Where Love Is a Crime

2.8 billion people live in countries that criminalize same­-sex relationships. This reality raises many important questions. How can this be in light of human dignity and human rights for all persons? How can this be in democratic countries claiming the equality of citizens and the responsibility of majorities to protect minorities? For persons of faith who believe in a God who creates and loves all persons, how can we not speak out as sexual minorities are placed in harm’s way by these laws?

“We need to honor our traditional values and our culture,” and “We must oppose homosexuality because it is a Western influence” are the common arguments for maintaining or strengthening anti­-homosexuality laws in many of the 76 countries where homosexuality is criminalized. Nothing could be further from the truth when one looks closely at their own indigenous cultures and the influence of colonial history.

Same­-sex love is, and has been, a part of human life and history in all cultures across time. While some may describe homosexuality or same­-sex love as a Western creation or a modern phenomenon, the witness of ancient art, literature, culture and history tells us the truth and the stories of the variety of human sexualities and relationships.

When and how did same­-sex love become a crime across the world? The majority of the countries that criminalize homosexuality are former European colonies. In addition to white supremacy and religion, the colonizers brought and imposed their penal codes including anti­-sodomy laws. The link between the expansion of European empires, particularly the British, Spanish and Portuguese, and the growth of punitive attitudes and laws against homosexuality around the world is undeniably clear during the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries.

India is an example of the British colonial legacy of criminalization of homosexuality with its Supreme Court’s pending review of Section 377. The world is watching India with regard to this review and the decision. We hope that human dignity and human rights will be recognized and honored. We hope that sexual minorities in India will be treated with respect, fairness and equality within the world’s largest democracy.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has done extensive study of the relationship between the history of colonialism and anti­gay laws. The United Nations Free and Equal is a global campaign for LGBT equality led by the United Nations Human Rights Office. Free and Equal has released interactive maps that show where same-­sex love has been criminalized and decriminalized since 1790.

While there is work to do in the 76 countries where homosexuality is criminalized, there is good news in the fact that 56 countries have decriminalized same-­sex relationships since 1990. Ending criminalization of same-­sex relationships is an important first step toward the realization of human dignity, human rights and equality for all persons.

The realities of life and safety for LGBT people in countries like Russia and Indonesia, or Uganda and Nigeria remain the work of all of us who are committed to human dignity of all persons and families. To do this faith and justice work, it is essential to know the link between colonialism and criminalization of homosexuality. It is critical to learn about the history of sexual minorities within every culture and country. It is necessary to be able to challenge the false claim that homosexuality is a Western influence, when the truth is that homophobia is the colonial legacy being sanctioned in the name of religion or traditional values.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said that “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Fifty-six countries decriminalizing homosexuality since 1990, including most recently, Mozambique, a former Portuguese colony, illustrates this moral arc of the universe bending toward justice and human dignity for all. One day love will longer be a crime anywhere, love will just be love.

(Photo: Gay rights activists celebrate in New Delhi on February 2, 2016, after the Supreme Court agreed to review a decision that criminalises gay sex. Vipin Kumar | Hindustan Times)