The Boys of Bangladesh
Thirty year old Tanvir was brought up in the port city Chittagong, Bangladesh but since his graduation he’s in Dhaka the capital. He came to know about Boys of Bangladesh (BoB), a gay collective in the country, during his university days but at that time he was not confident enough to come out in to “the crowd”. Later in 2007 he realized that being a gay it’s more convenient to be with like minded people. So he became a member and started meeting more people and attended a few events. The crowd seemed decent and it inspired him to work voluntarily for the group and he is a moderator of the group since 2009. He’s working as a program officer of Goethe-Institut Bangladesh. He speaks to Udayan about the struggles of his personal life, his association with the group and his hopes for the future of the LGBT community in his country.
Who founded BoB and how did it grow?
It was Rengyu, a middle aged foreign educated guy from an indigenous tribe who came up with the first e-group for queer Bangladeshis called ‘GayBangladesh’ in 1999. The group drew a good number of members (1000+) and was quite active online. But in 2004 Rengyu died in a road accident and the group’s activities halted there. There was another active group before BoB by the name of Teen_Gay_Bangladesh (TGB). In October 2002, the founder of BoB, Joy went to meet the moderators of this group (Prakash and Abrar) and first got the idea of helping the gay people from these two bright young boys. Since the name TGB exclusively was meant for teen gays, Joy decided to open BoB (BoysOnly_Bangladesh) on 2nd November 2002.
BoB first brought this idea that gay people in Bangladesh can meet for other reasons than sex and arranged the first ever offline get-together on 7 December, 2002 with a few (3 to be precise) brave men who dared to meet another gay man in broad day light at a public place. It should be mentioned here that TGB or GayBangladesh didn’t organise any offline events before BoB.
From then on the two groups BoB and TGB were working hand in hand until the Yahoo! authority deleted both these groups without any warning on 25th December 2002.
The moderators of TGB opened a new group with a new name called Bangladeshi Gay Boys (BGB) and BoB with a slightly different name (BoysOnlyBangladesh) was reopened on 4 Jan, 2003. Since BGB could be found by searching under Yahoo groups, it attracted a lot more people and became very active online while BoB remained discreet and went on with its highly guarded get-togethers.
But unfortunately again BGB got deleted by Yahoo and later on didn’t emerge for the lack of efforts from its moderators. But BoB grew steadily, slowly and silently.
Initially the membership was restricted and people could join only by invitation. The moderators invited people they knew from chatting rooms, matchmaking websites and through other people. This all was just for security concerns.
The monthly offline gatherings continued for next few years bringing in a bunch of new faces each time. Apart from these events, the online forum worked as the soul of BoB where members found great solace in sharing their emotion and untold stories.
What has been your experience as part of this group?
I started with the concept of forming an event management team to take care of the off line activities properly. Later I became a part of the management board and started playing role in developing concepts, organizing events, communication.
What events do you guys organize and what work you’ve done till now?
So far I worked for film shows, the first ever LGBT workshop ‘Sexual Diversity and Coalition Building’ in the country, the short training course on sexuality and rights and different day celebration. I also worked for a publication which is about to come soon. Besides there was always my involvement in the regular events such as yearly party, anniversary, Ifter party, poster competition and other events
What does it mean to be a gay man in Bangladesh? How difficult is growing up and dealing with family and friends as an openly gay person?
Gay as an identity is yet to be developed in Bangladesh. The community is highly class based in the sense that only the educated and middle income group men will identify themselves as gays whereas the underprivileged class would identify with koti, MSM etc. Heterosexual marriage is compulsory in our society which is very family oriented. You can be anything you want to be as long as you get married. So lots of LGBT folks get married at one point of time. The concept of the ‘sense of belongingness’ or ’mutual understanding’ is still not very common among the mass gay community. I think still people here can’t imagine that two men can live happily under the same roof as they never saw this in reality. But the number of visible gay man is increasing remarkably in Dhaka and Chittagong
It’s not easy to come out here in our society as mostly the families are extended and people are too dependent on each others values and norms. The environment is still not very comfortable for a gay to come out and speak of his sexuality in his family or educational institute or work place. There is hardly any discussion about this in the media but in the very few instances the issue comes out as a fun/mockery.
