Hasan and Khaled are in love since they know each other for last two years. They first met each other in a hidden Facebook group with fake profiles. Later, they met in person and a friendship developed. Khaled has been in Dhaka for the last three years and works for a small private company. Hasan was living in a suburb of Dhaka but recently moved to Dhaka to go to university there. Naturally, it was not easy for him to get accommodation in the government university hall. Hence, both of them decided to live together, also to strengthen their relationship, and started searching for a small flat. Fortunately, they found one but, as soon as the landlord came to know that they are two bachelors living together, he closed the door without hesitating. Hasan and Khaled tried to explain that they are very good friends, and that they will keep the flat neat and clean, but their pleas fell on deaf ears. Their right to privacy is denied by the existence of Bangladesh’s sodomy laws (BPC 377), which is applicable to gays, even if the relation is in private and between consenting adults.
Growing up, we were taught that society is where men and women get married, and that’s how a relationship works. But at least 10% of the total population of every country belongs to a non-normative gender or sexuality.
According to Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), Article 1, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” But the fact is that, according to Bangladesh Panel Code 377, same sex acts are criminalised and can be punished with lifetime imprisonment. The free association and free expression of lesbians and gays are denied explicitly through legal provisions and there is no recognition of same-sex partnership in Bangladesh.
Many of us are proud that we are a very tolerant nation. We are considered a secular state, and people from different cultures live here in peace and harmony. But are we really tolerant? Is our society open to let us choose our love? There is a culture of collective denial of the existence of the gay community in Bangladesh due to social conservatism. Stigmatisation and taboo have made the gay community a vulnerable community. Unable to cope with social conditioning, they try to find a way of coherence. Homosexuals in Bangladesh are pushed into a life of secrecy, lies and even internalised homophobia.
Often this issue is considered western. There was an online article on the issue of homosexuality last year, and here is one of the reactions: “These sick people have destroyed the moral fabric of western society and now they are trying to do the same in Muslim countries.” However, some movements in Islam, such as the US-based Al Fatiha foundation, accept homosexuality, considering it natural. They are working toward the acceptance on non-heterosexual love relationships within the global Muslim community. Progressive Muslim scholars around the world argue that while the Qur’an speaks out against homosexual lust, it is silent on homosexual love.
Does the gay community ask for special right? It might sound strange that we are talking about gay rights in a country where there is hunger, poverty, road accidents, acid violence and other such extreme problems. But the fact is that gay rights are human rights, not any special or additional rights. Gay rights are basic civil, political, social and economic rights.
Being a man, wearing pink shoes is not easy in our society. Friends will come up and ask, “Are you gay?” Let alone your wish to become a dancer or fashion designer. The freedom of movement is denied this way.
The right to non-discrimination and to be free from harassment is usually denied by omitting sexual orientation in anti-discrimination laws, constitutional provisions or their enforcement. “That’s so gay” has become a common slang among the young generation. This socio-cultural silence and the taboo surrounding homosexuality is giving rise to a guilty feeling that I’m sick, I’m a sinner, and I’m a shame for society. It causes permanent depression, or even suicide attempts in some cases. We might not have sex education in our curriculum but can’t we expect teachers or family to start a dialogue on these topics?
The right to be free from torture and inhuman treatment is infringed upon by social practices. Homosexuality was removed from the international classification of diseases of the WHO and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association, but in our medical schools it is still taught as a form of perversion. Often it happens that whenever a gay man is coming out to his family, apart from physical and mental torture, he is forced to consult a psychiatrist and go through medication.
The rights to free expression and free association may either be denied explicitly by law, or lesbians and gays may not enjoy them because of the homophobic climate in which they live. For awareness building or research, if an organisation wants registration here, will the government allow that?
Think about a lesbian woman! Gay men can have a virtual space on the internet but is there any place where a lesbian woman can go in our society? What will happen if her sexual identity is disclosed at her workplace? Do we really think of it in terms of a right to work? Not only are they part of a minority in terms of gender, but they are also part of a minority in terms of sexual orientation. I remember the day when I came out to one of my colleagues. It took three complex attempts to beg for my acceptance. His reaction was quite normal as he had gay friends. So I asked, “How will you react if your son or younger brother comes out to you tomorrow?” His answer was straightforward: “I’ll take him to a psychiatrist.” Is it a nice feeling when we work together for ages and I know that his perception about me is so easily defined as “sick”?
