No par­adise for Mau­ri­tian queers

In Mau­ri­tius, most chil­dren stay at home un­til they marry. But for the LGBTI com­mu­nity, same-sex mar­riage is not le­gal and home is of­ten where their big­gest chal­lenge lies. Far from the tourist beaches, Charl Blig­naut spends time at a ther­apy project that

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It’s a small coun­try, Mau­ri­tius, or, as Pauline will later say: “Mau­ri­tius hardly ex­ists on the map. It’s not re­ally south­ern Africa, it’s not re­ally east Africa.” The 45-minute taxi ride to Qu­a­tre Bornes from our par­adise beach ho­tel crosses half the is­land. We drive through sugar cane fields, past the fu­tur­is­tic tem­ples of the smart city boom, past a Spur and the mall that’s a lit­tle South Africa with its Wool­worths, Nando’s and Shoprite.

Most of the South Africans liv­ing here, one cab driver says, are white and live in vil­las in es­tate de­vel­op­ments; a cu­ri­ous com­mu­nity that brought with them alien veg­e­ta­tion – high walls and elec­tric fences.

He talks about the white Mau­ri­tians, mostly French, who con­trol the econ­omy, and the is­land’s out­moded colo­nial-era laws, the con­ser­va­tive Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ties, the paralysing cost of ed­u­cat­ing his chil­dren and, just over the hills, the shack fam­i­lies hidden from view.

“The gays aren’t here to­day. They’re in town plan­ning an event for World Aids Day,” says Pauline, the 27-year-old man­ager of the Col­lec­tif Arcen-Ciel (The Rain­bow Col­lec­tive). She’s re­fer­ring to the turn-out for the art ther­apy ses­sions they hold ev­ery sec­ond Satur­day to sup­port the les­bian, gay, bi­sex­ual, trans­gen­der and in­ter­sex (LGBTI) com­mu­nity.

We’d eas­ily found their head­quar­ters in a dou­ble­storey, dusty pink build­ing in the mid­dle-class, peri-ur­ban sugar town of Qu­a­tre Bornes, 15km from the cap­i­tal Port Louis. There’s a rain­bow flag in one win­dow and a dream­catcher in the other.

They’ve just moved in to these light, tiled rooms with LGBTI Pride posters on the walls and a large ve­randa. It’s on a busy road, but it of­fers bet­ter ac­cess to pub­lic trans­port for the group of a dozen or so friendly queers sit­ting around a ta­ble that is cov­ered in art sup­plies, cakes and Coca-Cola. Some are shy, some are larger than life, some are psy­chol­o­gists guid­ing the process; all of them are here to make new friends and un­pack their pasts.

“We started the ther­apy ses­sions four months ago. It’s the only project of its kind here,” says the head of the col­lec­tive, who asks not to be named be­cause she works in a con­ser­va­tive space – ed­u­ca­tion.

Some­thing the project head says ap­pears to sum up a lot of the sto­ries: “Many peo­ple who come to us didn’t go to psy­chol­o­gists be­cause they were scared. There is free health­care in Mau­ri­tius, but there is a lot of dis­crim­i­na­tion. In pub­lic hos­pi­tals, they don’t want to hear about it. It’s re­garded as a choice. You chose, so you must deal with it. It’s best if you choose an­other lifestyle ... It’s the same in schools – a girl will be bul­lied for be­ing butch. If she com­plains to the teach­ers, she will be told that she brought this on her­self.”

In Mau­ri­tius, the law is largely silent on LGBTI rights.

“I can walk around with my girl­friend with­out get­ting ar­rested. We can even hold hands and kiss. But you are open to ha­rass­ment. Same-sex unions are not recog­nised, and sodomy is il­le­gal and this is en­forced in some cases. In 2015, one cou­ple rented a bun­ga­low in the north and the po­lice came to check if they were smok­ing weed. They weren’t, but were ar­rested on sus­pi­cion of prac­tis­ing sodomy. The cou­ple said yes, they’re gay and they have sex – they pleaded guilty. The case wasn’t pur­sued. It was just in­tim­i­da­tion,” the project head says.

