Carou Labonne has always been proud of Mauritius, the island she calls home. “I’ve always said it is paradise,” she says.
Labonne is a member of queer rights group Collectif Arc-en-Ciel (Rainbow Collective). When preparing for this year’s Mauritius Pride march in early June — also due to be attended by people from Madagascar, the Comoros and the Seychelles — Labonne and her fellow queer rights activists were particularly excited for “people [to] see Pride in Mauritius and how awesome it is”.
But this year’s Pride festival (in its 13th year) was an unlucky one for the island’s queer people. The festival had previously been held in Beau-Bassin Rose-Hill but this year, organisers decided to move it to the Mauritian capital, Port Louis, “so we could accommodate more people”. The decision to hold the event in the city, home to the island’s highest concentration of Muslims, proved to be ill-fated.
“A few minutes before Pride started, there were about 500 Muslims carrying weapons [and] threatening that if we walk, they would shoot; they would attack,” says Labonne.
The Mauritius Constitution prohibits discrimination based on race, place of origin, political opinion, colour, creed or sex, and the Mauritius National Human Rights Commission stated in its 2015 annual report that “the term ‘sex’ can be construed to encompass sexual orientation”.
Section 250 of the Mauritian criminal code, however, says that sodomy carries a maximum prison sentence of five years. According to the United States state department’s 2016 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, however, “sodomy cases that reached the courts almost exclusively involved heterosexual persons, especially as an aggravating factor in divorce cases”.
“Authorities rarely used the sodomy statute against same-sex couples, unless one of the partners cited sodomy in the context of sexual assault,” the report found.
The country’s Equal Opportunities Act of 2008 also prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Labonne adds that although there were protests at last year’s Pride march, “they were not as violent as this year”.
Released in 2016, the Other Foundation’s Canaries in the Coal Mines report found that Mauritius had a higher than average level of tolerance for homosexuality than other Southern African countries. According to the study, 49% of Mauritians “would not mind having a homosexual as a neighbour”.
Ava Thancanamootoo, a queer rights activist, says she was “shocked and astonished” by the violence of the anti-Pride protest.
“We’ve never had this kind of hostility before. We are generally a population that is tolerant. Even if people here are homophobic, they would never attack or insult someone. It’s a hidden thing. It shook the whole country,” says Thancanamootoo.
But there had been warning signs — 126 of them, in fact. This was the number of death threats the organisation and its members received in the weeks preceding Pride from fundamentalists opposed to the event being held.
Says Labonne: “Shortly before we were to have the event, someone took to social media, using a fake account, and posted a picture that was taken at this year’s London Pride. The picture showed someone holding a poster reading ‘Allah is gay’.”
The hate mail came in thick and fast, threatening the organisation’s Pauline Verner and anyone planning to attend the event as well as the island’s broader queer communities.
“The foreign French whore [Verner] who has verbal diarrhoea will be mutilated and killed [and] if the homo vermin dare to pollute our streets tomorrow, they will be massacred,” one message read.
Another read: “Truly the only place between kufr — disbelievers, i.e. yourselves — and Islam will be a battle to death. We will never accept coexistence with your perversity and disbelief. Mauritius WILL endure pain and suffering in the coming days.”
Despite the cancellation of the march “to secure the safety of the approximately 500 participants” and the organisation’s decision to hold a sit-in instead, the death threats continued. At the time of speaking to the Mail & Guardian, Labonne says the total number of death threats stood at 150.
After bomb threats were reported at Pride-supporting shopping malls, Collectif Arc-en-Ciel representatives met the island’s prime minister, Pravind Jugnauth.
“All he said was that the rights of all Mauritians must be respected, that the rule of law must be respected. So he never really took any position,” says Labonne, who puts this down to the fact that the country’s general election is coming up soon.
“Mauritius is a multicultural society,” Labonne says, adding: “There are four major religions — Catholicism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. Because [Jugnauth] is Hindu,
I think that, if he took a position, it could create a war in Mauritius.”
Although island-wide violence has possibly been averted, for the country’s queer people the threat still looms. Says Labonne: “I feel as though, because of my sexual orientation and gender identity, people are against me. I feel like: ‘Why are they hating me; why are they hating my people?’ We are just fighting for the right to exist, for the right to be respected. I am always proud about who I am. I call myself ‘the national unicorn of Mauritius’ — I never hide myself — but this is the second time I feel insecure [here].”
The first time Labonne felt this insecurity was in the weeks and months after last year’s Pride march.
“Protesters were taking pictures of us marching and, for two months after that, I had people looking at me, following me. It was scary. But this time around it feels really, really, really, dangerous. I have never felt insecure like this before.”
Thancanamootoo sees the situation as “a double-edged sword”. “The fact that this has happened has made people more sympathetic to queer rights. People on social media in particular are really showing their support,” she says.
She concedes, however, that the resultant backlash against the country’s Muslim community “is not good a thing”.
“It is taking a racist turn, so it’s a situation that is not favourable to all. The only good outcome is that there is more visibility to the subject. Whether it’s positive or negative, only time will tell. It’s a mixed feeling here right now. But it’s definitely scary. It’s definitely worrying. And it’s surprising as hell.”
Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian