British Prime Minister Theresa May on Tuesday said she “deeply” regrets colonial-era laws criminalizing consensual same-sex relations the U.K. introduced in Commonwealth countries.
“Discriminatory laws made many years ago continue to affect the lives of many people, criminalizing same-sex relations and failing to protect women and girls,” she said in a speech at the Commonwealth summit in London.
“I am all too aware that these laws were often put in place by my own country,” added May. “They were wrong then, and they are wrong now. As the U.K.’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.”
More than half of the Commonwealth’s 53 countries still criminalize consensual same-sex sexual relations.
Peter Tatchell, a prominent British LGBTI rights activist who is director of the Peter Tatchell Foundation, on Monday urged May to apologize for the laws. May’s comments come less than a week after a judge in Trinidad and Tobago, which is a Commonwealth country, struck down the former British colony’s sodomy law.
“This acknowledgment by the U.K. is significant as it disrupts the narrative that homosexuality was imported from the west when in fact it was homophobia which was imposed on the nations of the Commonwealth by the British colonizers,” Maurice Tomlinson, a gay lawyer who has challenged Jamaica’s sodomy law, told the Washington Blade on Tuesday
Henry Aho, president of the Tonga Leitis Association, an LGBTI advocacy organization in the Pacific island nation of Tonga, which is also a Commonwealth country, told the Blade he is “encouraged by the admission of wrong doing.” Aho added he is “hopeful that (May’s) government will back her statements in assisting grassroots organizations in Commonwealth countries such as the Tonga Leitis Association push for law reform.”
Tomlinson made a similar point.
“This ‘alien legacy’ has ruined lives, spread HIV and destroyed families across the 53 nations and nearly 2.5 billion people of the Commonwealth,” he told the Blade. “The U.K. should therefore go beyond a mere acknowledgment and tangibly support efforts to clean up its toxic export.”
May is not the only head of state who has apologized for their country’s anti-LGBT laws in recent years.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in November 2017 formally apologized to those who suffered persecution and discrimination under his country’s anti-LGBT laws and policies. A British law that received royal assent earlier in the year posthumously pardoned thousands of gay and bisexual men who were convicted under the country’s homophobic laws between 1885-2003.
The law is named after Alan Turing, a pioneering mathematician who was convicted of gross indecency in 1952 for having a relationship with another man. Queen Elizabeth II in 2013 posthumously pardoned Turing, who broke Germany’s secret Enigma code during World War II.
The governments of Germany and New Zealand have also made similar overtures to men who were convicted of consensual same-sex sexual relations in their respective countries.
Then-Secretary of State John Kerry in January 2017 formally apologized to State Department personnel who were fired during the so-called “lavender scare.”