Trans­gen­der Mau­ri­tians, like ev­ery­where else in the world, face the blunt end of the stick. “A trans woman was walk­ing in a skirt and a longsleeved top. The po­lice ar­rested her for be­ing a va­grant be­cause ‘she’s a man and she’s not sup­posed to wear women’s clothes’. She ar­gued with them and was slapped, as­saulted. The case was writ­ten off, but she’s still try­ing to get com­pen­sa­tion from the state. She won’t win be­cause there are no wit­nesses … The peo­ple most af­fected by phys­i­cal vi­o­lence are the trans com­mu­nity. They are abused by the steam­ers [the clients of those trans women who are sex work­ers]. They are not al­lowed in the ladies’ toi­lets. They get groped or slapped in the men’s toi­lets.” There are cases of abuse like this, but the vic­tims can’t find lawyers to rep­re­sent them. “We have two who help us some­times, but it’s even more dif­fi­cult when the cases get to the judges and mag­is­trates.” The col­lec­tive did a work­shop with lawyers from the Com­mon­wealth not long ago. At the air­port, the lawyers were asked about the pur­pose of their visit. Some of­fered their printed-out agenda and it was con­fis­cated. “On the sec­ond day, there were se­cret ser­vice agents in their ho­tel. At a five-star ho­tel.” But for all of the queers who have come here to­day, “the big is­sues that come up in the ses­sions have to do with fam­ily and the pres­sure to be straight ... You see, in Mau­ri­tius, nor­mally you don’t leave home un­til you get mar­ried. It’s com­mon to be 25 or 26 and still be liv­ing with your par­ents. Many Mau­ri­tians will ac­tu­ally only come out in their fifties or six­ties. There’s a lot of bul­ly­ing in schools, even on cam­pus. You get hate com­ments when you’re walk­ing on the street. But most of it comes from fam­ily.” Rachel was born here to a Bri­tish mother and a Chi­nese-Mau­ri­tian fa­ther, who met when they were study­ing health­care in Leeds in the UK. They set­tled in Mau­ri­tius and raised five girls. Wear­ing a white vest that reads “Hu­man” that shows off her tat­toos per­fectly, Rachel has been af­fected by Col­lec­tif Arc-en-Ciel more than she imag­ined. A 48-year-old sec­re­tary at a travel agency, she is a mon­i­tor­ing and eval­u­at­ing of­fi­cer here. Through the ther­apy, she has come to a place where she is speak­ing openly to a jour­nal­ist about the jour­ney back from be­ing raped. “This is a true story ... It’s very hard for me ... at 13, I was raped by a neigh­bour. I never told my par­ents. My mum died eight years ago; my dad two years ago. I was in ther­apy for two years, but never talked about it. The first per­son I told was my best friend when I was 23. I had car­ried it inside for 10 years. I told my sis­ter three years ago. Her re­ac­tion was ter­ri­ble. She asked why I hadn’t gone to the po­lice. “Be­cause I felt guilty ... Be­cause you think you brought it on your­self ... Even though he tied me up ... What have I done wrong? Why couldn’t I stop him? Did I ask for it?” Her rapist is still around. “When I see him, my heart beats fast. I want to cry, but I don’t. I could never con­front him. Just see­ing him, I start shaking. And I’ve done mar­tial arts for 14 years,” she says. “I could never be with a man again. When I came out as les­bian, my mum al­ready knew. My dad took it very badly. He took me to see a pri­est and then a doc­tor, and then stopped talk­ing to me for three months. Mum was say­ing: ‘She’s still your daugh­ter.’ “I started dat­ing guys to please my dad. I kept ask­ing my­self, am I re­ally les­bian or am I bi­sex­ual? I was just act­ing happy. And then one day, I brought a girl­friend home and that’s when he had to ac­cept it be­cause she was there all the time ... My dad died in my arms.”

