A fact that would be highly contested and would be seen in the spectacles of ‘purity’ and ‘taste’ modernity injected into the psyche. Regulation of sexual activities, among many other human actions, is a crucial feature of modernity. This is what I find as the backdrop of my perception on sexuality.
I should start with a disclaimer. A disclaimer that I do not perceive pre-modernity as a ‘divine equity’ but I, like many others, definitely see modernity, and its endless knowledge production, as a systematic reduction of, and control over, enormous possibilities of human actions, imaginations, and behaviors. Sexual actions, imaginations, and behaviors, however, are not an easy trade off to point at. This is so because of the nature of discourses on sexuality: teasing boundaries of private and public spheres; mingling academic with commonsense knowledge; handling from scientific elements to fantasy territories; dealing within a billion-dollar porn and sex industry to obnoxious stigmas; mixing up consensual with abusive activities; merging arbitrarily expressions of anger and hatred; and above all grounded in massive masculine domination. These are all global features. ‘Liberated’ sexuality exists only as a myth regardless of the cultural-political atmosphere one can refer to. Still, pre-modernity – no matter how gendered it was and how imaginary its construction may be in our minds today – allowed more spaces for negotiating sexualities. Modernity, however, injected concepts of of ‘purity’ and ‘taste’ into the psyche. The regulation of sexual activities, among many other human actions, is a crucial feature of modernity. This is what I find as the backdrop to my perception on sexuality.
Finding a Foreign
It has been difficult to place LGBT issues in any kind of public sphere in Bangladesh. The silencing of LGBT is often attributed to ‘religious’ sentiments, and those sentiments are treated as a valid explanation even by more expert people. I, however, never was convinced that religious sentiments alone should take the responsibility for this taboo. The educated middleclass population in Bangladesh, regardless of their respective cultural-political backgrounds, are hesitant to make any kind of statement regarding sexuality. Public discourses on sexuality more or less rotate around ‘norms’ and omit any practice that go beyond accepted parameters. Question of sexual identities is no different in this regard. Consequently, ‘religious’ people are framed in a certain way, whereas the actors are actually diverse in nature. It is crucial to unpack the moral ground upon which people from different sections act in synchronization – a ground that largely is supported even by the legal structure too. One major way to dismiss the ‘other’ sexual identities is to call it ‘foreign’.
The category of ‘lesbian’ was the first to come into the (urban) public awareness in Bangladesh, courtesy of the porn industry and male fantasy. ‘Gay’ followed, but not with the same intensity. Gradually, other categories that are central in modern Western discourse came into the scene. But the effect of the porn industry seems to play a significant role in identifying the categories, an awkward fact that cannot be easily proved. Local Bengali terms and concepts were never serious contenders in this field of categories, except in some serious academic or journalistic pieces. However, there are ample derogatory terms, with some graphic elaboration, that are frequently used in regular linguistic practices to demean and ridicule homosexual relationships. Even though there is significant evidence of LGBT in regional tales and language, people in Bangladesh insist that these identities and practices are not ‘ours’, and are a borrowing from the West, or are an outcome of visual globalization. Apathy, if not rage, against all kinds of sexual activities is repeatedly shown in public spheres by the state officials too, including during the era of HIV/AIDS.
Power of Knowledge
It is interesting to see how medical science, including psychology-psychiatry, and religious doctrines sometimes match each other when it comes to the perception of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sexual activities. Modern medical science has managed to appear as the savior of humankind with their myths and the unconditional submission of the public. There are critics, however, who keep reminding us about the mighty pharmaceutical and diagnostic industries that are shaping clinical practices, thereby revealing the capitalist intentions of the discipline. Those critics, however, cannot challenge medical sciences as a system of knowledge, but they can identify an external ‘evil’ in capitalism. On the other hand, the historical relationship of medical science with militarism has never seriously been scrutinized. Methods of torture and punishment were discovered and provided for by regimes from the mediaeval past to the contemporary world in order to govern their own population. But that is a different topic.
Taboos and stigmas regarding sexuality are seen across the ages and regions, though they may vary considerably. Systematic studies that developed in different parts of the world, and specifically in the European nations in the last two centuries, could have reformed the premises of the medical science. But they did not. If Freud provided a solid foundation for understanding sexuality, the feminist psychoanalysts furthered the mission in the academic arena. However, neither Freud, nor his feminist successors cum critics, seem to deliver any clue to the existing knowledge and practices of medical sciences. To make sense of how the ‘normal’ is being perceived, and transmitted to the young professionals, one needs to examine the medical curriculum on sexuality and the counselling that sexology practitioners are providing to their ‘patients’. The scenario seems particularly alarming in ‘developing’ societies. Recent interventions or criticisms are very unlikely to make any impact in academic curriculum here, especially in the area of medical science.
