“This is wrong”: Interview with plaintiffs challenging the Mauritian sodomy law
Article by Luke Miller (JD, 2021) and Martin Ren (LLM, 2020),
In the last few weeks, Luke Miller (JD, 2021) and Martin Ren (LLM, 2020) had the pleasure of interviewing three of the plaintiffs challenging the constitutional validity of the Mauritian sodomy law before the Mauritian Supreme Court: Fokeerbux Najeeb Ahmad, Jürgen Soocramanien Lasavanne, and Imesh Fallee.
In a plaint filed on 6th September, the plaintiffs allege that the law has violated their constitutional rights to liberty and non-discrimination, and should therefore be struck out.
Najeeb is the founder of the Young Queer Alliance (“YQA”), a non-governmental organization in Mauritius that advocates for LGBT rights. Since 2017, Najeeb has submitted periodic reports on LGBT rights in Mauritius to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Jürgen is a member of the YQA. In October 2017, he advocated for LGBT rights at the 121st session of the United Nations’ Human Rights Committee in Geneva.
Imesh is also a member of the YQA. He is a freelance graphic designer who uses his artistic skills to create pamphlets to raise awareness about LGBT rights in Mauritius.
Below are excerpts from these interviews. They have been edited for length and clarity.
Martin: How did you learn about your sexual orientation?
Imesh: I think I’ve always known about that. Some people would say: “This should be hidden.” “This is bad.”
My family would say: “Don’t behave like this. This is a girly manner. You can’t be this way. You have to be like a boy. Boys shouldn’t cry. Boys shouldn’t dance like this.”
Growing up, watching TV, if there was a LGBT character portrayed on the screen, [my parents] want to change the channel. They don’t want to talk about it. . . I remember that my parents saw me looking at that and immediately changing the channel. If I see a girl and a boy kissing then that’s fine. But if I see two boys kissing then that’s not fine. It would be weird.
M: Under what circumstances did you decide to come out?
I: I came out when I met my first and only boyfriend. I came out officially to my parents and my whole family.
I was in a relationship with my boyfriend. It turned out to be really messy. I had lots of issues with religion in Mauritius. He was a Christian. I was a Hindu. For the longest time, I thought religion couldn’t be a barrier to our relationship. I thought we could get to know each other and eventually find a way to live together. But destiny chose otherwise.
One day, he just told me that this was not possible. He had to leave this gay life and find peace with a woman and have a monogamous relationship with a woman and have a child. These things didn’t make sense to me. I was very much in love that I had a meltdown in front of my parents. They were very worried about me and my health. And then I told them: “I am this way. I’ve been trying to hide this because I was ashamed.”
I was ashamed because in Mauritius, I was expected to have a child, have a family, make a good living, and create a reputation. This was life. Things that are not in that norm would be considered an issue or a problem in the society. That may also ruin the family’s name, even create problems for my sister’s wedding. My family was offended that I chose a LGBT life. So these were the factors that prevented me to even speak a word about this. I wanted to have a stable life. I wanted a person to be my confidant, a person with whom I can share my stories, a person who can be with me.
But sadly it didn’t turn out this way.
When I went to my family and said all of that, they were very disappointed in me. This took a toll on them greatly because they didn’t know how to react, and how to go from there.
It was a hard time for me.
M: Did this happen when you were in school?
I: It was the first year of my university. It affected my education. At the beginning I was passing my modules. Right when my boyfriend left me, I was in a mess. When I was in the mess, I was failing all of my modules. My parents were worried because they had to pay extra fees to get me to re-do all of my studies.
When I met my boyfriend, he was a very sweet and gentle person. I think he’s still a sweet and gentle person. But back then, I didn’t know much about him. I only knew that he cared a lot about me and wanted to know me and be my boyfriend. But eventually when I learned he was a Christian, he told me to come down to his local church. I did. He explained to me the differences between a Catholic person and a Christian person. It was just a normal church--You get blessing that cures you from any diseases in the world. I was skeptical and I didn’t believe that. “How could that be?” But I was very open-minded.
He kept influencing me and encouraging me to study Christianity and for me to learn that other religions are bad. Eventually I was in deep Christian world. I started to believe in it very much. One day, the local churchman, the pastor, told me that: “You are sick.” I told him: “No, I’m not.” He said: “Yes you are. In front of the Lord, you hide your sins and you need to be cured.” I said: “No, that’s wrong.” I saw my boyfriend moving his head, as if he was saying: “Yes, do it.” The local churchman grabbed me in front of everyone and said: “The Lord will cure you and take out your Demon, your sexual pleasures and everything.” I freaked out. I started getting shivers all over my body. I thought: “This is wrong.”
