Queering the archive: The in-between and fleeting

At the heart of Iti, Roopbaan, is not only the concern of sexuality, but also of relationships. Queer individuals located in different places and temporalities (dating back to 1988) writing about desires and emotions and trying to communicate their selves to the people (and at times, places) they love, know, knew and/or want to relate to.

 

In the Press-Kit 2018, Rasel (the director, editor, and cinematographer of the documentary ‘Roopbaan’) writes that ‘Roopbaan film is a compilation of collected footage from two major queer events of Dhaka […] A number of participants used mixed gadgets to capture moments of organizing both events. Back and forth between shaky handheld shots, noise, chaos, and rough edges, the film gives us glimpses of a community barely visible.’ Rasel indeed locates the need to pay attention to the shaky handheld shots (that the 17-minute movie begins and ends with) for possibilities of getting ‘glimpses.’ The film was made in 2014, a year of several queer public beginnings in Bangladesh. In 2016, Rasel gave a guest lecture and showed the movie to a group of photographers who were participating in a short course on aspects of photography, ethics, and representation of marginalized communities (hijra, LGBT, bede, people living with HIV/AIDS, and sex workers). That was the last time the movie was shown in Bangladesh. This was also the last time Rasel and I met in Bangladesh, as shortly after Rasel had to flee for safety.

 

 A picture from my old phone: Rasel presenting in the course in 2016.

 

In the aftermath of the murders of gay and queer activists Xulhaz Mannan and Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy in 2016 by Ansar-Al Islam militants, the nascent queer organizing scene in Bangladesh that was taking place in various forms and spaces, and that was gradually making its way to the public, shifted and went underground. The government condemned the murders, but also held the deceased responsible for their own deaths, stating that unnatural sex is a criminal offense and does not go with the culture of Bangladesh. Right after the murders, a handful of LGBTQ activists deactivated their social media accounts and went into hiding in safe homes. Different projects and activities were shut down and taken off from social media. Individuals applied for different educational and cultural fellowship and exchange programs in the US, Sweden, Germany, and the Netherlands and left the country. Several of them applied for asylum after reaching these destinations. Few returned to Bangladesh, and many others stayed back in Bangladesh.

The murders thoroughly shifted understandings and engagements of queer visibility politics. Concerns of what can be said in public and what can be made public, and how to continue knowledge production processes about LGBTQ issues in academic and non-academic spaces have led to re-imagining different kinds of activist strategies locally. The relocation of activists has also opened up possibilities of transnational engagements and mobilizations of various kinds. LGBTQ individuals even prior to the murders had various stances on visibility politics and did not share a homogeneous perspective. Post-2016, activists and community members are even more critical of visibility politics and the adverse effects that can have to one’s life in the current political climate in Bangladesh, under regimes of state authoritarianism and surveillance where even drawing cartoons and putting up Facebook statuses can land one in jail.

Tirza True Latimer (2016) writes, ‘What if there are no documents, or the documents have been expurgated, sealed or destroyed? Contending with historical erasure places special demands on feminist and queer researcher. They must view gaps, absences, and apparitions as historically consequential’ (93). Tina Takamoto (2014) writes, ‘What is at stake in the process of looking? [and] remembering in the absence of memory’ (243). Naisargi Dave (2014) locates understanding of queerness as: ‘Failing, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing, erasing, refuting, passivity, negativity, incoherence, defeat and loneliness […] creative and surprising ways of being in the world […] embracing failure’ (160). Indeed, elements of erasure, failure and becoming are important vectors when it comes to thinking about queerness in relation to memory, loss, grief, and archiving in postcolonial contexts.

Shifts in strategies from visibility to prioritizing safety, discreteness, and non-visibility in the realms of activist work are now connected to self-preservation, re-connecting with community members and thinking about the term ‘activism’ itself. This does not, however, mean stopping organizing, but pivoting and thinking carefully about decisions. By paying attention to erasures, and the ways erasures are utilized and navigated, LGBTQ activism gets dissociated from logics of ‘out and proud.’ Aniruddha Dutta (2018) cautions against an uncritical celebration of visibility and writes, ‘What a politics of visibility also misses are the various resistant ways in which people strategically negotiate and balance exposure and invisibility’ (71). This is a productive way to think of queerness as it then also de-links queerness from notions of success and clear articulations, and takes us to the realms of the unsaid, illegible, failure, and disconnections. Shifts in politics provide entrance points to engage and pay attention to aspects of memories, relationalities, and unclear articulations, and the implications they have for queer meaning-making in the present and for futures. To write or archive about queerness in postcolonial contexts, it is hence important to attend to the complex communication, the in-betweenness, the local, national, and transnational iterations of silences and erasures, the perplexed.

Dave (2014) formulates the notion of ‘shadow archives’ to not only configure the archive’s spatial and temporal (dis)location and dwelling, but also as a way to engage with the ephemeral, illegible, and the underlying that constitute aspects of sexuality, queerness, and identity-making as queerness shifts between absence and presence, visible and invisible, easily accessible knowledge and unknowable knowledge. The approach to understand queerness hence must be premised upon ‘muddying conceptual sureties’ (Gidwani & Ramamurthy, 2018). This is a move to parse for silences to understand the variant implicit resistances, negations, and navigations at junctures of modernity and non-modernity, formal and informal that often get overwritten by contemporary politics of clear and visible articulations of sexuality, queerness, and identity in homonormative and neoliberal contexts. Entrance points other than clear articulations need to be sought out.

