After he won gold at the Commonwealth games, Tom Daley made a plea for Commonwealth countries to legalise homosexuality. I’m sure this warmed many hearts, because it’s nice to think our icons care about and want to change the lives of LGBT people not just in this country but across the world.
Unfortunately, Tom’s encouragement for other countries to do better on LGBT rights is the kind of sentiment that does more harm than good.
While we might see the Commonwealth as a group of countries coming together to make decisions on climate change and occasionally compete against each other in navel-gazing sporting events, the rest of its members have a more nuanced understanding of our relationship. That is the brutal history of plunder, slavery and colonial rule that makes their relationship with us as painful as it is positive.
When we are talking about LGBT rights in the Commonwealth it’s easy to forget this history but it’s so important that we don’t. When we talk about LGBT rights in Commonwealth countries we are trying to convince their policymakers and citizens that they should make change.
Yet, when our history in the Commonwealth regarding LGBT rights is one of implementing the penal codes that resulted in the criminalisation of homosexuality, and decades of destroying and denigrating often LGBT tolerant cultures and practices, our words on LGBT rights may not have the impact we intended.
We may believe, or want to believe that our preaching about LGBT rights to Commonwealth countries is beneficial. But the deep-rooted homophobia in many of these countries stems from the homophobia that we exported and entrenched. In countries that decimated themselves to remove a colonial power, the same foreign power indulging in paternalism by preaching to them about their policy is not a friendly suggestion. Instead, especially if the removal of aid is used as a ‘stick’, it can collapse into neo-colonialism.
Words like Tom’s are dangerous precisely because they don’t extend LGBT rights in these countries; they actually harm them. When former colonial powers, and their politicians (or even celebrities) push LGBT rights in former colonies, this has the impact of framing LGBT rights in ‘Western’ values, and as a part of ‘Western’ culture. This is dangerous when former colonies are fighting to regain – and retain – their own culture and values.. What often happens in response is we see LGBT rights and attitudes towards LGBT people actually regress.
I, like Tom want to see fewer countries have regressive LGBT rights and attitudes but to get there we need to stop preaching and virtue-signalling. Instead, we should properly fund LGBT organisations on the ground and offer support to local people looking to change policy. We cannot change the past, but by offering the right kind of support we may be able to secure a progressive future.