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Sodomy laws … deserve archival mummification, or better still, a museum peg, shelf or cabinet for archival display.” – Letsweletse Motshidiemang v Attorney General, High Court of Botswana, para 209

Two weeks ago, the High Court of Kenya handed down a disappointing judgment upholding the constitutional validity of the Kenyan sodomy law. Yesterday, however, confronted with almost identical legal provisions, the High Court of Botswana went the other way, decriminalising same-sex relations on the touchstone of the constitutional rights to privacy, liberty, equality, and dignity. The judgment in Letsweletse Motshidiemang v Attorney General makes for fascinating reading. This is because of its austere – but clear – reasoning, but also because it marks the fall of yet another progeny of what began life as Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, and then proliferated through the British colonies: the prohibition of “carnal intercourse/knowledge against the order of nature.”

As I mentioned in my analysis of the Kenyan High Court’s judgment, the constitutional arguments against the sodomy law are familiar ones, whetted by years of litigation in constitutional courts across the world. What is striking, however, is the diametrically opposite view that the Botswana High Court took from its Kenyan counterpart, in responding to virtually identical arguments, within the space of two weeks. What is also striking is the similarities between the overall approach adopted by the Botswana High Court on the one hand, and the Delhi High Court in Naz Foundation and the Indian Supreme Court in Johar, on the other. Both are issues that I shall discuss.

As a preliminary point, the judgment stands out for its clear endorsement of the value of pluralism, which made its first appearance in the second paragraph. Pluralism – and the necessity of respecting diverse ways of being and life choices, which the Court defined as inclusiveness – form, in a sense, the intellectual scaffolding that allowed it to build and develop its substantive rights-based arguments. Tellingly, “pluralism” and “inclusiveness” were also two words that were at the heart of the Delhi High Court’s 2009 judgment in Naz Foundation; and perhaps equally tellingly, the Kenyan High Court’s judgment did not have a similar, framing value that would help to contextualise the constitutional challenge. Within that framework, let us now examine the judgment.

Vagueness

After a brief account of the Christian – and later, colonial – origins of anti-sodomy laws, the Court considered the first substantive challenge – that of vagueness. Like the Kenyan High Court – and unlike the situation in India, where judicial interpretation of Section 377 had been inconsistent – the Court found that there existed binding court judgments explaining what “carnal knowledge … against the order of nature” meant: in Botswana, it had been defined as anal sex. For this reason, the impugned sections – 164(a), (c) and 165 – of the Penal Code were not vague; and the question then became, did the blanket criminalisation of anal sex violate the Constitution of Botswana? (paragraph 96)

Acts and Identities: Liberty, Dignity, Equality

This, in turn, allowed the State to set up that old and familiar argument, which makes an appearance in every litigation around this family of legal provisions: that ultimately, the sodomy law only criminalised a certain kind of “sexual act.” It did not criminalise homosexuality – or homosexuals – per se, and therefore, none of the constitutional values of equality, dignity, or liberty, were relevant. As the Court recorded the Attorney General’s submissions:

In answer thereto, the Attorney General has submitted that the applicant is a “cry baby” and that he is free to engage in sexual activity as long as it is not sexual intercourse per anus. It is the respondent’s position that Sections 164 (a) and (c) are not discriminatory as they are of equal application to all sexual preferences, and that Section 15 of the Constitution provides limitations on the enjoyment of fundamental rights. (paragraphs 136 – 7)

Recall that this classification of sodomy laws as targeting only “acts” was accepted both by the Indian Supreme Court in Koushal and by the Kenyan High Court, and formed an important part of these Courts’ reasoning in upholding the laws. It was, however, rejected by the Indian Supreme Court in Johar, and the High Court of Botswana similarly gave it short shrift. At a very basic level, the Court noted that while the section may have been neutrally worded, it nonetheless targeted a form of sexual expression that, in effect, targeted homosexuals, because they could not – by definition – engage in penile/vaginal sex. (paragraph 144) This being the case, the section clearly denied to homosexuals the right to sexual autonomy and the right to a choice of a sexual partner, choices that fell squarely within the domain of individual liberty; it also denied them the right to sexual expression, which was a violation of individual dignity. (paragraph 151) As the High Court colourfully noted, “the impugned provisions force him [the individual] to engage in private sexual expression not according to his orientation; but according to statutory dictates.” (paragraph 144)

The Court then made a deeper argument about equality and discrimination. Section 15(3) of the Constitution of Botswana defines discrimination as “affording different treatment to different persons, attributable wholly or mainly to their respective descriptions by race, tribe, place of origin, political opinions, colour, creed or sex.” Like Article 15(1) of the Indian Constitution, this is a “closed list.” Unlike Canada or South Africa, It does not use words like “including” or “among others” before “race, tribe…” etc., and therefore, textually, precludes a Court from adding in entirely new grounds into the Section.