Iti, Roopbaan, a book/ compilation of 77 letters from queer individuals, written in (mostly) Bengali and English, accompanied by 5 black and white illustrations was published by some of the Roopbaan magazine team members in 2019. The book is a posthumous tribute to Xulhaz and Tonoy. According to Arittro[1] (pseudonym), the coordinator of the project, Xulhaz had an affinity towards letter writing. In 2009, Xulhaz organized a letter recital event at this place, where queer people wrote and read out letters of self-expressions. It did not start out as a ‘project’. It was in 2015, after the publication of ‘Rupongthi[2], that Xulhaz thought of publishing a book of letters. The Roopbaan team, through their Facebook page, published a call for letters, through which they received around 50 letters, from which they selected 30 letters. After the murders, Xulhaz’s hard disk was taken by the police. In 2018, the hard disk was however retrieved from the police with all of the letters. There was a new call for more letters (this time more discretely) with the intention to publish the book in memory of Xulhaz and Tonoy, particularly Xulhaz. The book was crowdfunded by Xulhaz’s friends (which also covered the printing costs). Within a span of few months, the book was printed in India and has had a closed-door inauguration ceremony. At the heart of Iti, Roopbaan, is not only the concern of sexuality, but also of relationships. Queer individuals located in different places and temporalities (dating back to 1988) writing about desires and emotions and trying to communicate their selves to the people (and at times, places) they love, know, knew and/or want to relate to. Through their letters, the writers wanted to inform about identities that cannot be ‘spoken’ about. It is hence at once public as well as private: private messages written to have public and political affects. Elements of memory, nostalgia, dreams, and aspirations compose the materiality of the narratives that cannot (and should not) be found in official records.

Here is a summary of one of the entries:

A compilation of 5 brief email exchanges in English that took place between Xulhaz and Himel in 2008. The emails are lyrical and written like poems. Both Xulhaz and Himel used Yahoo email addresses. Xulhaz writes saying he feels pampered and ‘tempered,’ wonders how people still care about his nipple and that he will show it all to Himel. He writes saying ‘let’s meet over tea some time.’ Himel refers to Xulhaz as ‘X’, writes ‘long time no news’ and asks when they will meet again. He misses X and wants to kiss him. Himel asks X to send him ‘X-ray’ – ‘I want to see’. Few days later, Xulhaz writes ‘What happened with us one fine day, didn’t make us lovers, let alone gay!’ ‘It was an attempt explore a new thing’ and ‘Let’s not waste our time on this garbage Friends are what we were, are and will be. That’s the only message…hahahahah…’ Himel’s tone is a bit different when he writes back, ‘what you say in your song that may be wrong we were friends, not gay’ and ‘by the by still I love you as a friend and that’s end’.

The email exchange in English between Xulhaz and Himel is intriguing primarily because of the linguistic play and reformulations around desire. Dave (2014) writes about poetics of silence and secrecy which can be ‘fecund, fertile, pregnant, irrepressibly bursting with its own and everyone else’s vital desires’ which can produce ‘thick, dense, catalytic presences’ (166). Dave (2014) locates possibilities within these kinds of (unlabeled) friendships: ‘the space of intimacy, the queer space between failure and success’ (168) to do a different reading of ‘success’ that otherwise gets imagined through frameworks of state recognition and engagement, rigid identity and community politics and incommensurability with the non-queer world.  There is a presence and absence of desire at the same time, and a constant negotiation between Xulhaz and Himel. Himel misses and wants to kiss Xulhaz, while Xulhaz will ‘show it all’ to Himel. Himel then writes, ‘we were friends, not gay’ and ‘still I love you as a friend and that’s end’, while Xulhaz writes ‘It was an attempt to explore a new thing’ and ‘Let’s not waste our time on this garbage Friends are what we were, are and will be’. The ‘garbage’ can be interpreted as Xulhaz’s and Himel’s disdain of any kind of label, or clear-cut articulation of their desires for each other. In Xulhaz’s and Himel’s exchange, the use of the rubric of ‘friend’ buoyed (and not even establish) a speculative tableau of desire. Friend, as opposed to ‘gay’ (lovers) kept the parameter of the queer relationship fluid, open and continuous – ‘we were, are and will be.’ The lyrical nature of the email is also shaped by a queer formatting and use of grammar, words, and syntax.

