Are you serious about LGBTQIA+ rights around the world? Then you need to understand colonial history…

Leena Patel Inequality, Influencing, Rights

What do international NGOs need to think about to support LGBTQIA+ rights in former colonies? In a blog for LGBTQIA+ history month, Leena Patel has four suggestions – and number one is to be aware of the scale of the impact colonial-era laws still have today

Pride parade in New Delhi, January 2023. India abolished colonial laws criminalizing gay sex in 2018 (picture: Arrush Chopra/Shutterstock)

In 1860, the British peer Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay saw the Indian Penal Code he had drafted become law throughout India. This included section 377 – the crime of unnatural offences, which criminalised ‘carnal intercourse against the order of nature’, which included gay sex – in order to ‘inculcate European morality into resistant masses’.

So began the process of criminalisation of LGBTQIA+ people throughout the British empire, which  — though India did finally abolish section 377 in 2018 – has left a legacy of oppressive laws, discrimination and attitudes around the world to this day. Almost half of the 71 countries which continue to criminalise private, consensual, same-sex intimacy are former British colonies. (Two blogs in Oxfam’s Pride blog series last summer from Lebanon and the Philippines both show how today’s reality for LGBTQIA+ people has been shaped by colonial history).

In this blog, I want to highlight that historic legacy and offer four, broad suggestions for how international NGOs (INGOs) – who may well themselves be based in countries that are former colonisers – should approach the challenge of supporting and shifting power to LGBTQIA+ people in former colonies.

1. Get to grips with the history – both of the colonial era and the rich LGBTQIA+ past before it

The oppressive laws in the Indian penal code ultimately spread far beyond India. This timeline created by the Human Dignity Trust shows how Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei all faced the same laws and criminalisation. The timeline sets out how those same laws were then adapted and spread even further in the half-century after Section 377 was passed – to British colonies throughout Africa, the Caribbean and South Pacific. Though India finally overturned the colonial-era laws and legalised gay sex in 2018 in a landmark Supreme Court ruling, the impact of those colonial laws can still be seen in a legacy of criminalisation in many places. (You can read more about the specific history of 377 and its legacy in this BBC article and see a map of the countries in the Commonwealth, largely composed of ex British colonies, that still criminalise LGBTQIA+ people here.)

Colonial laws also policed gender identity and expression, criminalising ‘cross-dressing for an improper purpose’ – a law first enacted in Guyana in 1893. And while the ‘crime’ of ‘unnatural offences’ and the ‘gross indecency’ laws did not target same-sex intimacy between women, many countries, such as Barbados, Kenya, Malawi, Sri Lanka and Zambia, expanded these to criminalise same-sex intimacy between women after independence – and after the UK had decriminalised same-sex intimacy.

This colonial crackdown on LGBTQIA+ people often came in places where diverse LGBTQIA+ people had historically been recognised, revered or played critical functions in society and culture. Indeed, diverse forms of sexualities, sexual orientation and genders have existed from time immemorial. They exist in the two-spirit people in Native American communities who were often visionaries, leaders and healers. They existed in the mûgwe from the Meru community in Kenya, who were religious leaders. They exist in the kinnar (also known as aravani, aruvani, jogappa, kothi and shiv-shakthis) in India, the khwaja sira in Pakistan, the fa’afafine’s in Samoa, and the fakaleitī’s (leitis) in Tonga.

A vital part of ‘knowing and facing the history’, therefore, is understanding how LGBTQIA+ people existed and often thrived in many countries before they were colonised.

2. Learn from those blazing a trail in activism and inclusion

LGBTQIA+ people continued to exist during colonial times. LGBTQIA+ people exist now. No amount of laws criminalising same-sex intimacy and trans people can prevent LGBTQIA+ people from existing. The flourishing of LGBTQIA+ rights and the fact that Oxfam, INGOs and others, including corporates, celebrate Pride month and openly talk about and support LGBTQIA+ rights is a testament to the trailblazers of LGBTQIA+ activists and organisations across the globe.

The faces and voices of activists and organisations stretch far and wide across the globe, from Caleb Orozco of United Belize Advocacy Movement (UNIBAM), which has fought a nearly 20-year long battle to remove Section 53 criminalising same-sex activity from Belize’s law books; to the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD) which took Guyana to the Caribbean Court of Justice which struck down Guyana’s cross-dressing laws as unconstitutional; to the lesbian legal powerhouse couple, Menaka Guruswamy and Arundati Katju, who won the legal battle to decriminalise gay sex in India.

Small and large, local and global, diverse LGBTQIA+ organisations have forced open doors to inclusion and paved the way for others to do the same.

Many have been from former colonies. It was Dr. Beverley Palesa Ditsie, a South African lesbian activist and filmmaker, who was the first woman to bring LGBTQIA+ rights to the UN in the Fourth World Conference of Women held in Beijing in 1995 and who, as a founding member of Gay and Lesbian Organisation of Witwatersrand (GLOW), organised Africa’s first Pride in apartheid South Africa in 1990.