However, working within these constraints, and citing the previous judgment of Attorney-General v Dow, the High Court noted that:

I do not think that the framers of the Constitution intended to declare in 1966, that all potentially vulnerable groups and classes, who would be affected for all time by discriminatory treatment, have been identified and mentioned in the definition in section 15(3). I do not think that they intended to declare that the categories mentioned in that definition were forever closed. In the nature of things, as farsighted people trying to look into the future, they would have contemplated that, with the passage of time, not only groups or classes which had caused concern at the time of writing the Constitution but other groups or classes needing protection would arise. (paragraph 158, citing Dow)

As I have argued elsewhere, this is exactly the approach that should be adopted towards an anti-discrimination provision. Assessing discrimination is always a contextual enquiry, and the groups that are identified and persecuted by virtue of their group identity can – and do – change from time to time. For this reason, ideally, an anti-discrimination provision should lay down the principle, set out the groups that are salient at the time of drafting, and remain open-ended (as in Canada or South Africa). However, where it isn’t, a Court should at least be able to interpret the existing grounds flexibly, even if it can’t add new ones. And this is precisely what the High Court did, following comparative jurisprudence to hold (like the Delhi High Court in Naz), that sex included “sexual orientation”, as “sex and sexual orientation, are associable signifiers of a similar scope and content.” (paragraph 161) Interestingly, the Court buttressed this finding by noting that the Employment Act already prohibited discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation in the workplace; like the case of the 2017 Mental Healthcare Act in India, a poignant example of the first meaningful legal change coming through a statute.

Armed with this interpretation of Section 15(3), the Court returned to the question of acts and identities. Relying upon both comparative law and evidence (including evidence provided by the Applicant, a gay man), to hold that sodomy laws – whatever their wording – had the effect of stigmatising the LGBTQ population, “render[ing] the[m] … a criminal, or an “unapprehended felon”, always on tenterhooks, waiting to be arrested.” (paragraph 169) This, in turn, meant that the sections were discriminatory in effect (an argument similar to that made by Chandrachud J. in Johar) – a conclusion that was aided by the fact that the Constitution of Botswana explicitly prohibited indirect discrimination. Here again, the High Court’s approach was in stark contrast to that of its Kenyan counterpart: while the Kenyan High Court – like Koushal in India – found that there was no “evidence” for any of this, and that simply “pleading” rights violations in affidavits was insufficient, the High Court of Botswana took seriously the account of discrimination recounted by the Applicant, as well as relying upon scholarly studies for the stigmatic effect of sodomy provisions.

Privacy

The High Court also engaged in an interesting discussion of the right to privacy. Like the American Constitution, the Constitution of Botswana – through Sections 3(c) and 9 – frames “privacy” in its classical sense, as pertaining to spaces – the home, property, freedom from an unreasonable search, and so on. Specifically acknowledging this (para 116), the Court nonetheless refused to limit privacy to the merely spatial, instead – in line with comparative jurisprudence – extending it to include decisional autonomy and the privacy of intimate choice, free from State control. (para 122)

The State’s Arguments

Interestingly, this was not the first time that the constitutionality of sodomy laws was being litigated. In 2003, in a case called Kanane, the Botswana Court of Appeal had held that it “was not yet time” to decriminalise same-sex relations. Much like Johar in India, therefore, and Lawrence in the United States, the Court was faced with a recent decision that had gone the other way. The High Court of Botswana, however, was quick to get around this, noting that no expert evidence had been presented in Kanane, and that the Court had not even dealt with the arguments on privacy, dignity, and indirect discrimination. (paragraph 171)

