Confronting the Comfortable Closet in Bangladesh
By Xulhaz Mannan
Being openly gay for over two decades now, I am often asked, “How’s it…possible?”
My reply, in almost all cases: “It’s possible and it’s great.”
I must say, I’ve had a great time, not trying to hide the fact that I’m gay and to make others happy by pretending to be something that I am not. On the flip side, it enabled me to focus fully on my other daily life struggles. I also must admit that I never had to face any homophobic reaction from anyone, which is not the case for everyone. Being different or unique is mostly frowned upon in Bangladesh where the society is driven by heteronormative patriarchy. Being is considered weakness, effeminacy is dubbed inferior. One can be bullied just for having an effeminate voice or gesture. Almost all LGBT people go through different sorts of mental trauma while suppressing their urges to be with someone with same sex. Families as well as society want them to become ideal male/female based on some set norms. Luckily, I was able to grow up in a less hostile environment. Even as an advocate for the human right to love since 1998 and now a full time volunteer for Roopbaan, life treated me well. Nevertheless, that, of course, is not the story of most LGBT people in Bangladesh.
A country where the predominant religions identify a same sex lover as a sinner, the law of the land as a criminal; social norms as a pervert; culture as “imported”-how should life be for LGBTs in Bangladesh? For me, it’s like living in a ‘comfortable closet’. Comfortable because it is actually ‘easy’ when it comes to ‘doing it’; the culture and social norms are so focused on preventing heterosexual acts between unmarried couples: man-to-man or woman-to-woman sexual acts go almost unnoticed. Even in some more conservative regions homosexual acts between teenage boys is seen as the ‘safer’ way of exploring sexuality; so as long as they get married in their adulthood, no one cares much. However, it’s a closet! The moment someone decides to leave that they’ll be ostracized by family, friends and society. When the country’s first magazine on LGBT issues, Roopbaan was published we faced a very harsh reaction from the majority. When the same group organized a rainbow rally on the first day of Bengali New Year as part of the bigger New Year’s rally to celebrate ‘diversity and friendship’ in 2014, it was highly applauded by the crowd as no LGBT banner or label was used. We also ensured the participation of hijras, who are otherwise unwelcome at this universal celebration of Bangaliana. Nevertheless, the moment an online news portal tagged this as ‘pride rally by homosexuals’ and Roopbaan as its organizer, the public reaction went brutal. Luckily, the fury remained within the virtual border.
The above mentioned incidents, in general, sent a strong shockwave among the LGBT people of the country. Is it really wise and safe to come out here? Will the families and friends ever try to understand the feelings of a gay person? As of my own experience as a self-identified gay man, I strongly believe not all is lost. There’s still scope for optimism. With hate and threat pouring over from common mass on social networks, support from various human rights groups and individuals comes to us as a silver lining. Online activism among the LGBT community is rising with a steady offline/community movement by NGOs like Bandhu Social Welfare Society (BSWS), and platforms like Boys of Bangladesh (BoB), Roopbaan, Shambhab (gay women’s network), Vivid Rainbow (Khulna). Bangladesh Government recognized ‘hijras’ as a new gender in 2013-the same year, when BOB raised the issue of LGBT rights at UPR in Switzerland, making the then Foreign Minister clarify government’s position on this, acknowledging the existence of such a population.
BSWS was formed in 1996 to address concerns of human rights abuse and denial of sexual health rights, and to provide a rights-based approach to health and social services for the most stigmatized and vulnerable populations in Bangladesh, the hijras. Though its operations focused on Hijras and MSMs in the beginning, the organization now envisions a Bangladesh where every person, irrespective of their gender and sexuality, is able to lead a quality life with dignity, human rights and social justice.
In 2014, Roopbaan, BoB and few other individual activists joined hands to conduct the first of its kind need assessment survey of the LGB population in Bangladesh. There was a specific reason why ‘T’ or ‘I’ was not included. The survey aimed to highlight the issues, concerns, aspirations of the ‘invisible’ and the ‘unspoken’ ones. Transgender or hijras, in Bangladesh’s case, though have a long way to go in terms of assuring equal rights, at least have managed to get their voices heard in public, their issues addressed in decision makers’ tables. For many, when the survey’s first report was made public, it was total shock that 571 individuals actually identified themselves as gay, lesbian or bisexual, from all over the country. 66.5% of them said that they were comfortable with their sexual orientation but they do live in constant fear. Most were in support of a progressive LGBT movement though they had different opinions on how the movement should go forward. They believe that it is important to present the issue sensitively before society. Any such social movement must sprout indigenously, and keep the local socio-cultural and political realities in mind.
The existing organizations have already taken the findings of the survey into consideration and have started different initiatives. BoB, the oldest network of gay men, recently launched a 14 month project, namely ‘Project Dhee’, to draft a 5-year strategy and action plan to advance the LGBT movement in Bangladesh. It aims to do so by disseminating knowledge and information about sexuality through a countrywide campaign, mobilize community effectively and engaging allies strategically. The project will simultaneously target external and internal audience for the LGBT community to build awareness, empathy, and acceptance.
And of course, there is “Roopbaan – Freedom to Love”. Roopbaan believes that socio-cultural and legal barriers and hostility towards sexual and gender diversity and same sex love can be overcome by county wide visibility of the community, continuous social dialogues, effective communication, community mobilization and awareness programs using arts and culture as the point of entrance. Roopbaan magazine, promoting human right to love, gives a voice to the invisible and unheard ones. It’s published in print in Bengali to make it more accessible to the wider Bangladeshi audience and reinstating the fact that LGBT people are an integral part of our society. A recent edition, Roopongkti (The verses of roopbaans), is a poetry collection by Bangladeshi LGBT poets. Sad but true, Roopongkti was launched during the month long Ekushey book Fair on the eve following Dr. Avijit Roy’s brutal assassination, a revered ally who wrote many articles on this topic and a book “Homosexuality – A Scientific and Socio-Psychological Investigation.” Roopbaan also organizes various community mobilization and awareness events. Roopbaan Youth Leadership Program, held in February 2015, targeted the LGBT youth. It was packed with a host of activities, workshops and seminars that would hone their leadership skills and prepare them for challenging tasks ahead as pro-active members of the Bangladeshi LGBT community and was attended by 28 youth from all over the country.
With all that said, little has been done- if not nothing at all- on the issue of decriminalizing homosexuality. Yes, I am talking about the repealing BPC 377, a sleeping monster no one dares to wake. Moreover, especially in the current times when there’s growing trend of shunning the voices of the ‘different’, free thinkers being hacked to death, who would volunteer to risk their lives for sexual freedom? Also for most gay people 377 is less of a headache than their religious belief; of committing a sin that is seemingly unforgivable in god’s eye. They can hide in their comfortable closet from the wrath of 377 or social stigma, but god is supposed to be omnipresent. So contrary to my other activist friends, I prefer to talk about the issue in the language of love. Bangladeshis, like, most South Asians are moved by the glory of love, and it is somewhat easier for them to accept same-sex love over homosexuality. In a country where the whole concept of sex and sexuality is a taboo, we are learning to navigate our ways by highlighting love as the center of all, as a human right that can’t be denied, hoping for broader acceptance some day!