for Britain’s imposition of anti-gay laws valuably reframes the LGBT issue in a way that it is likely to provoke less hostility in Commonwealth countries.”

May also committed 212 million pounds ($304 million) to try to make sure children living in developing Commonwealth countries receive 12 years of quality education, also touching on the need to reduce malaria deaths alongside Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates.

She said, “I want this to be the summit where the Commonwealth agrees to make that the goal for all our members – and begins to put in place the concrete measures that will allow it to become a reality.”