Then I started to avoid my boyfriend. But I still wanted him to love me. It was my first love. I couldn’t live with the thought that I could live. But I guess he was way more into his Christian beliefs than actually loving me. Once he told me: “You know what, Imesh, we need to stop seeing each other. You need to be cured and everything.” It broke me down completely because I didn’t know what to believe in anymore. I didn’t know how to say that to my parents. It was okay to live in the way I lived. I was in a complete dilemma.
And then I was so sick that I had to go to the hospital. When I went there, the doctor admitted me. I was in fact having a depression. I kept sobbing in front of everyone. It was a really, really tough time. I didn’t know how to communicate to someone. I didn’t know how to explain anything to myself. I didn’t know anything anymore. My parents were afraid. They freaked out. They were ashamed of what was happening to their eldest son.
The doctor, the treatment and staff were not appropriate at all to me. I couldn’t believe that they could do that to a person. When I was hospitalized, some doctors laughed at me and I couldn’t understand. They would say in the local language: “What the fuck are you crying about? You’re crying about the man? How shameful! You should be grateful that you have parents and a good living situation. You shouldn’t be crying and sobbing like that.” I didn’t reply to them. Had I replied to them, they would’ve treated me even more poorly. So I shut up.
M: How did you learn about your sexual orientation?
Jürgen: When I was at a very young age, I was feeling different. I didn’t feel attracted to girls. I was mostly interested in boys. It was something that I already knew. When I was a teenager, I became more aware of the concepts of gay, lesbian, transgender, queer, and bisexuality.
For instance, when I was at primary school, I remember boys who refused to play with me. I was very sad and very disappointed. I told one of my teachers that boys didn’t want to play with me and asked: “What should I do?” She told me that: “Go play with the girls and ask from them.” So I started to sit more with them at primary level.
From when I was six til eleven, I was playing with girls rather than boys. When I reached college, it was more difficult. I was admitted to a same-sex college where there were only boys. Stuff became more complicated. I was bullied because I didn’t adhere to the code of masculinity. I was not talking like them, walking like them, behaving like them, or thinking like them. This was the issue. So they bullied me. My bullying started on my first day of school. I thought it would be the best days of my life. But it turned out to be the worst because I had been bullied. I had been beaten physically. They even bullied me on social networks, writing stuff about me. I was very traumatized by this experience.
There were also teachers who were not very nice to me, particularly middle aged teachers. They were a bit rude. They were treating me differently. I didn’t feel included in the class. The way they addressed me there was clearly a difference. I felt it. The good thing was when I was 14, I was in class in English literature class, they were bullying me and laughing at me. I was really down. I couldn’t stand it any more. So I just ran away from the class and lock myself in the locker. I was crying, crying and I wanted to stop school. I was telling myself: “I can’t come everyday and be bullied like this.”
On that day, there was a teacher, a lady, who knew I was being bullied. She decided to help me in some way or another. So she asked another colleague to go and speak to me. The colleague told me to return to the class. I tried. When I was in the corridor on my way to return to class, the same lady teacher tried to speak to me and explain to me that: “I may be different, but that’s not a reason to escape, because if I escape today, then all my life I’ll be escaping.”
I became more courageous. I returned back to class. When I returned back to class, all the students were laughing at me. I decided to ignore them and continue to follow my studies. After class, I went to apologize to my teacher that I was sorry that I ran out of the class. She forgave me. Later on that day, my French teacher passed me a small note that said: “You need to have a lot of courage to smile in this world.”
The note made a lot of impact on me. As from that day, I was able to do better in my studies.
M: Did the discrimination continue after you entered university?
J: When I was in university, my friends and I tried to create a club about LGBT and human rights. But our application wasn’t approved. At the time, the president of the student union said that we cannot discuss such issues because it is sensitive and taboo. If you want to do this, you have to do this as part of an existing counselling club, and not as our own independent club.
Counselling clubs were where people meet to discuss their problems. The president of the student union was thinking that we were having problems. He thought we had a psychological disorder that had to be counselled.
When the president told us to join the counselling club, I told him that I didn’t want to join a counselling club. I wished to have my own club, where people can be themselves and express themselves, and not fear being rejected. But still he insisted on us joining the counselling club.
In the end, the LGBT club wasn’t approved. It was a problem for the president of the student unions at that time.
