The Commonwealth is working to undo the British empire's homophobic legacy

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The modern Commonwealth is a paradox. On the one hand, it is a reminder of the British empire; on the other, a network seeking contemporary relevance to uphold universal values of human rights, democracy and equal opportunities for prosperity,

The problem is that this is a voluntary association of sovereign states, and while some support its consensus-based decision-making, others are deeply critical of its reluctance to sanction serious human rights violators. And so the Commonwealth is caught between the human rights agenda being advanced by some member states, and allegations of neocolonialism and an imposition of western values from others. 

No issue exemplifies these tensions better than the struggle to promote the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. Sexual activity between consenting same-sex adults is criminalised in 40 of the 53 Commonwealth member states, and many of these fail to recognise or uphold the rights of trans citizens. The background to this is the legacy of imperialism. Laws used to persecute LGBT people today are often remnants of those imposed by the British colonialists. While same sex relationships between men were the original target for criminalisation, many laws have since evolved to criminalise same sex relationships between women and/or increase penalties for offenders.

Can the modern Commonwealth, once described by Nelson Mandela as making “the world safe for diversity”, help improve the rights of LGBT people by fostering opportunities for cross-cultural dialogue and mutual support for policy progress? It would be vital for those activists on the frontlines of the struggle for equality around the world. Facing discrimination, persecution and in some cases violence, many LGBT activists from the Commonwealth have built strong bonds of solidarity and are working collectively to convince governments to do more.

Last year in Malta, at the Commonwealth heads of government meeting, Barbadian lesbian activist Donnya Piggott, representing The Commonwealth Equality Network (TCEN), became the first person to address Commonwealth foreign ministers on the lived reality of LGBT citizens of the Commonwealth. Piggott’s address, and the interventions of other TCEN members, were brilliant examples of the persuasive power of southern LGBT activists leading the conversation.

Such activism is resulting in the emergence of progressive policy. New research (pdf) on LGBT rights in the Commonwealth aims to show how Commonwealth governments have made progress on LGBT rights and present best practice that other governments can learn from.

In 2015, Mozambique repealed the Portuguese colonial-era ban on consensual same sex activity between adults. In the same year, Kenyan judges asserted that the Kenyan constitution “includes all persons living within the republic of Kenya despite their sexual orientation” and conferred the right to freedom of association, ordered the government to register the national gay and lesbian human rights commission.

Countries as diverse as Botswana, Seychelles, Samoa and St Lucia have included anti-discrimination clauses in employment laws, which protect people on the basis of their sexual orientation. Malta has recently joined Fiji in specifically addressing sexual orientation and gender identity in its constitution, echoing South Africa – the first country in the world to constitutionally protect gay and lesbian citizens.

While the difference between law and lived reality is one that governments must address, as the experience of some LGBT citizens in South Africa highlights, anti-discrimination provisions often provide a good legislative framework for policymakers.

Supreme court judgments in India and Pakistan have upheld the rights of third gender groups such as Hijras and Kothis. Meanwhile, LGBT organisations have supported governments to implement LGBT-sensitive programmes within the police, healthcare and schools across the Caribbean. Local activists have played a pivotal role in these changes.

While homophobic and transphobic vitriol from some politicians in Commonwealth countries often captures the media’s attention, Commonwealth leaders from the prime minister of St Kitts and Nevis to the former president of Fiji have spoken out against discrimination and in favour of inclusivity.

The architecture of the modern Commonwealth presents an opportunity to capitalise on this progress. The association of states, intergovernmental institutions and numerous professional networks collectively creates a variety of mechanisms to promote the rights of LGBT people and opportunities, to share promising practice and to provide technical expertise to governments seeking to implement changes.

At the centre of this is the new Commonwealth secretary-general Patricia Scotland, the first woman to hold the post. In pursuing her intention to promote dialogue on LGBT issues she, more than any other, will have to navigate these tensions and paradoxes. The evidence in our report (pdf) is that progress is possible.

Lewis Brooks is policy and research manager at the Royal Commonwealth Society and Felicity Daly is executive director of the Kaleidoscope Trust. Follow @LewiBrooks and @Kaleidoscope_T.