A five-letter word, written in bold red, stands in stark contrast to the pitch-black cover as if to command the attention it was denied for years. The word reads সমকামিতা (homosexuality), a word that even the most liberal of minds would dare not utter, let alone put down in a book. But there it was shining bright among a sea of books at the stall of Shuddhashar in the 2010 Ekushey Boi Mela in Dhaka. What a momentous time it was for the LGBTIQ community of the country! To see and hold a book that not only talks about homosexuality in a positive manner but also makes a case for the community! But perhaps the most significant impact was the fact that this was all written in Bengali, making it ever more relevant for the community and the people.
Shomokamita, written by Avijit Roy and published by Shuddhashar, was the first-ever Bengali-language book that positively talked about sexual orientation and gender identity from a historical, scientific, and humane perspective. On the back cover of the book, it says the book was an attempt to uncover the veil of prejudice and ignorance surrounding homosexuality and to portray that this sexual orientation was natural. The book unapologetically establishes this premise and goes on to build arguments, provide evidence, and change critical minds in the process. In an interview with Roopbaan, Avijit Roy said they consciously chose the word সমকামিতা as part of the book’s name to prod the conscience of the general populace and to draw attention to the issue. But little did anyone know that the book will go on to have such lasting impact on so many lives!
The book made a big ripple within the LGBTIQ community in Bangladesh. Despite the fear of backlash due to increased visibility contributed by the book, the community welcomed it because of the content and approach. It was widely discussed and shared within and outside the community. Various social forums were abuzz with how the book had opened up new opportunities for advocacy. It became a go-to reference point for any debate on homosexuality and till today remains so. The book also became widely reviewed in the mainstream media. In a rare but very much welcoming move, Prothom Alo, the most widely circulated and read Bengali-language newspaper of the country, published quite a positive and uplifting review of the book.
Avijit Roy started writing a series of blogs on the topic after seeing widespread ignorance and prejudice about homosexuality within the blogger community. He first published the initial blogs on Mukto-mona and later for Shocholayoton. The posts were met with a great response, prompting the need for a more informed and in-depth piece. This is where Shuddhashar entered, and soon the publication house became a part of the LGBTIQ history and vice versa. Both Shuddhashar and the community have witnessed fatal tragedies together, mourned the loss of brilliant minds, and found solace in each other. Avijit Roy was killed by Islamists on February 2015, Ahmedur Rashid Chowdhury barely survived the attack on October 2015, and Xulhaz Mannan and Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy were killed by the same group of extremists on April 2016. Mr. Chowdhury and many LGBTIQ activists also share the similar experience of being exiled and forced displacement. But more than the struggles and the trauma, it is perhaps the shared vision of a free and just world that drives the LGBTIQ community and Shuddhashar to forge ahead with compassion and commitment.
Since the publication of Shomokamita, the LGBTIQ community and Shuddhashar have continued to collaborate in various ways. From publishing the country’s first queer poetry collection Rupongti (under the banner of Roopbaan) to the recent special issue on LGBTIQ+ rights (Shuddhashar online magazine, Issue 20), Shuddhashar has been an exemplary ally of the community. Unlike many other individual and organizational allies, Shuddhashar has always put the wider community’s interest at the center and built its engagement around it. When most of the mainstream platforms in Bangladesh have refused to carry LGBTIQ related articles, Shuddhashar’s online magazine has become a safe medium. In the recent LGBTIQ+ issue, it has brought together a group of Bangladeshi queer activists and academics prompting a new form of collaboration and intellectual discourse. At the same time, it has also continued to support new, budding queer writers from across the globe. While doing all of these, Shuddhashar makes sure that the freedom of the writers is not curtailed, their safety is not compromised, and that they are properly compensated for their contribution. Far from the click-bait and sensationalist slant, Shuddhashar’s ethical and value-based approach is what makes it a praiseworthy ally.
But being an LGBTIQ ally in Bangladesh’s context is not easy. It is even more difficult to be a better one at that. For that, a fundamental human strength is required and that is courage; the courage to do the right thing in a right way. In the same interview with Roopbaan, Avijit Roy mentioned that when Ahmedur Rashid Chowdhury approached him for a book, Mr Roy said that he already had a manuscript but that it would require a courageous publisher because it was on a taboo topic. And courage was indeed what was required for Shomokamita and so many other groundbreaking books to see the light of the day.
This courage that made way for so many writers to swim against the waves over the last 30 years is the spirit of Shuddhashar. Courage inspired by a vision, rooted in values, and guided by compassion can lead us to the free and just world we have been fighting for.
Shakhawat Hossain Rajeeb is a gay rights activist who has worked with Boys of Bangladesh for 13 years before being forced to exile to Sweden, where he currently works with RFSL, the national Swedish LGBTQI organization.