All over the world, the LGBT+ community is challenged in many different ways. Unfortunately, direct acts of violence, social stigmatization, and isolation are still daily practices in many parts of the world. Different ideas on the position of LGBT+ people in society are often also expressed during counter-protests at Pride events. Such counter-protests can have a tremendous impact, such as Pride events being canceled due to security reasons. However, in a very rare case, such backlashes can benefit the Pride event in the end, as seen in Mauritius. This article elaborates on how Mauritius Pride turned the tables and changed tremendous backlashes into a strong, political response.
Authors: Anjeelee Beegun and Patrick van der Pas
The Collectif Arc-en- Ciel (CAEC), a local LGBT+ advocacy organization, has organized the annual Pride March since 2005. The Pride intends to celebrate the diversity of the LGBT+ community and the right of every person to exist without persecution. Unfortunately, in 2018, the CAEC could not hold its annual Pride march due to zealous opposition from some religious extremists. The opponents organized an illegal counter-protest on the itinerary of the march. Since there were reports that they could turn violent at any moment, the CAEC decided not to follow up with the march and to remain at the gathering place so as to ensure the safety of all their participants. Following the incident, several LGBT activists in Mauritius received death threats that lasted over a period of several weeks. Remarkable enough, CAEC and the LGBT+ community in Mauritius also received tremendous support from the media, international organizations and the Mauritian population in general. This support caused a change of thoughts of the organizers of Mauritius Pride. It was time to turn the tables and to speak more openly about LGBT+ rights in Mauritius.
The dynamics of religious beliefs and cultural perspectives have a very significant impact in countries all over the world, as is the case in Mauritius. The LGBT+ community in Mauritius is by law protected against discrimination by the Equal Opportunities Act. But at the same time are they also, by virtue of Section 250 of Criminal law, criminalized by engaging in consensual adult same-sex sexual conduct and suffer wider forms of discrimination, stigma, and violence as a result. Due to the small size of the country and cultural norms, young people tend not to leave the family home before getting married, which complicates the freedom, privacy and other rights of LGBT+ individuals. Also, it is very difficult for a person to talk openly about their sexuality without being a victim of scandals or discrimination, as LGBT+ issues tend to be framed within a discourse of sin and unnatural behavior. The LGBT+ community in Mauritius often face issues with the family not accepting their sexual orientation and pressuring them to marry someone of the opposite sex, having neighbors harassing them (including physical violence) and religious groups attempting to ‘cure’ their sexuality.
As there is no specific legal protection against hate crime and hate speech against LGBT persons in Mauritius, the CAEC demanded that Section 282, which condemns the act of stirring up hatred against a part of the population distinguished by sex, ethnic origin, religion, political opinion among others, will be modified and that SOGIE be added in the law. Additionally, a modification of the Equal Opportunities Act to include gender identity and expression is demanded to get legal protection against discrimination based on gender identity/expression. Finally, decriminalization in Section 250 will not only mean that consenting adults can no longer be considered ‘apprehended felons’ subject to arrest and prosecution, but that the resulting stigma, discrimination, violence, harassment, and vulnerabilities to HIV will be reduced in the long run.
The CAEC has been engaging in advocacy, awareness-raising and community support for many years, working towards such progressive change. However, implementing strategic legal interventions in the Pride was a new path to walk for Mauritius Pride. Sometimes the focus of a Pride is festive, and in some cases, there is also a clear and visible Human Rights aspect to the Pride. Unfortunately, the latter is often unknown by the general population due to a lack of awareness. “By demanding public space to express oneself, or demonstrating for a certain cause, an intervention with the State is immediately being established, making Prides always political” states Patrick van der Pas, Secretary Human Rights Committee of InterPride, the world federation of Pride organizers. This intervention lies in the fact that public space, normally regulated by the State, is being used at a certain moment by a group of people from within a society, challenging the oppressive norms of society. Elaborating on Human Rights can be hard, especially when one needs to switch the focus from a more festive event, towards an event that sensitizes the population about the significance of the Pride in a Human Rights context.
However, Mauritius Pride is a case study of not just adding Human Rights elements to Pride, but to change the essence of why the Pride is organized. The organization returned to the idea of their very first Pride. There were no chariots, no festivities. Just a protest that was to say that LGBT persons are humans just like everyone else. They work, pay taxes and vote in elections just like everyone else and in return, they expect to have the same rights. In her speech, the President of CAEC, Anaïs Boullé, also requested the political leaders in Mauritius to include the cause of LGBT persons in their electoral manifestos. Through the march, CAEC sensitized the population that even in 2019, members of the LGBT+ community do not have the same rights and that they are demanding equal rights. This years event was called The March for Equality and started from the Jardin de La Compagnie, which is a symbolic place where protests are held in Mauritius. The idea behind it was to capture the essence of why the LGBT community needs to march.
Accordingly, communication strategies are adjusted to the new focus. Human Rights now have a prevalence position and are at the center of the Pride. Doing so, Mauritius Pride aims at utilizing the mass mobilization and visibility of Pride to draw attention to prelude the laws in place that marginalize the LGBT+ community. Additionally, Mauritius Pride gathered support at national and international organizations, as well as, support from political bodies from all over the world, which established an even stronger force. Also the attendance of political figures such as the British and Australian High Commissioners and the French, Irish and European Union Ambassadors press the urgency. Consolidating support lifts Pride beyond just a festive event once a year and resulted in Mauritius in a serious attempt to fight the anti LGBT+ legislations. The abolishment and adjustments of these laws would mean a huge victory, not only for Mauritius Pride, but also for the LGBT+ community in Mauritius at large, as it will contribute in reducing social stigmatization and isolation, improving the lives of many. The integration of Human Rights in Mauritius Pride shifted the focus of the event and is, therefore, a clear example of how to merge the strength of Pride with strategic legal interventions in order to fight the oppression the LGBT+ community faces every day.