M: Did the formation of the Young Queer Alliance encounter similar difficulties?
J: We faced homophobic attitudes from the authorities. They refused to register the Young Queer Alliance, because, according to them, we were going against the Mauritian Constitution.
When we went to register the YQA, we presented all of our relevant documents. In our objectives, we mentioned that we were catering to the LGBT young people in Mauritius. At the Registry of Associations, we were told without pity that this was going against the Mauritian Constitution. They are right to the extent that LGBTs are not mentioned in the Constitution. But they cannot restrict us and organizing ourselves in a movement, and coming up with our association. This is because in our Constitution, we have the right to freedom of association. They were coming up with stupid excuses and unfounded explanations for avoiding and restricting this registration. For us to register the YQA, we had to lodge an official complaint to the Equal Opportunities Commission. We had to complain about this form of homophobia of the Registry of Associations. During the hearing that we had, none of the representatives of the Registry was present. So at the end of the day, we were able to be registered as an association.
M: Apart from the Registry of Associations, are there other instances where LGBTs in Mauritius faced discrimination from the authorities?
J: There was a case of a transgendered person who was doing work as a peer educator. She was distributing condoms and she led sensitization campaigns. Police arrested her for soliciting males for immoral purposes. They considered her outfit as indecent. They took her to the police station, where she was verbally abused. They even asked her to remove all her clothes. They did a body search and forced her to do a catwalk in the police station nude in front of all of the police officers. This was in in 2016.
Recently, in April 2019, two lesbians were victims of violence by their relatives. They had been victims of verbal and physical violence.
Two young [women] back in 2015 tried to get married under Mauritian law. They went to the authorities to get married. Their request was not accepted. In our laws, same-sex marriage is not recognized. But at the same time, our laws also don’t define marriage as between a woman and a man. The spouse has a gender-neutral meaning. Marriage under Mauritian law is between “spouses”. This term has a gender neutral meaning. It doesn’t say it’s between a man and a woman.
Luke: Could you talk a bit about what the Young Queer Alliance does?
Najeeb: There have been many, many [things] that we have been doing and we are still working on in the organization: social support, community support, mobilization is one of the actions of the organization where we network within LGBT people, to move forward, to empower people, but also to have safe spaces where you can go out hiking and go on outings--like anything just to be among ourselves. But then there are spaces that are open to people who are not LGBT as well because you also want to have that kind of dialogue with people from the general population…… [and] because we do understand that, as a queer person, you do not necessarily live and evolve within LGBT spaces, but in spaces where everyone else is present. So that kind of involvement is very important within that community mobilization.
There is also whatever is related to HIV and STI prevention, health, and stuff like that. Since 2015, we have been involved with HIV programming and an HIV prevention organization… with the MTV [Staying Alive Foundation] single out foundation and now we are doing work with the [National Social Inclusion Foundation] in our country. So that has been ongoing work for years within the organization.
There is also some psychoanalysis and a foundation for counseling and management that we do, when queer people have issues with their families, so we go there, we provide support for the queer people, and then, if the queer people feel that they are okay with us reaching out to their parents or their siblings, then, and only then, will we reach out to the parents and the siblings. Because we do understand that in the culture we live in ... you often stay a while living with your parents--it's not like once you turn 18 or 21 you leave the house and you live on your own, it is not this way, generally. So it is very important for us to have that input of the affected person, to know that they would feel safe having us talk to their parents, and then we would reach out.
We also have an emergency shelter that we run together with GenderLinks and MediaWatch organization for LGBT women and girls only. We started that in 2018... provide them with that safe space because in this country there are not many safe spaces for queer people.... Another chunk of our work that we do is advocacy within the organization ... let's say for impactful advocacy against the government. In 2017, there was a Human Rights Committee session at the UN where Mauritius had to submit [a report on] how it has addressed certain human rights issues as per the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, so we submitted an alternative report to the government that was received by the human rights committee. That was with support from the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association..so they guided us through the process ... and one of the other plaintiffs [in this case]represented that organization at the Human Rights Committee, and presented the report and the different issues we had And following that, it was the first time that Mauritius received recommendations based on sexual orientation by the Human Rights Committee.
And that was a moment where we felt like: “This kind of advocacy is working.”
About the Authors:
Luke is a second-year law student at Berkeley Law and is part of the group of students preparing an amicus brief on behalf of the plaintiff in this case.
Martin trained at the law firm representing the plaintiffs in this sodomy case. He interviewed the plaintiffs to increase awareness of the case.