Theresa May “deeply regrets” the criminalisation of same-sex relations in former British colonies, saying they “were wrong then and are wrong now”.
Speaking at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), the Prime Minister said the UK would support any Commonwealth nation seeking to reform “outdated” legislation.
“I am all too aware that these laws were often put in place by my own country,” Mrs May said.
“They were wrong then and they are wrong now.
“As the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister I deeply regret both the fact that such laws were introduced and the legacy of discrimination, violence and death that persists today.
“As a family of nations we must respect one another’s cultures and traditions but we must do so in a manner consistent with our common value of equality – a value that is clearly stated in the Commonwealth Charter.
“Nobody should face discrimination or persecution because of who they are or who they love and the UK stands ready to help any Commonwealth member wanting to reform outdated legislation that makes such discrimination possible.”
The Prime Minister had been urged to apologise for Britain’s homophobic past.
Human rights and LGBT campaigner Peter Tatchell said ahead of the speech: “UK PM should apologise at @Commonwealth18 for UK imposing anti-gay laws that still remain in most #Commonwealth countries.
“This would highlight that these laws are not indigenous & not originated by most nations that retain them.”
Speaking at the Commonwealth Games, the gay athlete said: “There are 37 countries in the Commonwealth where it is illegal to be who I am. And hopefully we can reduce that number.”
A majority of countries in the Commonwealth of Nations currently have discriminatory laws against same-sex sexual acts, and other discriminatory laws regarding gender expression and sexual orientation, with punishments that include imprisonment and the death penalty.
In most of these countries, anti-gay legislation is a relic of the British Empire, when British colonial administrators imposed discriminatory laws in the territories they ruled in the 19th century.
These systems, and the attitudes associated with them, were then retained by governments after independence.
Last Thursday saw a milestone for LGBT rights in Trinidad and Tobago, where a judge ruled that anti-buggery laws were unconstitutional and discriminatory.
But in other countries the situation for people who aren’t heterosexual is getting worse.
In Uganda, an act passed in 2014 increased sentencing for gay sex acts, and also criminalised civil movements relating to LGBT rights.