Historical revisionism is an ancient art. Its practitioners invented both the mythology of Rome’s founding by Romulus to cover up its agrarian roots and the Rwandan depiction of events in 1994 as a “genocide against the Tutsi”, ignoring the slaughter of countless Hutus as well.
A more subtle form of historical revisionism emerged at the latest meeting of heads of government from Commonwealth countries in April in London. The assembled panjandrums discussed “how the Commonwealth can contribute to a future which is fairer, more sustainable, more secure and more prosperous.”
Prime Minister Theresa May used the opportunity to express her deep regret for Britain’s legacy of anti-gay laws in Commonwealth countries. She observed that most of the laws currently used to oppress homosexuals in these countries – mostly in Africa and Asia – were written into the statute books in the days of the British Empire and have never been reformed or repealed.
“I am all too aware that these laws were often put in place by my own country. They were wrong then and they are wrong now,” she said. “As the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister I deeply regret both the fact that such laws were introduced and the legacy of discrimination, violence and even death that persists today.”
Her hand-wringing made the headlines. Such a bold apology for a colonial error, a human rights activist gushed to the Guardian, reframed the LGBT debate in the concerned countries and between them and their former colonial ruler. By apologising, Britain portrays energetic LGBT advocacy in Commonwealth countries as part of its moral responsibility to make amends for the errors of colonialism.
Now reframing an issue in a debate is an excellent way to blunt its full import and make it more palatable to one’s interlocutor. Legitimate need for it can be found in instances when, for practical purposes, the truth is better revealed in stages. But where it is cynically employed as a tactic to win a debate, its sincerity is most to be questioned. Sadly, this is the LGBT lobby’s forte, and Theresa May is a good student.
But even within the new frame, this debate is hard to win. For one thing, Britain has not been exceptionally good at correcting colonial errors. This is the lived experience of the countries that it once ruled. A simple example will suffice here. It took Britain four years, and a spirited fight in court, to accept and apologise for abuse and violations visited upon Kenya’s Mau Mau freedom fighters in the 1950s.
This was a case of systematic oppression of a people who fought only to get their land and freedom back. Hounded and tortured in concentration camps, Mau Mau fighters were scarred for life by their struggle. Then they faced decades of official cover-up from their abuser. Eventually they had to file a case and duke it out in court just to get Britain to acknowledge those scars and give them £2000 each nearly 50 years later.
That Ms May thought she could earn Britain the right to advocate for gay rights in Commonwealth countries by claiming responsibility for their oppression speaks to an incredible ignorance of Britain’s colonial legacy. The last time Britain took unilateral responsibility for these countries, it conquered them and did not let go for almost a hundred years. This is just a latter-day example of the old white paternalism.
The second problem is a little more serious. It stems from the character of the concerned countries and the paths they have each taken after independence. I cannot speak for Asian Commonwealth countries, but as an African, I know a thing or two about the African Commonwealth countries that still have these anti-homosexuality laws. I live in Kenya, one of them.
Well over 50 years have passed since most Commonwealth countries became independent. In that time, countless colonial laws have been repealed and replaced. In many cases, entirely new constitutions are now in force. If a law has survived so long, it is because successive governments have kept it that way. In fact, colonial “sodomy laws” are still in place in 36 out of 53 Commonwealth nations.
So, by blaming itself for the survival of a colonial-era law, Britain is infantilising her former colonies.
Finally, Kenyans’ views on homosexuality do not stem from the statute books. Few people even know that this particular law even exists. Their contempt for homosexuality comes from intuition. A Bible verse or two and the “un-African” mantra may be bandied about, but most people say it is just wrong. They see no need to give reasons because they assume it should be obvious to any level-headed person.
One could say that this is an attitude that needs to be re-examined because it is unreasoned. I agree. But this will reframe the debate as an examination of the rational nature of homosexual activity, which is far from what Theresa May wants. What’s more, I also think there is merit in human intuition. Though inarticulate, it gives voice to conscience and, in many cases, unadulterated common sense.
Sound and rational arguments can be marshalled to support opposition to homosexual activities. But it is not the purpose of this article to lay them down. Neither do I support the retention of the oppressive laws at the centre of this conversation. In fact, I have argued before in MercatorNet for their repeal on the grounds of respect for human dignity.
The point I make is that, by shifting the blame for anti-gay laws upon itself, Britain is just virtue-signalling and posturing on the world stage as a champion of LGBT rights. Its apology has little to do with a genuine desire for a “fairer, more sustainable, more secure and more prosperous” future for Commonwealth countries.
Mathew Otieno writes from Nairobi, Kenya.