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 is restoring queer dignity.
Port Louis - 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 Arc-en-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 double-storey, dusty pink building in the middle-class, peri-urban sugar town of Quatre Bornes, 15km from the capital Port Louis.
'Rainbow flags and a dreamcatchers'
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.
‘You brought this on yourself’
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 long-sleeved 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.”
Over the rainbow
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 article originally appeared in City Press, the most influential Sunday newspaper in South Africa.