LONDON, April 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - LGBT campaigners were hopeful on Tuesday that a call by British Prime Minister Theresa May for Commonwealth countries to reform outdated anti-gay legislation would help to stop widespread persecution and discrimination.
Speaking as leaders of the 53 Commonwealth nations met in London, May said she “deeply” regretted the UK’s role in fuelling “discrimination, violence and even death” as nobody should be persecuted for “who they are or who they love”.
About 37 of the 53 mostly former British colonies still have colonial era laws which criminalise lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) identities with same sex sexual activity punishable by life imprisonment in nine of those countries.
LGBT campaigners have used the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) to call for Britain to apologise and push for change, launching a petition, a picket and lighting up the Houses of Parliament with a call for decriminalisation.
Activists said they hoped May’s comments would start to change the conversation in countries where LGBT people are treated as criminals and help to reverse the harm caused.
Jamaican activist Glenroy Murray said May’s comments were a “necessary step in acknowledging and expressing regret about a historical reality that has impacted LGBT people everywhere”.
Rosanna Flamer-Caldera, executive director of Sri Lankan LGBT organisation Equal Ground, said the speech “paves the way for making some positive change for the LGBT communities of the Commonwealth”, nations home to about 2.4 billion people.
“I welcome this acknowledgement of the deep wounds left in our countries by bad colonial laws, wounds from which many of us are still bleeding today,” Malaysian activist Pang Khee Teik told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“It’s time to listen, learn, and heal.”
Some activists, however, did not think May’s comments would lead to permanent change even though she said Britain would support any country wanting reform.
“I am all to aware that these laws were often put in place by my own country, They were wrong then and they are wrong now,” May said.
Founder of NAZ Male Health Alliance in Pakistan, Qasim Iqbal, said May needed to create a policy on how the British government would help end discrimination.
“The prime minister needs to now present an advocacy framework on what role the UK government will play in ensuring that the entire Commonwealth is a place where people have the freedom to love a person of their choice,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. (Reporting by Meka Beresford @mekaberesford, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith