Nations across the world, one by one, are eliminating their old laws and statutes that make homosexuality illegal. The largest and most recent of these is India, where an old law–section 377–imposed by the former British occupiers, was recently struck down.
The judgment opened with a quote from Goethe: “I am what I am, so take me as I am.” It relies on knowledge from psychology and science to support its reasoning, even giving a nod to rainbow symbolism (“different hues and colours together make the painting of humanity beautiful”). Most of all, it is a heartfelt discourse from the justices to their nation on the importance of human rights and diversity, an invitation to move “from bigotry to tolerance,” to serve “as the herald of a new India.”
Bringing it back to home soil, last month the High Court of Botswana ruled that Sections 164 and 167 of Botswana’s Penal Code which outlawed ‘carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature’ was unconstitutional, rejecting colonial-era laws that imposed up to seven year jail terms for same-sex relationships. The ruling made international headlines and was viewed by many as a step towards improving LGBTQI+ rights in Africa.
There will be a lot more work to do in Botswana and in many other countries, where attitudes against homosexuality are deeply embedded, but now at least the laws exist which establish a legal foundation for change. I of course write this deeply saddened by the Attorney General Abraham Keetshabe’s recent decision to appeal the ruling, calling it a “mistake.” A similar fate experience by Kenya in May, when its High Court ruled against overturning a law banning gay sex.
Today, seventy countries around the world still criminalize homosexuality, wielding punishments that include imprisonment, penalties, brutalization, and, in certain regions, death. In twenty-seven of these nations, the law only applies to men, according to a study conducted by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA). While these decrees were first introduced in vastly distinct contexts, at least thirty-seven of the seventy countries in which homosexuality is currently illegal were once under British control and these policies originated during colonization.
Many cases that address LGBTQI+ legal issues have been brought to court in the past year, paving the way for future advances toward decriminalizing same-sex relationships, supporting same-sex marriage, bringing forth legislature that protects human rights, and even introducing LGBTQI+ education to school curricula. Here is a timeline of the African nations that have legalized homosexuality, and when they did it: South Africa – 1994, Cape Verde – 2008, Lesotho – 2012, Mozambique – 2015, Seychelles – 2016, Angola – 2019
There are of course a few places where homosexuality was never legally criminalized. Nations such as Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Benin, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Djibouti and Madagascar.
Africa has some steps to take, contrary to many of our cultures, several nations are overtly hostile to the LGBTQI+ community, and societal homophobia often leads to alarming mental health issues within the community. Homosexuality is illegal in Algeria, Angola, Burundi, Cameroon, Comoros, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Ghana, , Kenya, Liberia, Libya, Malawi (enforcement of law suspended since 2011), Mauritius, Morocco, Namibia, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Togo, Tunisia, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
If you look back at the legalisation timelines, it is clear that legalisation is gaining momentum. More nations have legalized in recent decades than in the preceding ones. I would like to think that this momentum and consensus will continue and that this frighteningly long list of nations where people are not allowed to be who they are will continue to shrink.
Not all that long ago this change might have been unthinkable….one might have despaired at how difficult it can be to change people's point of view on a subject such as this. But hearteningly, it seems people can and do change–people used to think slavery was necessary and moral, they did! People thought that women should not be allowed to vote. We humans are flexible and malleable; sometimes that means we can adapt our ways of thinking and change for the better.
BY TANLUME ENYATSENG