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Although 66 countries signed a statement at the United Nations on Dec. 19 affirming that human rights protections extend to sexual orientation and gender identity, activists note that dozens of nations still criminalize homosexuality and seven impose the death penalty.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch says that the oppressive legacy of British colonialism is at the heart of many of these laws that penalize consensual sexual activity among adults of the same sex.
According to a report titled "This Alien Legacy", launched last week, more than half of the world's remaining "sodomy laws" derive from a single law on homosexual conduct that British colonial rulers imposed on India in 1860.
The law, known as Section 377 under the Indian penal code, was designed to set standards of behavior, both to "reform" the colonized and to protect the colonizers against "moral lapses".
It was the first colonial "sodomy law" integrated into a penal code, and it became a model for countries across Asia, the Pacific Islands and Africa -- almost everywhere the British imperial flag flew.
HRW notes that in recent years, judges, public figures and political leaders have defended those laws as citadels of nationhood and cultural authenticity, claiming that homosexuality came from the colonizing West, when in fact the opposite is true.
It cited Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe who infamously said in the early 1990s that gays and lesbians are "un-African" and that they are "worse than dogs and pigs". Similar remarks have been made by officials in a number of African countries, including Nigeria, where homosexuality is punished by death.
Others that impose the death penalty for homosexual activity are Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Mauritania, Sudan, Yemen and Iran, whose president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has claimed that homosexuality is a phenomenon that does not exist in his country.
"Unfortunately, in countries where homosexuality is criminalized (77 plus seven with the death penalty) it is impossible to obtain realistic data," said Boris O. Dittrich, advocacy director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Program at Human Rights Watch.
He noted that many homosexual men, lesbian women or transgender persons are afraid to go to the police for help if they are harassed or attacked. "There is severe underreporting," he told IPS.
"In Senegal, there was a case against a man called Pape. He was arrested in February 2008 and charged with organizing a gay wedding -- which was not true," Dittrich said.
"A few days after his arrest he was released from detention, but [local] people wanted to kill him for being a homosexual. He was chased and stabbed with a knife. Human Rights Watch helped him and he was recognized as a refugee in the U.S. He now lives in New York," Dittrich told IPS.