The Commonwealth Games Throw Down the Gauntlet on LGBTQ Rights

Anti-gay laws may block countries from hosting.

By , a journalist based in Atlanta who covers international sports.
English diver Tom Daley carries the Queen’s Baton.
English diver Tom Daley carries the Queen’s Baton.
English diver Tom Daley carries the Queen’s Baton during the opening ceremony for the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, England, on July 28. Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images

When champion diver and gay rights advocate Tom Daley entered Alexander Stadium in Birmingham, England, on July 28 as one of the final athletes chosen to finish the Queen’s Baton Relay, the Commonwealth Games’ equivalent to the Olympic torch, to officially open the 22nd Games, he was flanked by an honor guard of activists carrying Pride flags.

In recent years, the Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) has used the final relay runners to bolster social causes it triumphs in the 56-member Commonwealth of Nations. Daley’s role in the Birmingham 2022 opening ceremony was part of his broader effort surrounding the Games to call out how same-sex relations remain illegal in 35 out of 54 recognized countries in the Commonwealth, the modern-day descendant of the British Empire.

Daley’s comments came as he was finishing up a documentary shot around the Commonwealth titled Illegal to Be Me. The film dives into the colonial legacy of laws that bar same-sex relations in former British colonies.

When champion diver and gay rights advocate Tom Daley entered Alexander Stadium in Birmingham, England, on July 28 as one of the final athletes chosen to finish the Queen’s Baton Relay, the Commonwealth Games’ equivalent to the Olympic torch, to officially open the 22nd Games, he was flanked by an honor guard of activists carrying Pride flags.

In recent years, the Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) has used the final relay runners to bolster social causes it triumphs in the 56-member Commonwealth of Nations. Daley’s role in the Birmingham 2022 opening ceremony was part of his broader effort surrounding the Games to call out how same-sex relations remain illegal in 35 out of 54 recognized countries in the Commonwealth, the modern-day descendant of the British Empire.

Daley’s comments came as he was finishing up a documentary shot around the Commonwealth titled Illegal to Be Me. The film dives into the colonial legacy of laws that bar same-sex relations in former British colonies.

His efforts have paid off. Before the opening ceremony, Katie Sadleir, the CGF’s chief executive, told the BBC that countries where same-sex relations are illegal will be less likely to be chosen to host events in the future.

“Human rights and inclusiveness is ingrained in our constitution,” Sadleir said. “Our membership absolutely values the values that we have and they were central to our bidding process, so that would definitely be taken into consideration.”

This is stronger and more explicit language than most sporting bodies have used—but still not definite. Both the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and FIFA have bolstered human rights language in their event contracts—but made it clear that there are limits, especially when money and power come into play.

In the case of Beijing 2022, IOC Vice President Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr. said the organization could not pressure the Chinese government in cases such as evidence of mass internment of Uyghurs in the far west province of Xinjiang.

FIFA has lauded its own human rights gains through its pressure campaign to the Qatari government ahead of the 2022 World Cup. However, rights groups such as Amnesty International have criticized FIFA for a lack of restitution to migrant workers and minimizing the scale of abuses that took place to stage the event.

The Commonwealth Games—originally the British Empire Games when they were first hosted in 1930 in Hamilton, Canada—feature more than 5,000 athletes, roughly the size of the Pan American Games and a far cry from the Olympic Games cap of around 11,000 athletes.

During the process of decolonization of the British Empire and the founding of the Commonwealth of Nations, the name shifted to the British Empire and Commonwealth Games as well as the British Commonwealth Games before settling on the Commonwealth Games. But white Anglophone nations still mostly held the power, since the quadrennial Games have been hosted almost exclusively by the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. It’s only been hosted outside those four countries three times. The 2022 Games were originally supposed to be the fourth, awarded to Durban, South Africa, before the city ran into financial troubles.

