We are deeply concerned about the safety of two Bangladeshi teenage girls currently being targeted because of their sexuality. The leaked news about a botched tryst between these two teenagers has sent local media and social network users into a frenzy. Disregarding the safety and security of the teenagers and their family members, the local media has revealed both their names and addresses. In the context of Bangladesh, this media attention is alarming.
Bangladesh has a long history of persecuting LGBT people. The Bangladeshi queer community has been persecuted by the sexual majority, religious extremists, and the governments. In 2016, two gay-rights activists — Xulhaz Mannan and Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy — were killed in a machete attack carried out by the radical militant outfit Ansar Al Islam. That attack brought the plight of sexual minorities into the limelight, but it simultaneously undid the progress the queer community had made over the years in terms of organising, network-building, and raising awareness. Organisations were disbanded, programmes were cancelled, and many activists went into exile. Books that raised awareness on this issue have been removed from the shelves and online bookstores. Avijit Roy, who wrote the first taboo-breaking book in Bengali on this topic, perished under a machete attack by radical Islamists. After narrowly surviving a similar attack, his publisher now lives in exile.
Sexuality is a taboo topic in the religiously conservative Bangladeshi society, where expressing any orientation other than heterosexuality immediately lands one into trouble. Although neighbouring countries like India and Nepal have decriminalised homosexuality, no such step has been taken by Bangladesh. Even today, Bangladesh upholds section 377 of the colonial penal code, introduced by the British in 1861, that criminalises homosexuality. The country steadfastly votes against any UN resolution to secure LGBT rights worldwide. Legal and societal change on this issue is long overdue in Bangladesh.
LGBT rights are human rights. We urge the Bangladesh government to repeal section 377 of the penal code used to systemically discriminate against its sexual minorities. The 1971 liberation war was fought in the spirit of freedom, in the spirit of equal human rights for all. This spirit cannot be upheld so long as the country continues to deny a section of its population what is their fundamental human right — the right to love and marry whomever they want, and to live a life not in the shadows but with dignity.