Together with human rights advocates, lawyers and jurists, LGBTQIA+ activists and organisations convened and drafted the Yogykarta principles (YP), which reaffirmed and recognised LGBTQIA+ people’s rights as human rights. This helped to open the space to establish  the UN Independent Expert on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) in 2016. This was renewed in 2019 for three more years, mostly due to the tremendous push by LGBTQIA+ activists – 1,300 organisations from 174 countries signed the statement calling for renewal of the mandate.

3. Understand continuing attempts to frustrate and undermine LGBTQIA+ rights

Over 160 years after Lord Macaulay’s laws, anti-LGBTQIA+ activists – often rooted in elements of the Christian evangelical movement in the USA and more recently trans exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs) in the UK – continue to try to influence people in the Global South to restrict LGBTQIA+ rights. In Uganda, the export of Christian evangelicalism has led to the expansion of anti-gay laws, which criminalise same-sex intimacy and the ‘promotion’ or recognition of such sexual relations. Such groups are also shaping the development agenda aided by huge sums of money and propaganda. Right-wing religious groups have also filed appeals as interested parties to prevent decriminalisation of same-sex intimacy.  And this activism is now spreading to the UK and Europe.

All this means is the fight is far from over. That’s why the work of Global South LGBTQIA+ organisations and networks, such as The Commonwealth Equality Network (TCEN) – made up of 66 LGBTQIA+ organisations across 47 commonwealth countries – is critical in the fight for LGBTQIA+ equality in former colonies.

In doing this, we must not forget to highlight and advocate for the specific rights of LGBTQIA+ people of colour, who face intersecting forms of discrimination and stereotyping, including racism from within the wider LGBQIA+ community. In fact, racism by LGBTQIA+ leaders and within mainstream LGBTQIA+ spaces in the UK led to the founding of UK Black Pride – the world’s largest celebration for African, Asian, Middle Eastern, Latin American and Caribbean-heritage LGBTQIA+ people. Other challenges for LGBTQIA+ include being hypersexualized and often being invisible in representations of the community and in the media and the arts. We need to be constantly wary of viewing LGBTQIA+ experience and history through a Western lens: for instance the conversation around “coming out” tends to assume a white and/or western, social context, which is very far from the reality for many queer people across the globe. 

4. Nothing about us without us: share the love and the funding

So what part can INGOs play in dismantling this colonial legacy? A fundamental starting point is to think about and start a process on what allyship looks and feels like. Listening to and being led by LGBTQIA+ organisations and activists is key; this also includes co-creating the process of engagement, as well as calling out abuses and injustices wherever they are.

Some of this allyship may result in funding. LGBTQIA+ activists and organisations have fought hard to get LGBTQIA+ rights on the agenda of donors; INGOs should not compete for these funds.

Funding is critical to the survival of LGBTQIA+ organisations who usually are the first-point of contact for many LGBTQIA+ people and are often staffed by LGBTQIA+ people who work in extremely difficult conditions either voluntarily or with little funds – 60.9% of LGBTQIA+ organisations interviewed as part of a study to understand the impact of Covid-19 said they had no reserves; two-thirds of these organisations provide direct services to LGBTQIA+ communities in Commonwealth countries.

Other areas of allyship include opening doors to policymakers and donors and sharing the table with LGBTQIA+ activists and organisations, as well as mainstreaming and amplifying LGBTQIA+ rights in partner and allyship with LGBTQIA+ organisations. Looking inward and getting your own house in order – with progressive internal policies and culture – is vital to making this happen.

The long legacy of colonialism

Of course, LGBTQIA+ people are not a homogenous group – they are womxn, trans men and women, gender diverse and non-binary people, people living with HIV; they come from diverse backgrounds which cut across class, gender, ethnicity, caste, clan/tribe affiliation, religion and other identities and factors – intersectional identities and factors which exacerbate their discrimination. But one thing diverse LGBTQIA+ communities across former colonies share is living with the remnants of colonialism – and the past erasure and criminalisation of LGBTQIA+ people, history, culture, traditions and customs – which continues to haunt and devastate their lives every day.

It’s time for INGOs to do much more to understand, acknowledge and respond to the specific challenges that colonial history brings. In fact, it’s essential if we are serious about supporting the global LGBTQIA+ struggle for equality,  rights and justice, and making racial justice, decolonisaton and intersectionality a reality in our work and in our organisations.


Leena Patel

Leena Patel is Senior Programmes Advisor, Valuing Women’s Work, at Oxfam GB

Also check out our summer series of blogs from last year about LGBTQIA+ rights around Pride month. All the blogs are on Oxfam’s Views and Voices site aimed at development professionals. Subscribe here to keep up with the latest posts and also follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn.