Memo to Commonwealth Nations: Gay is Okay

Former British colonies may finally decriminalize homosexuality at conference next week

Nations of the British Commonwealth could ax their eighteenth-century laws against sodomy at the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting next week. Some of the former British colonies—including Uganda, Malaysia, Jamaica, Pakistan and Nigeria—are considered the most dangerously homophobic places on earth.

The meeting will take place in Perth, Australia, and Australia’s representative to the confab, Michael Kirby, is openly gay. He told the Associated Press that the meeting’s agenda will include a recommendation to legalize homosexuality and abolish laws against same-sex activity. Some commonwealth nations, including Australia, Canada, South Africa and Great Britain itself, have already done away with the draconian law.

The British Parliament passed “An Acte for the punysshement of the vice of Buggerie” (a.k.a. the Buggery Act) in 1533 during the reign of Henry VIII, making homosexual activity punishable by death. Sodomy remained a capital crime until the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, when it was downgraded to a felony punishable by a sentence of ten years to life in prison. Following the 1957 Wolfenden Report, a study recommending that “homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offence,” Britain decriminalized homosexuality—but its many global territories, agitating for their independence from the British Empire, retained their sodomy statutes.

Proponents of erasing the sodomy laws believe that lifting the secrecy associated with homosexuality will help reduce the incidence of HIV/AIDS in the Commonwealth countries. The international HIV/AIDS charity AVERT reports that sub-Saharan African and Caribbean nations face rampant HIV infection rates. Eight out of 16 African Commonwealth countries have adult HIV infections over 10 percent, and three—Bostwana, Lesotho and Swaziland—have rates over 20 percent.

According to Rob Lake, head of the Australian Federation of AIDS Organization, the Commonwealth nations at next week’s conference will represent one-third of the world’s population, but two-thirds of its HIV/AIDS cases. Anti-sodomy laws “create a stigmatizing environment in which gay men hide what they do and who they are so they don’t access diagnosis for HIV, treatment or preventative measures,” Lake told the Associated Press.

In a coincidental comment, Botswana’s former president Festus Mogae broke with convention and suggested to the BBC that Botswana should legalize homosexuality to reduce HIV infections—and that it’s impossible to promote safe sex when homosexuality itself is outlawed.

I don’t understand it [homosexuality]. I am a heterosexual,” Mogae told the BBC’s Network Africa program. “I look at women. I don’t look at other men. But there are men who look at other men. These are citizens.

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