Queer archive must think of the complex interrelationships between silence and voice, absence and presence.Interestingly enough, in 2008 (the same year as the letter), a thin tri-fold leaflet on homosexuality was printed through a collaboration between Boys of Bangladesh[3] and two other entities (a forum and an organization). The leaflet is written in Bengali and is titled ‘Shomokamita shomporke apnar ki jana uchit’ (What you need to know about homosexuality) with the map of Bangladesh in pride colors and three tag lines – ‘Amra chilam, amra achi, amra thakbo’ (We were, we are, and we will be). The leaflet addresses 12 questions such as what is sexual diversity, how would one know if they are shomokami (homosexual) or ubhokami (bisexual), is homosexuality a sin, is homosexuality a western import, what does coming out or attoprokash mean and its significance. It also says that ‘If you are a homosexual or bisexual, do not think you are alone.’ Given the year was 2008, when no support or discussion around queer issues were happening, the printing of this leaflet is a humble departure from a logic of silence or invisibility. It is also interesting and important to note that the leaflet – probably one of the earliest of its kind in Bangladesh – mentions safety (in relation to one’s self-expression) and that support looks like getting to know queer people and working with them. The leaflet uses the terms shomokami and ubhokami and does not use ‘LGBT’, a lexicon that slowly emerged through visible forms of activism in the following years.

In 1991, ‘Our Own Community Press’ – a USA based LGBT newspaper, in its ‘International news’ sections, published a small call for donation with the title ‘Bangladesh cyclone fund.’[4] The donation was organized by Shamakami and Trikone – two USA based organizations of gay and lesbian South Asians. The call ends with a very interesting remark. It says: ‘Your donations will help relieve the suffering and also enhance gay and lesbian visibility in Bangladesh’ (14). This piece of evidence speaks to an intriguing moment of transnational resource mobilization and intersectional solidarity among diasporic gays and lesbians in the US, gays and lesbians in Bangladesh, and the overall cyclone affected population. Visibility is figured at the junctures of sexuality, climate, and transnational resources. Visibility was a prominent aspect of the gay and lesbian movement in the 1960s in USA, albeit experienced differently by different groups. For example, Hasha, a lesbian and bisexual Iranian led-organization in USA that started in 1993 wrote in their newsletter Hasha about the multiple layers of exclusions and violence they experienced in the Iranian diaspora, the mainstream gay and lesbian scene in the US, and a fear of attack from fundamentalists. All these factors shaped their perception of visibility (which they wanted very much for Iranian lesbian, gay and bisexual people), led to prioritizing safety and publishing anonymously written articles in their newsletters.

Visibilities hence also need to be historically contextualized to understand the various forms of engagements and negotiations with it. Queer archive’s task or methodology is thus to parse queerness for the way it exists across different articulations (implicit and visible) in different and similar spaces and times. Sexuality is constructed and it is also so fleeting. Queerness resides ‘(even only?)’ (Dave 2014) in that in-between space, between absence and presence, between visible and invisible. We must pay attention to the public, the private, the unsaid, the illegible, the role and creative use of language and relationalities to grasp specific ways sexuality, queerness, and identity-making play out.

 

Tri-fold leaflet on homosexuality and bisexuality in 2008

 

 

 

A call for donation ‘Bangladesh cyclone fund’ (1991) in  ‘Our  Own  Community Press’ – a USA based LGBT newspaper.

 

 

Works cited

Dave, Naisargi. 2014. “Death and family: queer archives in the space in between” in Fernandes, L. Routledge handbook of gender in South Asia (Routledge handbooks). London; New York: Routledge

Dutta, Aniruddha. 2018. “On Queerly Hidden Lives: Precarity and (In) visibility between Formal and Informal Economies in India.” QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking 5, no. 3: 61-75.

Gidwani, Vinay and Priti Ramamurthy, 2018, “Agrarian Questions of Labor in Urban India: Middle Migrants, Translocal Householding and the Intersectional Politics of Social Reproduction.”  Journal of Peasant Studies, 45:5-6, 994-1017.

Latimer, Tirza True. 2016. “Improper Objects: Performing Queer/Feminist Art/History.” In Otherwise: Imagining Queer Feminist Art Histories. Eds. Amelia Jones and Erin Silver, 93- 109. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Takemoto, Tina. 2014. “Looking for Jiro Onuma: A Queer Meditation on the Incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 20, no. 3: 241-275.

 

 

 

Saad Khan is a PhD student in the Department of Gender, Women and Sexuality studies at University of Washington. He has designed, coordinated, and conducted local and transnational qualitative research and advocacy projects on LGBTQ issues, Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights education and curriculum development, disability and masculinity.

 

 

 

 

[1] A middle-class queer activist in mid-20s in Dhaka, Bangladesh. He has founded a queer cultural organization called Mondro, with digital queer archive as one of its element.

[2] A book of queer poetry published by the Bangladeshi publication house called Shuddhashar publishing house. The publisher Ahmedur Rashid Tutul was attacked by Islamists in 2015. The publication house had also published books of secular writer and activist Avijit Roy who was murdered in 2015 by Islamists.

[3] The longest and largest running group run by gay men (and now other queer people) in Bangladesh.

[4]  Bangladesh Cyclone Fund.” Our Own Community Press, vol. 15, no. 11, 1991, p. 14. Archives of Sexuality and Gender, link.gale.com/apps/doc/RYJIMF126189253/AHSI?u=wash_main&sid=AHSI&xid=5b9ba748.  Accessed 22 Apr. 2020.

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