The State then argued that the purpose of the law was to protect and advance public morality and public interest. – another familiar argument. Applying the proportionality standard, the Court responded by noting that these were merely “bare assertions and or speculations that sexual anal penetration is contrary to public morality or public interest.” (paragraph 180). However, none of this had been demonstrated, it had not been shown that criminalisation was the least restrictive method of achieving the State’s goal (even of advancing public morality), and evidence of the harm caused to the LGBTQ community had not been rebutted. (paragraph 181). But in any event, the Court noted, public morality was relevant in a constitutional claim, but not dispositive. (paragraph 185) In this case, for the reasons advanced above, it fell well short of the proportionality standard; the same was true for the public interest justification, as criminalisation:

… disproportionally impacts on the lives and dignity of LGBT persons. It perpetuates stigma and shame against homosexuals and renders them recluse and outcasts. There is no victim within consensual same sex intercourse inter se adults. (paragraph 189).

The only other possible justification, the Court noted, was the Victorian, “Judeo-Christian” idea of the purpose of sex being for procreation. That premise, evidently, had long ceased being valid. (paragraph 208). The Court therefore struck down the provisions prohibiting carnal knowledge against the order of nature, and read down the provision criminalising “gross indecency” (Section 167) by severing and excluding acts done in private.

Points of Critique

The judgment of the High Court of Botswana is a powerful and eloquent defence of the rights of privacy, dignity, freedom, and equality; its clear and unequivocal holding, which decriminalises same-sex relations, is to be welcomed and applauded. However, while most of the judgment is a study in excellent rights-reasoning by a constitutional court, there are three discordant notes, which also need to be highlighted.

First, from time to time, the High Court got sucked into the question of whether sexual orientation was “innate” (paragraph 142); towards the end of its judgment, it held that sexual orientation is an “innate attribute that [people] have no control over.” (paragraph 190) As I pointed out in my analysis of the Kenyan High Court judgment, however, the “born this way” argument is controversial even within LGBTQ circles, but more importantly, it is a red herring. The question of whether sexual orientation is innate or not is irrelevant to issues of group discrimination (where, as the South African Constitutional Court pointed out, a homosexual identity is first “constructed”, and then subject to persecution), and to questions of decisional autonomy and individual freedom in making intimate choices.

Secondly, as part of its substantive reasoning, the High Court drops the odd claim that homosexuals can “only” have anal sex (and that’s why Ss. 164 and 165 take away sexual freedom). Now, it’s unclear where the High Court gets this from, but in any event, this also misses the point: the struggle around getting sodomy laws removed is not – and has never been – about legalising a particular sexual act, but about bringing down a range of discriminatory practices that deny to the LGBTQ community equal moral membership in society.

Thirdly – and again, this comes at the end of its judgment – the High Court’s stress on the “private” sits ill at ease with its excellent analysis of freedom, equality, and discrimination. In Johar, the Indian Supreme Court was careful not to go down the Delhi High Court’s path and qualify decriminalisation by adding the words “in private.” Like Johar, the Botswana High Court also does not add any such qualification while striking down Ss. 164 and 165, but it does so in its analysis of S. 167 (gross indecency), where it strikes out “private”, and leaves the criminalisation of “gross public indecency” intact. But what is “public indecency” if not the same kind of socially-perceived “deviant” behaviour that the Court is otherwise so concerned to protect under the Constitution? Without a clearer definition, that is the only use it will ever be put to.

It is important to note, however, that none of these three points are central to the core of the decision; the decision would remain even if we jettisoned them. The High Court’s arguments on freedom, equality, and dignity, and its ringing endorsement of diversity, plurality and the protection of the marginalised, does not require it to commit to the “born this way” theory of sexual orientation; it does not require any holding on the mechanics of anal sex; and it does not need a re-entrenchment of the public/private divide. It is to be hoped, therefore, that in future, it is the rights-expanding, liberty-protecting aspects of the judgment that will stand the test of time, while these odd discordant notes will, ultimately, fade away.

Conclusion

Coming two weeks after the intense disappointment of the Kenyan High Court’s judgment, Letsweletse Motshidiemang marks a welcome reversion to form: across the world, the fact that sodomy laws have no place in liberal democracies is increasingly becoming part of judicial common sense. Arguments from “public morality” and “deference”, which once held powerful sway over the minds of judges, are losing their purchase. The Botswana High Court’s clear, powerful, and unambiguous judgment gives us hope that what happened two weeks ago was a brief aberration, which will be swiftly set right by the Kenyan appellate courts; in the meantime, there is another judgment to celebrate.