Pauline, the man­ager of the project, has a lovely deep voice. The 27-year-old, in a sloppy grey T-shirt and takkies, hair in a bun, says: “I am an ac­tivist by birth. I will fight against in­jus­tice all my life.”

Af­ter a year of work­ing with the col­lec­tive, France-born Pauline came out. “I de­cided to stop hid­ing my sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion and came out ... as straight. A rad­i­cal het­ero­sex­ual.”

Here, ther­apy ses­sions are in two parts – it’s vis­ual art in the morn­ings.

“Psy­chol­o­gists sit with them and there’s a group con­ver­sa­tion. You put it on pa­per, cre­ate it, then dis­cuss it ... It’s themed around is­sues such as fam­ily ac­cep­tance,” she says.

“In the af­ter­noon is body ex­pres­sion, per­form­ing arts ... Af­ter­noons are group work, like the old ‘fall and trust some­one will catch you’ ex­er­cise. Af­ter a few weeks, they just let them­selves fall. Four months later, there are so many changes in peo­ple.”

The same is true of the con­cerned moth­ers who have ar­rived here in a state be­cause one of their chil­dren has come out and they don’t know what to do.

The shy 24-year-old Chi­nese man is metic­u­lously dressed and hides an un­ex­pected smile.

“I came across [Col­lec­tif Arc-en-Ciel] dur­ing a Pride march. I started march­ing in Pride about five years ago. I was in­vited by a friend, and it was on Face­book – he told me to come ... I felt scared, but then, when I marched, it was amaz­ing.”

Pride marches have been cen­tral to the LGBTI move­ment in Mau­ri­tius. They were be­gun in 2005 by Ni­cholas Rit­ter, who came out pub­licly as an HIV-pos­i­tive gay man in 2004, rat­tling the is­land. He founded the non­govern­men­tal or­gan­i­sa­tion Préven­tion In­for­ma­tion et Lutte con­tre le SIDA (Pils) to com­bat HIV and Aids. Pils is the col­lec­tive’s pri­mary fun­der.

“The re­sponse to the first Pride was very vi­o­lent – we were shamed, there were death threats and coun­ter­marches, even this year,” the head of the col­lec­tive says.

Like in South Africa, more vis­i­bil­ity means more vi­o­lence against LGBTI cit­i­zens. Last year, the 1 200-strong Mau­ri­tius Pride march moved from a small town to Port Louis and the re­sis­tance was back in force.

“A gun­shot was fired at the French em­bassy by an Is­lamic group. Two days be­fore, po­lice told us there was a group bent on mak­ing the march not hap­pen. We had 30 po­lice of­fi­cers and also took our own se­cu­rity. For 10 years, things were rosy be­cause we were march­ing in a small town, but this year, we moved to the cap­i­tal and the threats hap­pened.”

Pride is con­sci­en­tis­ing to a young gay man such as Ni­co­las, who was born in Curepipe, “quite a big city for Mau­ri­tius”.

“I came out at 18, but I knew from 12. At first, I didn’t ac­cept my­self. My friends were all at­tracted to girls. I felt apart, but slowly I started to make real friends and ac­cept my­self. When I came out, some un­friended me, some sup­ported me.

“I told my fam­ily ac­ci­den­tally at 18. There was a pic­ture of two guys kiss­ing in the news­pa­per. My mother saw it and asked me. I couldn’t say no be­cause I didn’t want to lie to her. She didn’t take it well. ‘You are ill, you need a psy­chol­o­gist,’ she told me. It is a con­ser­va­tive fam­ily. I didn’t tell my dad. My mum is only now start­ing to ac­cept it. I think she told him...

“I felt much bet­ter once my mum knew. Now I can ex­press my­self. My boyfriend comes home with me and they get along.” For him, the art ther­apy is help­ing him be whole. “At first, I was shy, but now I’m used to it. It helps me de­stress; it helps me ex­press my­self. And it helps my so­cial life. I’ve made new friends.”

