2019 - 2020 Modern Volume 13

The British Empire and the Criminalisation of Homosexuality

By Hannah Ahmed

The British empire is credited with bringing civilisation and democracy to its colonies, however, it’s important to unpack and understand what this really entailed. One of the consequences of the implementation of British laws was the criminalisation of homosexuality, enforcement of heteronormativity and binary understandings of gender, which were not previously present in many colonies before British occupation. 

In 1860 the Indian penal code (IPC) was implemented, which criminalised male-male sexual relations as ‘unnatural offences’, this penal code was also implemented across the empire in all British colonies. The decision to include the criminalisation of homosexuality in the IPC is also a result of the aims of Christian missionaries to ‘correct’ savage and barbaric customs. The justification for the implementation of the IPC and other British customs stems from the paternalistic attitude that it was the British empire’s responsibility to bring civilisation to its colonies. However, the reality of this was that colonialism created ineffective legal administrative institutions, which empowered local chiefs and notables and therefore institutionalised authoritarian systems of control. The legacy of these laws is still felt today with many ex-colonies, particularly in Africa still criminalising homosexuality.

Historians Enze Han and Joseph O’Mahoney argue that these laws were detrimental to the rights of LGBT people around the world, especially as the British empire were imposing customs onto their colonies which didn’t acknowledge any differences in cultural values. In some cases, the British empire is solely responsible for introducing homophobic attitudes and promoting heteronormative narratives to countries and communities which didn’t previously hold the same judgement against homosexuality. 

When we look at African history, predating British occupation, there are several cases where homosexuality and various gender identities were accepted in certain tribes and communities. Many ancient civilisations acknowledge a third gender through their presentations of goddesses and deities as androgynous. In Nigeria, the Igbo and Yoruba tribes didn’t have binary gender classifications and generally didn’t assign gender at birth. Similar understandings of gender were present amongst the Dagaaba people of Ghana, where gender was assigned based on the energy one presents as opposed to anatomy. It is clear that African perceptions of gender were not confined to a binary based on anatomy like their European colonisers. In terms of anti-LGBT laws, there is no evidence that these existed in Africa before the IPC was implemented by the British empire. The last monarch of Buganda (now Uganda) King Mwanga II aggressively opposed Christianising missions and colonialism. He had known relationships with men as well as women and killed men who rejected his advances, the rejections were often a result of new Christian influence.

Christianity had a major influence, dismissing traditional African culture and values as primitive. This alongside colonial law enforced anti-LGBT attitudes. In 1910 Christians made up 9% of the sub-Saharan population and in 2010 this had risen to 63%. This helps us understand why so many African countries still criminalise homosexuality to this day. It is also important to note that the specific criminalisation of homosexuality was distinctly British. When looking into French and Spanish empires, there is no distinctive criminalisation or condemnation of homosexuality. This also explains why ex-British colonies are slower to decriminalise homosexuality in comparison to other countries. 

In 1967 homosexuality was decriminalised in Britain, however by this point many colonies now had independence, hence these new laws were not transferred. In terms of countries that are in the commonwealth, 80% of those countries still criminalise homosexuality compared to 25% of countries outside the commonwealth. As of 2019, more than half of African countries continue to criminalise homosexuality and four countries impose the death penalty. Nations now resist Britain’s suggestion that they should repeal such laws on the basis that ‘homosexuality is a western import, designed to weaken traditional cultures and religions’, ignoring the fact that the laws criminalising such conduct are themselves a western import.

It is important to understand the realities of the British Empire and the detrimental impact it had on the rights and treatment of LGBT people of its colonies. Its glorified legacy in Britain must be challenged against the experiences of the people who lived in the colonies under British imperialist rule, especially as the influence of the British empire is still felt across the world today.


Bridget Boakye, ‘King Mwanga II of Buganda, the 19th-century Ugandan king who was gay’ (2018) https://face2faceafrica.com/article/king-mwanga-ii-of-buganda-the-19th-century-ugandan-king-who-was-gay

Enze Han & Joseph O’Mahoney, (2014) ‘British colonialism and the criminalization of homosexuality’, Cambridge Review of International Affairs –  https://doi.org/10.1080/09557571.2013.867298

Leah Buckle, ‘African Sexuality and the Legacy of Imported Homophobia’ (2019) https://www.stonewall.org.uk/about-us/news/african-sexuality-and-legacy-imported-homophobia

Marjorie Morgan ‘The Commonwealth, colonialism and the legacy of homophobia’ (2018) https://gal-dem.com/the-commonwealth-colonialism-and-the-legacy-of-homophobia/

Obonye Jonas, ‘The quest for homosexual freedom in Africa: A survey of selected continental practices and experiences’, International Journal of Discrimination and the Law (2013)

Paula Gerber, ‘Living a Life of Crime: The Ongoing Criminalisation of Homosexuality within the Commonwealth’

Val Kalende, ‘Africa: Homophobia is a Legacy of Colonialism’ (2014) https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/apr/30/africa-homophobia-legacy-colonialism