Identities at Play
The LGBTQ movement, even in the West, is still more of an academic one in terms of claiming representational categories in the realm of diversity. It varies from forms of expression to kinds of legislation in different nations, and in some cases, also in different regions of the same country. Saying so, I am not minimizing the political advancements achieved by the LGBTQ movement over the years. In the political sphere, the movement mostly relied on the policy of cultural pluralism, though contested from the orthodox sects, the respective governments upheld at that moment. While members of the LGBTQ movement have been fighting a battle for legal reformation and public recognition (the latter often following the former), they have also always had to contend with social humiliation and shaming. Human rights organizations, including international development agencies, appeared as one of their most vocal ally of the movement. This should be understood in context. For these organizations, advocating for multiple identities has become a sort of template for their mission and vision for many years, and this can sometimes go wrong in local contexts. For the community, recognition from these organizations is a supplement to their struggle in a particular location. Both the LGBTQ communities and the human rights organizations may benefit in particular ways, but only in a limited manner.
Legal reformation is a fundamental achievement for these communities wherever it took place. But legal reformation cannot guarantee non-abusive social space, especially in the parts of the world where strong stigma towards ‘other’ sexual identities prevails. Still it is the first step to fight for, to bring the identities in public sphere. Legislative reformation brings them into public space and discourse, and this creates an atmosphere where discrimination may disappear. This is just a beginning of a long social process, however. Ironically, even legal reformation for the constitutional acceptance of these communities seems to be a distant goal in most part of the Global South. More often, obstacles are not much anticipated either. Some progress in neighboring India could have been a source of hope for efforts to reconfigure the LGBTQ movement in Bangladesh. But that was not the case, and it is not going to be anytime soon. Even in India, the scenario is perplexing too. Despite recent legal reformation and some strong religious myths about trans-sex deities, the Indian urban LGBTQ population is still experiencing serious hatred toward them. It would be a risky proposition, but I believe that the educated middleclass, at times, are seen with far more deterrent attitude towards sexual identities compared to their ‘uneducated’ counterparts. Questions of ‘progress’ and ‘backwardness’ often are too schematic, and operate far from reality.
Let me ask a question here: does support for the LGBTQ movement necessarily mean permitting every possible sexual act, acts that are presumably performed in a democratic manner? In other words, what would be the political and/or cultural stance about the actual sexual acts? I am in tricky territory here, I understand, and I certainly am not going to advocate for ‘morals’ or ‘preferences’, nor am I interested in discussing so-called ‘normal’ or ‘correct’ forms of sexual activities. What, then, would be my position in the complex discussions about sexuality? While I am well aware of the programmatic appeal of the rights-based organizations and activities for endorsing the categories of multiple sexual identities, I tend to question the situation when it comes to the sphere of sexual activities. For example, what could happen to the heterosexual population when they disclose, or are identified as, doing ‘abnormal’ sexual activities? In other cases, taking the ‘other’ genders into consideration, with all the identity possibilities in spectrum, how are they viewed to engage with sexual practices, or fantasies, or both; how will they are be treated if they uncover their desires and fantasies along with the acts they performed, or would like to perform sometime.
In this hard-fought battleground, though till now very marginal in the broader context, the movement is able to add new letters to its arsenal, a testimony itself to claim a little more pluralistic space in a definitional era. Still the LGBT (or LGBTIQP for some others) movement is largely about, as I mentioned earlier, claiming identities in a horizon of sexual possibilities. But the question of actual sexual activities remains a concealed subject, across the globe and disciplines, within and beyond the cultural-political space.
Endorsement of identities, when compounded with a zone of sexual activities, makes either no sense, or at most a sense of tentative validation for the sake of pluralist principles, and not for sexuality itself. Keeping aside the religious scripts or interpretations, morals, and medicalization of sexuality — these are so intermingled that any template risks being overthrown. There is an unwritten treaty, even for those treated as the vanguards or radicals, not to discuss sexual practices. One aspect of this silence is the historical legacy of discourse on sexuality. After all, sex is a private act! It remains so as long as there prevails a comfort zone of assurance that no one is ‘doing’ something that is not ‘permitted’. What if some do? And they – heterosexuals and LGBT alike – do, the ‘deviants’. Even being a part of a longtime comradeship, the democratic ‘deviants’ are not in a position to talk about their ‘doings’. Maybe not even with their allies!
Manosh Chowdhury teaches social anthropology at Jahangirnagar University, lectures in some other areas, writes across genres, mostly in Bangla.