U.K.’s May apologizes for anti-gay colonial legacy

North Carolina's anti-gay law still retains the telltale signs of former British rule

United Kingdom Prime Minister Teresa May said Tuesday she deeply regrets the anti-gay legacy British colonialism had across the world in its former colonies. The remarks came at the beginning of the international Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London, bringing together more than 50 leaders from mostly-British former colonies.

“Across the world discriminatory laws made many years ago continue to affect the lives of many people, criminalizing same sex relations and failing to protect women and girls,” May said. “I am all too aware that these laws were often put in place by my own country. They were wrong then and they are wrong now.”

Laws criminalizing same-gender relationships were inherited from English common law in most British colonies. In 37 of those nations, anti-gay laws are still on the books. In some, same-gender relationships are punishable by death.

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“As United Kingdom’s Prime Minister I deeply regret both the fact that such laws were introduced and the legacy of discrimination violence and even death that persists today,” May added.

The weeklong meeting was met with a petition drive by longtime British gay activist Peter Tatchell, who called on the U.K. to apologize for its role in spreading homophobia across the globe.

English anti-gay law in North Carolina

The anti-gay laws, known in many former colonies as “sodomy,” “buggery” or “crimes against nature” laws, were inherited in the U.S., too.

North Carolina’s statute is still on the books. Though the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2003 ruling in Lawrence v. Texas limited its use in criminalizing private relationships between adults, the law is still sometimes used in criminal cases involving sexual assault.

The statute was first recorded in North Carolina law in 1837.

In a landmark 1964 court opinion, U.S. District Court Judge J. Braxton Craven outlined the history of the law:

“The statute is copied from the first English statute on the subject passed in the year 1533 during the reign of King Henry VIII. It was adopted in North Carolina in 1837 with only one difference. The words ‘vice of buggery’ which appeared in the ancient English statute were omitted and instead there was substituted the delightful euphemism “crime against nature, not to be named among Christians.'”

Before 1533, such “crimes” were handled exclusively by church courts. Under King Henry VIII, the government simply “copied and pasted” church law into the civil code.

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In North Carolina, at the time of its 1837 adoption, same-gender sexual relationships were punishable by death, the statute reading: “Any person who shall commit the abominable and detestable crime against nature, not to be named among Christians, with either mankind or beast, shall be adjudged guilty of a felony, and shall suffer death without the benefit of clergy.”

The death penalty was removed from the law after the Civil War. Until at least the 1960s, however, those convicted could still face up to 60 years in prison

Craven opined at the time that it was time to amend the centuries-old law, writing:

“Is it not time to redraft a criminal statute first enacted in 1533? And if so, cannot the criminal law draftsman be helped by those best informed on the subject — medical doctors in attempting to classify offenders? Is there any public purpose served by a possible sixty year maximum or even five year minimum imprisonment of the occasional or one-time homosexual without treatment, and if so, what is it? Are homosexuals twice as dangerous to society as second-degree murderers as indicated by the maximum punishment for each offense? Is there any good reason why a person convicted of a single homosexual act with another adult may be imprisoned six times as long as an abortionist, thirty times as long as one who takes indecent liberties with children, thirty times as long as the drunk driver — even though serious personal injury and property damage results, twice as long as an armed bank robber, three times as long as a train robber, six times as long as one who feloniously breaks and enters a store, and 730 times as long as the public drunk?”

Statutes prior to 1837 are not well-preserved, and the law could have made its entry into Carolina law as early as 1715, according to historian George Painter.

The law as it stands today still retains its historic, common-law-inspired origins, citing both King Henry VIII’s law and the re-codification of it by his daughter Queen Elizabeth I (it appears as “5 Eliz., c. 17; 25 Hen. VIII, c. 6,” appended at the end of the statute).

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Posted by Matt Comer

Matt Comer previously served as editor from October 2007 through August 2015 and as a staff writer afterward in 2016.