Victoria, Australia, will host the next edition of the event, chosen on the eve of Birmingham’s opening without a formal bid process after the Durban project fell apart. In part, the lack of interest in hosting the Games is rooted in opposition to the Commonwealth itself, seen as a hangover of British imperialism. But the CGF does not only award the flagship Commonwealth Games; it has branched out into hosting the quadrennial Commonwealth Youth Games, which makes it easier for smaller countries to host an event of significance.

“While the criminalization of LGBT people isn’t unique to the Commonwealth, it is a specific problem for the Commonwealth, bound inextricably with the colonial history of the organization and many of its member states,” Alistair Stewart, Human Dignity Trust’s head of research and advocacy, told Foreign Policy about the current state of the influence of British laws on countries around the world.

Today, LGBTQ advocacy is often painted as a foreign imposition. But most anti-LGBTQ provisions in Commonwealth countries’ penal codes can be traced to Section 377 of the British penal code, which criminalized acts “against the order of nature.” According to Stewart, many of the current laws in the 35 Commonwealth countries where same-sex marriage is illegal have been unchanged for “50 or 100 years.”

Not only are the laws out of date, Stewart added, but they are also incompatible with the Commonwealth’s charter, which explicitly opposes discrimination on any grounds.

“[We] welcome any initiative that encourages Commonwealth member states to uphold their obligations, not just to meet the aspirations set out in the Commonwealth Charter and under international law but most importantly for their own LGBT communities who are impacted by these pernicious and discriminatory laws.”

Activists on the ground across the Commonwealth, however, worry that while the gesture is welcome, it may lead to backlash and countries that are resistant to change avoiding any future bids.

Jason Jones was one of the activists carrying a Pride flag alongside Daley in the Birmingham opening ceremony. He also helped usher in the legalization of same-sex relations in his native Trinidad and Tobago through a High Court victory 2018 that ruled its “buggery” law was unconstitutional.

Jones described the ceremony by email as “absolutely surreal” and called it a “lifetime achievement and a memory I shall treasure always.”

But he worries that punishing countries for their outdated laws could only reinforce the notion that being LGBTQ is a “[W]estern vice” and this new direction is “being shoved down their throats.” Trinidad and Tobago will host the 2023 Commonwealth Youth Games, a major event for the country, and Jones has worked with the organizers of Pride House Birmingham to ensure a Pride House is welcomed at the Games there.

Still, same-sex relations in Trinidad and Tobago will ultimately be decided by “white straight British judges” thanks to an appeal to the Privy Council in London, he wrote. A hearing for that case is expected in 2026.

“We must work together to find workable solutions and not just throw our toys out of the pram!” Jones wrote. “I think there needs to be a more nuanced response to engage with Commonwealth countries that criminalize LGBT people and the Commonwealth Games Federations need to engage directly with activists working on the ground within these countries.”

In countries where same-sex relations remain illegal, such as Nigeria, the decision is welcomed as a security measure for athletes who will go there to compete in the Games, activist Marline Oluchi wrote in an email interview, but Oluchi doubts it will have any effect on persuading government officials to reconsider their stances toward the current laws.

Nigeria last bid for the Commonwealth Games in 2007, when it lost the right to host to Glasgow, Scotland, for the 2014 edition. Outside of bidding to host the 2022 Youth Olympics, the country has been reluctant to pursue multi-sport events in the current landscape.

Sports have not been actors in driving the government to consider repealing its same-sex relations ban, Oluchi wrote. Instead, activists have tried to pressure policymakers, although it has been difficult to mount a campaign to repeal Nigeria’s Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act. Currently, people in Nigeria face up to 14 years in prison for same-sex relations, with even stricter penalties in northern states that follow sharia law.

“I think the Commonwealth is strategic and can wield more power in compelling member countries into decriminalizing homosexuality, by taking [a] stronger stance beyond moves like banning countries from hosting games,” Oluchi said. “How interested is the country in this? So far, what has been the country’s response? This should tell you if this move has any impact or not.”

Sydney Bauer is a journalist based in Atlanta who covers international sports.

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