Sunday, November 1, 2015

LGBTs fight a lone battle in Bangladesh

By: Nisha Garud
Edited by: Danielle Keeton-Olsen

LGBT rights rally during the 2015 Pohela Boishakh in Dhaka.
(via Nahid Sultan, Wikimedia)
Sohel Rana was working at the Bangladesh Medical Studies and Research Institute for almost 10 years. In May 2013, when he came back from leave after attending to his ailing father, he was fired.

Rana, who had opened about his homosexuality, managed to start working again after making constant appeals to his supervisor. However, the authorities took away his employment benefits.

After five months of no pay, Rana approached the Bandhu Social Welfare Society (BSWS), which works particularly for "men who have sex with men," or MSM, and transgender in Bangladesh. Through their service called Ain Alap (translated as "legal talk"), BSWS submitted a dispute to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC).

“NHRC filed a case against Rana’s employer during which it was revealed that Rana was subject to offensive and abusive remarks from his colleagues but continued working,” informed Shale Ahmed, Executive Director of BSWS.

Rana’s struggle for justice was long, and seven hearings later, his plea was accepted. Rana was reinstated and paid his pending salary.

Unlike in the United States where the law favors Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual and Transgenders (LGBTs) union, such discrimination, injustice and atrocities against this community is a commonplace phenomenon in Bangladesh where the ‘secular’ government, instead of advocating equal status, enforces criminal penalties against same-sex couple.

LGBT population becomes increasingly visible
According to a website,, there are about 1.6 to 4.8 million LGBTs in Bangladesh, but only about 1,000 have identified themselves.

In 2013, the Bangladesh government refused to accept the United Nations’ request to decriminalize homosexuality because it would conflict with “socio-cultural values of the country.”

An LGBT activist, who wished to remain anonymous for protection, pointed out to that laws are needed to protect people like him in a conservative and heteronormative society.

“Fundamentalism and social and cultural practices have suppressed LGBTs and have prevented from living freely. LGBTs also lack confidence because of societal pressure, as they are forced to live with a non-existent sexual orientation and gender identity,” he said.

Mohammad Fhakrul Islam, Coordinator for Multi-Country South Asia Global Fund HIV Programme at BSWS said, “HIV, Aids and other sexually transmitted diseases are common among LGBTs.

Their biggest challenge is to seek treatment for these. Because of their sexual orientation, LGBTs are denied of medical health facilities.”

His organization creates awareness about HIV among homosexuals through Community Systems Strengthening (CSS).

“The biggest problem that LBGTs face is that of social isolation. It is difficult to find a person to talk about one’s sexual orientation. LGBTs do not have knowledge to help them understand their sexual orientation,” said Imran Mazid, a Bangladeshi doctoral student at Ohio University, whose research focuses on mediated communication among LGBTs in the United States, including Bangladesh.

A rainbow flag for Bangladeshi LGBT people designed by
John Ashley (via Wikimedia)
Issues facing the community
Nazia Zebin, a social activist, said, “LGBT community in Bangladesh is an issue no one talks about. One might think they don't exist as whenever any news related to the community comes up, one of the common responses is, ‘Gay in Bangladesh!?’ aside from threats of killing gay people.”

The issues of lesbians have been overlooked because of gender inequality and patriarchy.

Zebin, who hints at being a lesbian but does not openly talk about it, said, “Women are not considered to have sexual desires in a patriarchal culture. The existence of lesbians is heavily questioned. Most people regard this as a phase that would be “resolved” if the woman gets married.” She added, “People think that women turn into lesbians because they are hurt by a man, a true example of patriarchal perspective.

Zebin agreed that gays and lesbians face similar problems in terms of societal acceptance. However, the key difference was on family acceptance.

“In Bangladesh, getting daughters married is one of the major responsibilities of parents. So if a girl chooses to not marry, it brings shame to the family.”

Social conditions make LGBTs to network and connect behind closed doors.

Support for LGBT individuals
Social media such as Facebook and Twitter, including blogs, Yahoo groups and Whats App are used to stay connected and communicate information about activities, demonstrations and seek support.

“Social media has given a platform to LGBTs, who cannot come out in the open. Many gays in the country live a dual life —acting ‘straight’ in society, marrying women and networking with others of their sexual orientation in strict secrecy,” said Mazid.

Roopbaan and Boys of Bangladesh (BoB), are a few leading LGBT groups, which have managed to survive the threats from religious leaders.

BoB, which started as an online group, has developed into the largest network of self-identified Bangladeshi gay men. BoB conducted a study that found that ‘Bangladeshi LGBT movement was weak because of absence of a well-established LGBT network led to the lack of awareness and knowledge about violations’.

Shakhawat Hossain, a gay rights activist working with BoB for 12 years, said, “We interviewed about 50 LGBTs and activists in two phases. Many of them feel that there is a communication gap between the members because some regions do not have a platform where LGBTs can join in activities that address violations faced by them.”

To address these issues, Roopbaan, an organization which first started as a magazine on gender and sexual diversity, organizes numerous activities to give LGBT visibility.

“We organize Rainbow Rally every year on Pohela Baishakh, the Bengali new year. Our regular activities, social get-togethers, parties, discussions allow LGBTs to vent their suppressed emotions. At our 'Pink Slip' events LGBTs can address their sexual health concerns. We believe that social acceptance will only come with greater visibility,” said the anonymous activist, who also volunteers at Roopbaan.

Hossain, however, points out that visibility can also create problems.

“Transgenders are more visible in society due to their gender expressions and cultural role and hence face backlash such as threats, verbal abuses, rapes and police harassment. On the other hand, the LGB group hide their identities but suffer because they cannot not express their sexuality and report harassment openly.”

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