What’s the “gay scene” in Dhaka and other cities?
Gay scene is still very discreet and thriving in Dhaka with an increase in the visibility in last 5/6 years. Still people want to keep their gay friends and straight friends in a different list. People believe that his best friend will not remain a friend anymore if he comes out. Other than Dhaka, there is a very feeble gay scene in Chittagong, Sylhet and Khulna.
How tolerant is society towards LGBT people?
The educated people in the society or the people who studied in the west accept homosexuality as natural but often it happens that in a class or in a work place not everyone accepts homosexuality. In that case people don’t feel comfortable to come out and it holds back the whole process of acceptance a step back. Lesbians are invisible in the society though there is a small group working for a long time. Transgender are visible but people and media often make fun of them which is actually very sad. In my view, bisexuals are increasing in major cities but there is no research data so far on this. Overall, society tolerates it as long as you are keeping it private and following the social obligations i.e getting married!
What role does Islam play in shaping societal attitudes towards gays?
In my view Bangladesh is a secular country and middle class people in Dhaka are not much concerned about the religious leaders any more. Religious practice in Dhaka is more like a ritual that people do because the last generation also did. I don’t think Islam can play a major role in shaping social attitudes rather media can play a vital role to sensitize the mass people for their attitude. Nevertheless, due to contradiction with religion and sexuality, some people do suffer from internal homophobia/guilt and tend to seek affirmation from religion.
Calcutta (West Bengal) has a very vibrant gay culture since the past one decade, which happens to be missing from Dhaka. What do you think are the reasons for that?
As India had its independence 24 years before Bangladesh; I feel the development is also following the same rate. Besides India is a multi cultural country where naturally people have the mental set up to be tolerant and accept the people who are not like them.
What about gay Hindu men? Do they face a double whammy of being minority within a minority?
In our society, the social values are so strong that it’s no more a Hindu or a Muslim question. It’s the society where gays are too family oriented and can’t ignore the norms. I don’t think religious difference would be a major hindrance.
What is the condition of gay women? Are there any openly lesbian women in the country?
Gay women or lesbians are almost invisible here. There is only one informal lesbian organizations and the leader of that group is somewhat out and open.
How was the new of repeal of Section 377 in India received in Bangladesh, especially by the gay community there? Did it make you hopeful for a similar change in Bangladesh too?
Repeal of 377 in India was pretty widely covered by the local media though I doubt if they hardly had any clue what it was about. Of course the news was very warmly welcomed by the LGBT activists and they are hopeful of something similar happening in Bangladesh too.
Are there any similar initiatives being planned (to decriminalize homosexuality in Bangladesh)?
It’s not the right time and we are not ready. A strong united movement is needed to pursue something big as this and our LGBT movement is at a very nascent stage. It’s too early to step for that right at this moment. But the discussion is happening and we have had many meetings with other stake holders to decide course of action.
What activities you BoB has in store for the coming months and years?
Bob will work on its small and yearly events to keep up the safe platform. Community building has always been the top of our agenda and it will continue to be. We are focusing our energy to educate gay guys about their rights, develop their leadership skills and gradually get them politically motivated. Besides there are plans to introduce long term public awareness programs in future.
How hopeful are you for change with respect to legal issues as well as societal acceptance? Have you seen any improvement over the last few years?
Over the last few years it has been seen that more people are aware of the issues and feel confident enough to expose themselves. Now more people are visible in the gay community compared to last 5 years. People think in a more focused way regarding rights and acceptance in the society. From Goethe-Institut we have been arranging week long LGBT festivals for the last 2 years and this festival is so far the biggest public event of the LGBT community. But so far there has been no disturbance in the event and there were positive reviews in some newspapers. This shows the increasing acceptance of the society which is very encouraging but it may be different when an individual comes out to the society
What are the main challenges towards achieving gay rights in Bangladesh?
Of course it is nearly impossible to gauge the impediments right now since the issue isn’t out there in the open yet. But the challenges that we are facing right now are the ignorance of the mass people as well as of the community around sexuality and rights, lack of education, class division, patriarchal social values and the legal system.