Last Thursday the Indian Supreme Court decriminalised homosexuality. Last April a court in Trinidad and Tobago found colonial-era laws banning gay sex to be unconstitutional. And late last year, Australia became the umpteenth state to legalise same-sex marriage. There is a slow-motion avalanche going on.
Yes, 35 of the 63 Commonwealth countries, mostly in Africa or the West Indies, still make homosexual acts a criminal offence. Yes, some countries, including Nigeria and Uganda, have even tightened their anti-gay laws. And in the ultra-conservative Malaysian state of Terengganu last week, two women were lashed six times with a cane and fined $800 for ‘trying to have sex’ (whatever that means) in a car.
Change was never achieved easily, and it still isn’t. Section 377, the 19th-century law that made a same-sex relationship in India an “unnatural offence” punishable by a 10-year jail term, was struck down by the Delhi High Court in 2009. The Indian gay community, as big as anywhere else but more oppressed than most, celebrated, and many people came out of the closet, especially in the big cities.
Some of them paid a high price when the Indian Supreme Court then reinstated Section 377 in 2013, saying that only parliament could change the law. This year the very same court reviewed that decision and reversed it. Why did it do that? After all, the Indian Constitution hadn’t changed in the meantime.
Nobody on the Indian Supreme Court will admit this in public, but the real reason for the about-face was that the consensus global definition of human rights has expanded far enough to make its previous ruling untenable. No grown-up country that is fully engaged with the rest of the world wants to be embarrassed by laws that make it look medieval.
Conservative religious and political leaders in developing countries often condemn the repeal of anti-gay laws as an unwelcome import from the West, somehow contrary to the local culture, but they should (and often do) know better. It was Western countries that imposed anti-gay laws on their empires in the first place, in the 19th century, and it’s local activists, not foreign gays, that are struggling to get rid of them.
This is not to say that the situation of gays outside the West was good before the rise of the European empires. On the contrary, very few cultures, Western or otherwise, have ever accorded gays the same rights and respect as the rest of the population. The activists are breaking new ground in the West as much as they are in the developing world.
What we are really seeing here is the halting but probably unstoppable emergence of a global standard on human rights. It has been underway for at least 250 years and it may have another century to go, but gay rights belongs to the same category of social innovation as the end of slavery, the rise of feminism, and the abolition of the death penalty.
None of these changes are happening because they correspond to some natural law. They are being consciously created by people who want there to be more justice and more equity in the world. The activists are a small minority, but they are making progress because their ideas resonate with a much larger group in every society who share their ideals if not their energy.
This may sound overly optimistic at a time when there is a racist president in the White House, a cynical manipulator in the Kremlin, and a saner version of Chairman
Mao running China. All of them trade in gutter nationalism, and none of them gives a damn about justice or equity. Not only that, but they are all quite popular at home.
Never mind. Progress is usually two steps forward, one step back, and we may be in for a slow decade in terms of progress on human rights, or even some back-sliding. But do you really think that people as shallow as Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin can turn the clock all the way back? (Xi Jinping may be a longer-term problem, but not for gays. There are no anti-gay laws in China.)
This is long-wave change. The rise of democracy was part of it. Decolonisation was part of it. The struggle against racism is part of it. The goal is equality of rights, and this decade is turning out to be the decade when the gays get it.
Or rather, it’s the decade when they get in legal terms, although they will have to wait a while longer before sexual orientation becomes a completely neutral attribute like hair colour. Basically, they have to wait until the older generation dies off. Most of the urban young get it already.
Meanwhile, you might like to note that with the change in India, five-sixths of the world’s people now live in countries where homosexuality is not a crime.
Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.