There’s a story that caused quite a stir here recently about a pop star who was outed as openly gay on Facebook.
What happened next says a lot about how Malagasy society regards its lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) citizens.
D-Lain (31) became known as a gospel singer in a popular group called Tanà Gospel Choir before leaving Madagascar to settle in Corsica in the south of France after he won the Castel Live Opera competition in Abidjan in 2012.
Since then, he has become even more popular at home – a figure of national pride and something of an icon.
But then, at the beginning of November, some photos and a video of D-Lain kissing his fiancé, a gay man, at the announcement of their engagement were posted on someone else’s Facebook page and the post went viral.
Social-media users in Madagascar weighed in with a mixture of support and condemnation.
The condemnation got so bad that the Syndicate of Professional Artists in Madagascar denounced the “hate speech” against the singer in a press release to raise awareness about recent aggression towards and attacks on artists in Madagascar.
“It’s his life” ... “If it’s his way to find happiness, why not?” ... “When you love someone, it doesn’t matter,” came the supportive voices of a few fans.
“Shame on you” ... “It’s unnatural” ... “It’s an abomination,” wrote others, their vitriol most likely motivated by their cultural and religious beliefs.
For LGBTI Malagasy, this kind of backlash is still far more common than respect and tolerance is. Many sexual and gender minorities continue to face rejection, discrimination and even physical violence.
This is despite the fact that there are no legal prohibitions around sexual and gender orientation in Madagascar.
You’re legal, but many will not accept you and allow you your rights. You also cannot marry someone of the same sex or adopt children.
City Press asked D-Lain how the experience made him feel, but, in the end, he declined to comment.
Hary grows up fast
“My parents were very upset when I told them I was gay. They told me to make my life outside of the family house,” says Hary*.
At the age of 16, he set out to find a job and start earning a living. Now 27, Hary was born and raised in a conservative Catholic family and, like D-Lain, has made his home outside the country.
He eventually moved to the Seychelles in 2016 and his relationship with his family is still shaky.
Talking about this period in his life is clearly painful for the tall, thin and handsome young man, who is always polite and respectful.
“My grandmother is a very respected person in our Catholic church. I never had any problem with her. But my sisters, uncles and aunts criticised me. It was terrible. They stole my life as a teen,” he says.
According to a 2005 survey published by Perspective Monde, an educational website at Sherbrooke University in Canada, more than half of the Malagasy population identifies as Christian.
Many Protestants and Roman Catholics infuse their faith with traditional beliefs and practices, and many Malagasy people consider sexual and gender minorities deviant, corrupt or sinful.
Mahandry is rejected
Each of the people I cautiously approach over several months for this report shares a similar story.
“In my family, I experienced discrimination and rejection,” says Mahandry*, a gay man in his fifties.
“Women in the family are more accepting, but I notice it is still difficult for men to accept. They just stop talking to me.”
Mahandry is a dancer who spent most of his younger years in France.
“At school [in France], I didn’t have any problem. Things started getting complicated when I came back to settle in Madagascar with my boyfriend. His family had no problem with our relationship, and I felt very lucky to have such accepting and supportive relatives. But, with my own family, it was another story,” Mahandry says.
Like many queer people in Malagasy society, he says he feels “no need to come out ... In my opinion, everything is natural. I just need to live my life in a very normal way.”
A magistrate working in Antananarivo tells me that “gender and sexual minorities are considered a public issue rather than a legal matter.
"The fact is that Malagasy beliefs are still in conflict with legal rights. Some socially conservative voices consider LGBTI people as a threat to the tradition.”
Meeting Olinah and Mami
Many of the queers I interview tell me that Malagasy people are more accepting of lesbians than of gay men.
I meet Olinah* and her partner (both in their twenties) at an internet café. Olinah’s short hair is hidden beneath a cap, and her T-shirt and jeans give her a boyish look.
“I didn’t do any official coming out because I realised that there is a lot of social acceptance towards lesbians,” says Olinah.
“In my family, there was no particular concern about my sexual orientation. I am happy that my family was supportive and even welcomed my partner.”
Over Facebook Messenger, Mami*, a 21-year-old transcriptionist, says: “Some members of my family know I am lesbian. For the moment, I am not courageous enough to come out.”
She says she likes to dress in a way that gives the impression that she is a man.
She’s noticed that when she’s with her partner, an 18-year-old student, many regard them as a “straight” couple, where Mami is the guy.
While Madagascar has become more accepting of queer people in the past decade, many still fear that revealing their sexual orientation or gender identity in the workplace could lead to harassment and discrimination.
Numerous people tell me that the worst resistance to the LGBTI community in Madagascar comes from co-workers.
Hary says: “There is always someone who will say that she or he can’t work with ‘someone like you’, referring to your queerness like it’s a category of humanness.”
Is there any support?
Organising the community in this climate is not easy.
Lesbians are more likely to interact online, with some offering support in a secret Facebook group.
On public Facebook forums, like in public places, they don’t show any signs that may reveal their sexual orientation.
For support, some gay men belong to an organisation called Malagasy MSM (Men Who Have Sex With Men), which is recognised by the National Council for the Fight against HIV/Aids.
In Mahajanga, a city on the northwest coast of Madagascar, the nongovernmental organisation Miahy empowers LGBTI people to address discrimination and violence.
Miahy also helps the local queer community carry out social projects.
The director of Miahy, William Benala Soloheninjo, says: “LGBTI people are more vulnerable to experiencing discrimination and violence. We bring our support by running training programmes to help them feel empowered and to reinforce their self-confidence.”
Another organisation based in Mahajanga is called EzakaBoeny, which also supports LGBTI people who face discrimination, violence and workplace harassment.
Daniel Tokiniaina, an EzakaBoeny board member, says: “We try to help each other overcome major problems facing the community.
"I could easily get authorisation to organise a pride party, but we still haven’t found anyone to sponsor this kind of event. That is the reason there is no gay pride here.”
During the course of my research, I find that there are two broad networks supporting the LGBTI community.
While some organisations help support sex workers and poorer, more vulnerable queer people, there is also an informal association of educated people from middle and upper class families.
The second group is more secretive. They socialise in particular places, such as bars and karaoke dens, which are known to be LGBTI-friendly.
In these places, which are a kind of refuge for some, they are able to express themselves. But they are not the norm.
Mahandry, who lives in Madagascar, says the local art community is “a kind of refuge” for him; “a bubble in which we can live our lives without disturbing anyone”.
Harivony*, who is also a dancer, says: “I notice that people begin to accept your sexuality as soon as you succeed in your life.”
Towards a future
Madagascar is a long, long way from equality.
Many people I speak to think that even writing this report is a bad idea.
They fear an increase in resistance as shedding light on LGBTI life can make the community more vulnerable.
Rindra*, a visual artist, says: “Personally, I don’t think this is the appropriate moment to talk about the Malagasy LGBTI community. It is good advocacy, but this may increase discrimination and marginalisation ...
"Politicians may use the issue to draw attention away from the country’s real problems.”
But, that said, through their work, LGBTI artists here dream of a future of freedom.
*Not their real names
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