Homophobia in the Commonwealth is a legacy of British Empire, says Tom Daley

·3 min read
Tom Daley - Luke Korzun Martin
Tom Daley - Luke Korzun Martin

Tom Daley has blamed “colonialism” for homophobic laws in place across the Commonwealth.

The Olympic diving champion stars in a new BBC documentary in which he visits “the most homophobic countries in the Commonwealth”, examining the claim that the British Empire left a legacy of anti-LGBT legal codes in post-colonial nations.

Daley has stated that one interview in the documentary, which will air on BBC One on Tuesday, opened his eyes to “where that homophobia stemmed from in the first place, and it is a legacy of colonialism”.

The BBC’s own description of the new documentary, Tom Daley: Illegal To Be Me, said that he “discovers the colonial legacy that first criminalised homosexuality and the toxic influence of slavery on attitudes towards LGBT+ people”.

However, historians have questioned the claim that colonialism is to blame, arguing that prejudice predates the British Empire.

Daley, who came out as gay in 2013, discussed his new documentary on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, explaining how an encounter with a Pakistani pop star was particularly illuminating.

He said: “It opened my eyes to so many different things, where the laws came from, where that homophobia stemmed from in the first place and it is a legacy of colonialism and speaking to him, in particular, was very eye-opening.”

Kenya LGBT - AP Photo/Ben Curtis
Kenya LGBT - AP Photo/Ben Curtis

Daley has discussed ongoing restrictions against homosexual relationships in Nigeria, and has travelled to nations with stringent anti-LGBT laws, including Jamaica and Pakistan.

It has been argued that countries once colonised by Britain retain laws introduced in the days of Empire which criminalise homosexuality, therefore making the British colonial expansion responsible for a large number of Commonwealth countries – 35 out of 56 – in which homosexuality remains a criminal offence.

However, it has been argued that the persecution of homosexuals long predates European colonial expansion around the world, with religious persecution of same-sex sexual practices being in place for centuries before the Empire emerged.

Dr Zareer Masani, a historian of the British Raj, has questioned the claims covered in Daley’s documentary, suggesting that the story was not simply one of the British removing rights which previously existed.

He said: “As a historian, I can assure him that male homosexuality in India carried penalties under both Hindu and sharia Islamic law long before the British Raj – reflecting both local and prevailing Christian sentiment – enacted statutes prohibiting it.”

Tom Daley Commonwealth Games - Darren Staples/AFP via Getty Images
Tom Daley Commonwealth Games - Darren Staples/AFP via Getty Images

Dr Masani has also suggested that for many LGBT people, there has been no great change in law or attitude “75 years after the British left”.

The issue of what nations have chosen to do with their independence is touched upon in the documentary, when Daley speaks to Bisi Alimi, a Nigerian LGBT rights activist who was forced to flee his native country after coming out on live TV.

Mr Alimi states that in 1923, British authorities introduced a law criminalising “indecent practices between males”, but adds on the nation, which became independent from Britain in 1960: “And then post-colonial, you have the emergence of the Evangelicals who still believe homosexuality is immoral.”

Rupert Myers, a barrister, has commented that Commonwealth nations are not alone in enacting anti-LGBT legislation, stating that theocracies such as Saudi Arabia and Iran “were never colonised, and are virulently homophobic countries”.

Daley came out on a YouTube video in 2013 and has since married Dustin Lance Black, the American filmmaker. At the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games, he carried the Queen’s Baton against a backdrop of LGBT+ flags, a moment touched upon in the documentary.