From Victorian to victorious


From Victorian to victorious

Téa Braun is winning the fight against antiquated colonial laws that perpetuate the abuse of human rights.

Photo: Anett Posalaki / Raccoon London

A few years after graduating from UBC, Téa Braun was living what most people would consider an eminently successful life as a young lawyer. She’d held a prestigious clerkship at the Supreme Court of British Columbia and was running a thriving commercial litigation practice in downtown Vancouver.

Braun loved her job and her colleagues, but she was restless in a way she struggled to name. Something “vague,” she says, “was stirring in my mind.” Geography seemed to her to have something to do with it; the prospect of a lifetime spent in the city where she was born was beginning to feel stifling. She longed “to really experience the world and contribute to it in some way.”

In search of that wider world, Braun put her career on pause and travelled for nearly a year around the US, Europe, the Middle East, and East Africa. It was a formative time: “That period really opened my eyes to the wider issues in the world, the wider experiences of different people in different geopolitical contexts.” Reflecting on the experience, Braun could see clearly how the law defined people’s fundamental rights and freedoms and decided to devote the rest of her career to advancing those rights. She eventually settled in the UK to earn a master’s degree in international human rights law.

Braun’s transformation from a young, restless lawyer into a passionate advocate for equality has continued to take her into the wide world beyond Vancouver. She’s advised governments and litigants across Africa, Asia, the Pacific, and the Caribbean. “I certainly couldn’t have predicted it,” Braun reflects. “I’ve worked on everything from the way girls are trafficked for labour exploitation, to the ways Indigenous peoples in Africa are discriminated against in their access to their ancestral lands, to women’s human rights in the South Pacific.”

Today Braun is chief executive of the Human Dignity Trust, a London-based organization that “uses the law to defend the human rights of LGBT people globally.” Across the world, the Trust supports local activists – many of whom put their safety on the line to fight unjust laws – by offering expert legal assistance in mounting constitutional challenges, as well as advising and assisting governments on law reform. Their goal is to eradicate laws criminalizing or marginalizing LGBT people, with an emphasis on dismantling the ugly legacies of British colonialism.

In the 1800s, the British Empire exported sexual-offence laws across the colonies, many of which endure today in their original form. As experts in human rights compliant sexual offence laws, Braun and her team are well positioned to help challenge the discriminatory aspects of such laws as they exist across the globe.

Despite the passage of time, contemporary penal codes still reflect an imperialist Victorian mentality. They are often “quite horrific to read,” Braun says. “Even the language is very Victorian. It criminalizes ‘buggery,’ and ‘carnal knowledge against the order of nature,’ and ‘gross indecency’ between males or between females.” Sexual offence laws often harm women and girls as well as LGBT people, according to Braun: Many laws stipulate that it is not an offence for a man to rape his wife, and they assign girls a younger age of legal consent than they do boys. Persons with disabilities are referred to as “idiots” and “imbeciles.”

The legal results are wide-ranging and often violent. Braun is driven by the urgency of her team’s mission and the potential for serious and lasting change. While the Trust is clear that a host of cultural changes must accompany legal reforms, they view the law as a crucial mechanism for achieving them. On the Trust’s website, one anonymous activist states: “I know the hardships that I face as a gay man in Africa. But to understand the legal implications means that I can talk to my government in the very language they use to oppress me.”

It’s this potential for either liberation or oppression through law that fascinates Braun. As well-acquainted as she is with the violence the law can wreak, to her it still holds liberating promise. Speaking about what she loves about her work, she brightens and becomes almost poetic. For her, the law is as intricate as it is powerful; a “mechanism” that, when crafted just right, provides desperately needed “structure” and “clarity.” Studying the law’s minutiae and meticulously shaping arguments contain their own pleasures, even in the fraught circumstances in which she works. “That piecing together of an intellectual puzzle has always been really appealing,” Braun says. She’s motivated by the knowledge that if she can manage to arrange the puzzle pieces just right, it will make someone’s daily life better; indeed, with the removal or introduction of laws that affect a whole class of people, thousands or millions of people’s lives and dignity can change overnight.

The wins, when they come, have been significant. As of 2023, the Trust has helped win 15 court cases around the world to decriminalize LGBT people and protect their fundamental rights. Most memorable for Braun was the historic case she worked on to decriminalize homosexuality in Belize, the first of its kind in the Caribbean. The pressure was intense, and Braun’s team worked for years to prepare. The case culminated in a climactic four-day-long hearing that Braun describes as “a very heated, court-room-drama sort of environment.” Opponents surrounded the courtroom “with placards citing passages from Leviticus,” and public debates on the issues in the case featured daily on prime-time TV and radio. The judgment took a further three years of deliberation. After all the suspense, Braun says, “We got an absolutely brilliant judgment that found in our favour on all grounds.” The win in Belize led to a historic “domino effect” in the region, with Barbados, Saint Kitts, and Antigua following suit to decriminalize homosexuality in court cases Braun and her team supported.

Just recently, in October 2023, that series of judgments helped win another case on the other side of the world in Mauritius, which decriminalized homosexuality 185 years after the colonial law was first imposed. Braun had been working on it since 2015. This building of a global web of case law around the common law world is another example of the legal puzzle that Braun revels in constructing.

It’s moments like this, Braun says, when the long days and years of hard work seem worthwhile: “Seeing the way that people just breathe lighter after they get these victories, the way they feel validated and feel humanized – that is hugely satisfying.”