The right to physical and mental health is at conflict with discriminatory policies and practices, some physicians’ homophobia, the lack of adequate training for health care personnel regarding sexual orientation issues and the general assumption that patients are heterosexuals.
It was late 2002 when the first online gay group, Boys of Bangladesh (BoB), was started by a handful of self-identified gay men. They were hoping to build friendship ties, in order to begin talking about their sexuality comfortably. The first attempt came as late as May 2005 when the BoB moderators published a letter to an English daily regarding International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. People quickly took notice of the letter. Within days the paper published homophobic responses. And even today, has our society started talking about their sexuality? Do we talk about sexual harassments, abortion, post-marital rapes or premarital sex? Don’t we often tend to sweep them under the carpet?
In the last couple of years, there also were several articles in online and offline newspapers on the topic of sexual orientation, where reactions came like this: “Dogs, cats or any other animals are not humans, yet they don’t indulge in such practice,” ”If your father was gay how your birth would have taken place and how would you write this article?” This makes the community either never come out of the closet or be a victim of ridicule.
Yet, the LGBT community in Bangladesh was highly optimistic when in a UPR working group session the government recognised the existence of the LGBT population in Bangladesh: “On LGBT, we concur with NRHC that the laws of the land… However, we recognize the need for protecting all vulnerable groups of our population, given their constitutional equal rights and freedoms. Moreover, we do not condone any discrimination or violence against any human being on any pretext.” This is in contrast to 2009, when the government of Bangladesh rejected similar recommendations, saying that “Bangladesh is a society with strong traditional and cultural values. Same-sex activity is not an acceptable norm to any community in the country. Indeed, sexual orientation is not an issue in Bangladesh. There has been no concern expressed by any quarter in the country on this.”
The affirmative words on LGBT issues coming from the government this year mean a great deal for the local community who is living a life of lies due to social, legal and religious barriers. But disappointment came when at the review meeting; the suggestion on formal approval of homosexual relations was discarded by the foreign minister considering the socioeconomic and religious values of the country. It disheartened us when Sanjida had to go to jail for loving a person of the same sex, even though Bangladesh is signatory to ICCPR, ICESCR, CEDAW and other covenants that ensure and protects the rights of sexual and gender minorities. This clearly depicts the criminalisation of homosexuality, although the charge against her is abduction. In this regard, we want to recall that, in 2009, the government accepted recommendation to train law enforcers to protect sexual and gender minorities.
We are disappointed to see the government’s double standard that becomes apparent if one considers that, on the one hand, the government talks about protecting the vulnerable groups, and that, on the other hand, the government refuses repealing Section 377 because of social values and religion. We strongly believe that Section 377 is a discriminatory law that has made a minority group criminal on the basis of sexual orientation. We know that a law can’t be changed overnight. But, at the same time, repealing Section 377 is important because it will bring social change which we can see in India, Nepal, Thailand and other countries in the region. We get thwarted to see how homosexuality is politicised for the sake of religion when a statement of a Nobel laureate endorsing homosexuality is quoted to bash down the opposition. Politicizing the issue and labelling it with Islam in such a manner puts the whole issue in a debate to the mass population for sure.
The government already has an extensive HIV/AIDS programme under the Ministry of Health, which also includes men who have sex with men (MSM) and Hijras. Hence, the government’s claim that sexual orientation is not an issue in the country is only a way to brush aside the realities, and to avoid acknowledging human rights violations of sexual and gender minorities.
South African Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu said: “We should all have the right to express ourselves; all have the right to be heard. All have the right to be what we can be: to reach for the sky and touch the stars. No matter who we are, no matter whether we are man or woman, or rich or poor: My voice, my right. My voice counts.” In the end it should be love that matters; not person, orientation, gender, race, or physique.
Tanvir Alim represents Boys of Bangladesh, a non-registered, non-funded, informal network of self-identified gay men in Bangladesh.