Pauline is also up­beat. “Things are chang­ing, slowly,” she says. “We’ve just heard Caudon [the up-mar­ket water­front de­vel­op­ment in Port Louis] will let us con­gre­gate there

for the next Pride.” For Anais, a trans­gen­der woman who is chat­ting to me along­side her friend Gin­ger, the col­lec­tive has done more than help her so­cial life – it has saved her life. “Poverty af­fects the trans com­mu­nity the hard­est,” says Pauline. “They can’t find jobs and many end up do­ing sex work. We have trans­gen­der peo­ple here who live in ter­ri­ble con­di­tions.” This is why the col­lec­tive ac­tively em­ploys trans­gen­der peo­ple. Anais is a peer re­viewer here, and lives large – big glasses, ear­rings dan­gling, glit­tery nails and a big ring. She tells me, through a trans­la­tor, about how her first bat­tle was fought at home. “Do­ing my first com­mu­nion, I wanted a dress, not boy’s clothes. My mum asked if I was crazy ... At 12, I started buy­ing girls’ clothing and per­fume, hid­ing, say­ing I was buy­ing it for a friend. When they went to work, I would dress up.” When she was 13, Anais came out as gay. “One day, they were all gath­ered and I told my mum I don’t like girls, I like guys. My mum asked if I was crazy ... I was bul­lied be­cause I didn’t ac­cept my­self ... One of my sis­ters is ho­mo­pho­bic and she’d tell my mum not to ac­cept me. She’d scratch me and hit me, this older sis­ter. She was jeal­ous. She was a hair­dresser and she’d do my hair wrong.” Af­ter school, Anais found work in a fac­tory with only male co-work­ers. “I was do­ing a very phys­i­cal job. I didn’t know about be­ing trans­gen­der, but I knew about nails and eye­brows.” It was only when she found a job at a florist, with an open-minded boss, that she could come out a sec­ond time, as trans. But find­ing love was hard. “Every­one says they love you, then they leave you,” she says. Her first steady boyfriend com­mit­ted sui­cide. It was her next boyfriend who re­ally helped win her fam­ily over. “My mum re­ally loved the guy.” But then she lost him. “He died in an ac­ci­dent three years ago ... Ther­apy here has re­ally helped me deal with this time in my life,” she says. “I love this job; I wish I’d had this sup­port when I was younger.” Inside, the af­ter­noon ses­sion has started. Mu­sic plays and the good queers of Mau­ri­tius are mov­ing, tak­ing steps; their eyes closed and arms out. The white board is full of words, there’s a tin of bis­cuits open on the ta­ble... “I want to live and not let it rule my life,” says Rachel when I re­turn to the sub­ject of rape. “This is the hap­pi­est I’ve ever been. I’ve started to love my­self. I have spo­ken to a ther­a­pist here about the rape. She sees I am still strug­gling. She un­der­stands me and I talk openly ... Since I’ve been here, I’ve got more vibes, more wow, I feel safer. I don’t care about the judge­ments. I would hold her hand in pub­lic. I still wouldn’t kiss her. But I’d hold her hand.” This se­ries on LGBTI life in Africa is made pos­si­ble through a part­ner­ship with The Other Foun­da­tion. To learn more about its work, visit theother­foun­da­tion.org

PHO­TOS: SEKOETLANE PHAMODI

THE ONLY STRAIGHT IN THE ROOM Pauline man­ages the Col­lec­tif Arc-en-Ciel

LIGHT­ING UP THE ROOM Ni­co­las says the ther­apy has brought him out of his shell

THE JOUR­NEY TO HEAL­ING Rachel is de­ter­mined to deal with be­ing raped as a teenager

SIT­TING PRETTY A mem­ber of the ther­apy col­lec­tive on the ve­ran­dah at Qu­a­tre Bornes

DOU­BLE CLOSET Anais had to come out first as gay and then as trans

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