How Colonial Europe’s Worldview Bred Present-Day Homophobia

On a UN resolution in 2014 that affirmed protection from and support against anti-LGBT violence and discrimination, only 14 countries voted ‘No’. Among the most prominent were Algeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Botswana, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Kenya, Cote d’Ivoire, Gabon and Ethiopia. This seems to be nothing unusual; third-world countries are regularly associated with conservative and bigoted social values in Western media, while the countries who voted ‘For’ (the USA, UK, Germany and other Western powerhouses) are represented as the champions of liberalism, striving to make the world more coexistent. At face value, this probably seems correct; regimes in countries like Pakistan commit atrocious human rights violations, including inciting sufferings of the LGBT community, with laws meant to restrict and stigmatize them. Yet these laws aren’t a recent Pakistani creation intrinsic to its culture; all of these laws were constructed by European imperialists who held severely homophobic views. Both Pakistan’s and Kenya’s Penal Codes, devised by the British during the 1800’s, impose a fourteen-year imprisonment, alongside a very hefty fine for sodomy. In fact, laws like these were the reason homosexuality and sexual fluidity became so taboo in post-colonial societies, where before it had been very normal social behaviour. In their effort to bring ‘civilization’ to the rest of the world, they created the homophobic persecution and ‘bigoted’ values countries are still trying to rid today.

To understand the extent of colonial harm, one needs to contrast pre-colonial societies against their post-colonial counterparts. Take India, for example. Even in the most socially conservative areas, same-sex intimacy was a normal part of life. Awadh, in modern-day Lucknow, had a ruler who would practice living as the opposite gender at times, including changing sexual partners. Bengali novels from the late 19th century such as Indira describe lesbian relationships. Texts such as the Kama Sutra, widely in use by members of all social classes, contain advice for consensual same-sex intercourse. Texts from the Sufi Muslim tradition, one which had wide support of the Mughal emperors and Muslim upper classes, explicitly mention homosexual male romance. And India had a strong hermaphrodite tradition, and members of it, in contrast to their present-day oppressed status, represented a highly ranked social caste which had existed for thousands of years, mentioned in age-old religious texts.

At the same time, in Kenya, female members of the indigenous tribes Gikuyu, Nandi, Kamba, and Kipsigis, who dominated Kenya before Victorian era colonisation, practiced same-sex marriage, with it even being encouraged among its members and considered a religious rite. This wide diversity in sexual behaviour highlights how the generalised anti-gay rhetoric attributed to post-colonial states is not only misleading, but widely inaccurate and untrue. It also shows that this characterisation is in no way intrinsic to their respective cultures, but rather a recent development.

It is no coincidence that this recent development and imperialist takeover coincide with one another. In general, European moral attitudes were an antithesis to this sexual liberty. Rigid sexual limitations characterised European society. Especially during the time of Victorian England, sexual behaviour that did not aim for procreation was perceived as decadent and damaging to Western culture — homosexuality was its worst form. At the same time, European imperialists had taken upon themselves the ‘White Man’s Burden’, the thought that European Christian morality was perfect and it was their duty as White Men to spread it to the world’s ‘barbaric’ lands. The sexual fluidity of the rest of the world was shocking and morally abhorrent and it was their duty to fix it. There was worry that this sexual liberty was seeding its way into Europe. Europeans thought of the rest of the world as a ‘sexual playground’, free of limitations and enabling of sexual fantasies. British novelist E M Forster lost his virginity in Egypt in 1914 with another man, after which, he highlighted the ease with which he was able to do so. Military brothels in India housed Indian sex slaves. And the atavism movement encouraged its followers to revert to the ‘natural ways of life of the barbaric peoples’.

All this greatly worried respective colonial empires. However, these were definitely not the only reasons. Political motives played an enormous role as to why colonial territories became sexually repressed. In an effort to weaken anti-colonial movements, the British began publishing propaganda characterising European successes in colonisation as a result of their ‘masculine’ ability, while colonial subjects were more ‘feminine’ and thus could be subordinated. This incited feelings of guilt and set up a label that subjects needed to escape. The ultimate killer of sexual liberty, though, was Section 311 implemented throughout the British Empire that banned ‘unacceptable carnal desire’. Of the 70+ states that reprimand homosexuality, 36 invoke at least part of this law. With members forced into engaging in sexual acts secretly, a reputation of taboo developed around the acts, ultimately culminating in widespread sexual repression. Thus, a combination of self-interested gain and misguided morality destroyed ancient and incredibly diverse social structures that promoted sexual liberty, replacing them with universal standardization of which we blame the ex-colonies for.

Why hasn’t there been a turn back with the end of the age of imperialism? Mostly because now it’s the opposite; LGBT culture seems to represent Western imperialism they have only recently freed themselves of. Growing liberalisation coincided with the decolonisation period, permanently creating a stamp mark of ‘Western’ on LGBT culture. When in 1992 Jamaican dancehall superstar Buju Banton’s smash hit Boom Bye Bye resulted in mass protests from LGBT organisations over its homophobic content, Jamaican intellectuals faulted the West for forcing its imperialist ideals on them. At the same time, most new states were dominated by dictators who had been socialised under the rigid sexual norms of the imperialist states, hence feeling inclined to continue with old colonial laws. Perhaps turning back is simply a waiting period with countries slowly losing old rigid trends and becoming liberalised.

Or perhaps it isn’t. Western crafted LGBT culture and traditional sexual fluidity in ex-colonies are not the same thing. Homosexual culture in the Kama Sutra, in Sufi Muslim literature, in hijra beliefs, has a distinct ‘Indian feel’. The practices, the history, the steps in its formation, are all vastly different from their Western counterparts. Perhaps the solution for intolerance is simply inclusiveness; to be a truly global movement and rectify the damage done by imperialism, LGBT culture must involve perspectives of local sexual perspectives too, rather than a representation of a one-sided viewpoint.

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