Struggle for queer*-led spaces in Bangladesh

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But as we have recoiled and adapted to organize virtually, how have our aspirations for physical spaces evolved?

 

In present-day Bangladesh, there is no doubt that infinitely diverse populations of gender & sexually variant people do exist beyond the realms of and sometimes even in the cracks and shadows of law, order, prejudice, and social stigma. For those of us with access and who have learned to navigate the internet worlds of digital Bangladesh now, the Digital Security Act 2018 is an ever-growing shadow upon our activisms. As I write this, the latest case filed under the act arrested a 9th grader for making less-than-respectful remarks about the Prime Minister. Laws named for internet security are becoming increasingly draconian in order to suppress and outlaw unfavorable opinions about the current administration. Understandably so, there is alarm and concern among organizers of various LGBTQIA+ networks who use the internet as their primary medium for community organizing and mobilizing. After all, Section 377 may exist to outlaw “unnatural sexual acts”, but it has historically been through other criminal laws such as narcotics and kidnapping that people and assemblies of queer communities have been penalized. If the 2016 murders could take place over hurt religious sentiments, then it is no doubt that a law such as this could be used any day to attack and suppress queer sentiments expressed over the internet. In times such as these and others, I often think about how spaces for queer organizing have been shrinking over time, especially since 2016, as urban middle-class queer assemblies have gone back to the shadows for safety.

There is no doubt that it is extremely important to have physical assemblies for our advocacies and to build communities for long-term mobilizing. But as we have recoiled and adapted to organize virtually, how have our aspirations for physical spaces evolved?

 

Informal meetings & borrowed spaces

For the longest time, people have been gathering informally in homes and public spaces for quiet addas and meetings. In a city like Dhaka, a community organizer like me would know from open secrets that public spaces such as parks and lakes, whether it be the Ramna or Suhrawardy Udyan, Gulshan-Badda Lake or the Gulshan Parks, have been adapted by working and middle class networks of sexually and gender diverse people for meetings and courtships over a long time. These open spaces also transform for nightlife activities such as gatherings and sex work, or even as make-shift temporary homes, in ways that are very carefully negotiated with law-enforcement agencies, with their own risks and exploitative conditions. Over time, informal meetings in restaurants, cafes, and private residences have been common ways for people to build and sustain community relationships. But these are also conditionally granted, requiring for people to be extremely careful about appearances while navigating the social surveillances of surrounding crowds. Not all homes have friendly land-owners or security personnel at the gates. In fact, such spaces are rare to come by. Neither are private residences and family homes easy to share for new, unfamiliar faces. And for anyone who is “too visibly queer”, accessing these spaces regularly over a long time becomes difficult.

For anything more ‘formal’, such as workshops and screening events, NGOs and foreign cultural centers have been the safest option available. Spaces such as EMK Center or American Center are “borrowed” by LGBTHQIA++ networks and organizations, mostly via people who have the privileges to be associated with them. And while they are available for little to no cost for stand-alone events, access remains a notable problem. They are often unwelcoming to people from lower-middle socio-economic groups, who may not only understand how to navigate the paperwork and correspondences required to obtain the venue as organizers, but may also find these spaces intimidating as visitors because of their locations and designs. The security protocols of these spaces also make it hard for transgender and gender-diverse people to even enter, because national photo- identification documents are often hard to obtain for them. NGOs have been more accessible in terms of class-reach, for organizers who have had the experience to be affiliated with them over long-term working relationships. But these spaces often do not come for free for continued use, and costs are a concern when a space must be rented for fairly regular use.

