But that incompleteness doesn’t mean we have no indications of what life was like in the past. Although the understanding of concepts such as sexual orientation and/or gender identity was undoubtedly not the same as they are today, there is evidence that suggests that many traditional cultures had more open and accepting attitudes towards people existing beyond the binary before empire-builders decided they needed to ‘inculcate European morality into resistant masses.’
Many non-European cultures did not see gender as strictly binary, nor necessarily always correlate anatomy to gender identity. For example, in South Asian countries such as Bangladesh, India and Pakistan hijra communities have existed for hundreds of years. ‘Hijra’ comes from Hindustani and is used to describe people, usually who were assigned male at birth, who are seen as a third gender and present as women. In pre-colonial times they often played important ceremonial roles in society, until they were criminalised by British colonists, who labelled them a ‘criminal tribe’ and sought to erase them from society.
Many African cultures also had relaxed attitudes to same-sex relationships and gender fluidity. There is no evidence of same-sex relationships being persecuted or criminalised prior to colonial rule and prominent leaders on occasion openly had same-sex relationships, such as King Mwanda II of Buganda (current day Uganda).
When European nations colonised much of the rest of the world they enacted laws to subdue and ‘civilise’ the people they were subjugating. One of these laws was the Indian Penal Code, drafted in 1860, which within Section 377 outlawed ‘carnal intercourse against the order of nature’. Similar provisions were enacted in many other British colonies. In fact, out of the 68 countries that still criminalise LGBT+ people today, in half of them the laws outlawing same-sex relationships were first enacted under British colonial rule.
Of course, these countries are now independent states making their own laws, and across the Commonwealth over the last few decades activists and human rights defenders have been campaigning to get such laws overturned and to change public attitudes towards LGBT+ people. This activism and increased visibility mean that new LGBT+ history is forever being made.
Throughout February we’ll be sharing a few notable moments of LGBT+ history from across the Commonwealth on our social media channels – look out for #CommonwealthLGBTHistory. If you live in a Commonwealth country, we’d also love to hear about LGBT+ history where you’re from so tag us in your social media post!