In spite of these challenges, there are organizations like Somporker Noya Setu (SNS) that have been able to consistently organize and extend community support for almost a decade. Unlike the networks that organize primarily on the internet, the members of SNS’ network need physical spaces to meet and exchange information because the internet is largely inaccessible to them. J.S, the founding President of the organization, is currently a leading figure in advocacy for transgender rights with a wealth of experience as a development worker for sexual rights and health. Built mostly from the ground up via the community relationships she has built in the grassroots while working with Hijrah communities, sex workers, and smaller groups spread across the country, she tells me that the organization serves as a space for identity development. Once belonging to the Hijrah traditions herself, her own journey towards identifying as a transgender woman has been a long one. And she wanted to create a grassroots space where people can equip themselves with knowledge to explore their identities outside of the Hijrah identity. This is an important issue for the organization because one of their many mandates has been to advocate for legal recognition and identification for transgender people, and they offer support in order to obtain these papers through a citizenship system that has little to no provisions for gender-diversity.

Today, SNS has 3000 beneficiaries scattered across the country, and it offers support in the form of trainings, performance and awareness programs, and even disaster relief. During this pandemic alone, they have been able to collect donations from their network to support at least 550 people with relief, and have reached out to thousands of people telephonically to offer mental health and legal support through the crisis. And in 10 years, they have not yet been able to secure a permanent space for their operations. Informal meeting spaces, their own homes, and community relationships are their primary means for organizing. For those who cannot shelter themselves in a virtual space – and there are more people with such limited access to the internet than those of us who do because the internet is still a relatively new phenomenon in Bangladesh– navigating the public space has often relied on age-old traditions and lived experiences that rely heavily on community relationships. This is something that perhaps eludes those of us who have organized mostly via the internet and only come together on rare occasions in borrowed spaces.

Ruhul, a British-Bangladeshi urban-planner and researcher who works towards queer community building both in the UK and Dhaka, believes that there’s much to learn from such grassroots low-income community organizing. He is critical of his own position in Dhaka as an “outlier” who also has access in upper-class networks of gay men with social capital, and he remains rather wary of his “westernized dialogue” while trying to build queer community spaces here.

He says: “In conversations with people that are part of the wider Trans/Hijra community, I think their spatial community and organizing is much, much more fascinating and crucial to understand as a solidarity/community building lens. The Hijra community operate spatially, and hierarchies exist, but also in a communal family structure that is a unique and oft unexplored narrative – how they occupy, manage, navigate the city is MUCH more of an important learning for us, than others, as they are ‘visible’ to the public, and they encounter and engage – especially creating acceptances within their own neighborhoods, in ways that perhaps others are very afraid to do so still. Their position and power is reflective of course, and there are reasons why they have been able to ensure ‘third’ gender status (even if there are complications with this policy in reality) in a country where section 377 exists + is touted to be an ‘impossible’ rule that cannot be overturned for whatever reason. I imagine their cultural escapades will be entrenched in practices that overlap day and night times of the city – their lived daily lives and community-building are probably aspects that the wider queer community can learn from.”

SNS demonstrates this adaptability rather incredibly. As the organization has gradually transitioned over time to operate more like a formal organization in order to receive grants, donations, and contracts for their work, they have had to come up with an ingenious way to obtain a permanent address.

 

“It is extremely difficult for us to rent a permanent space because the costs are difficult to sustain. We also don’t have the means to register ourselves as an organization yet. Nobody was also willing to rent their space to us, because of our identity. But it is hard to carry out operations without a permanent address for official paperwork. Eventually, an acquaintance offered her own office space as our permanent address for official purposes. We use the space sometimes if we need to, but it is mostly useful just to show for our official paperwork and to receive mail,” says J.S.

But this experience is not the same for those who do not have the expertise of such networks or community elders to rely upon. For smaller, independent urban youth networks and informal communities whose class positions may limit them to NGO and cultural center venues or private residences, such use of borrowed spaces remains unsustainable, class-restricted, and often only limited to one-off events.

“Class privilege and the NGO-ised nature of organizations and people, means often these aspects of community building continue to be patron-client environments. Meaningful, community led spaces or projects are hard to come by, and also the conscious awareness of such histories are also lacking within those often starting new,” says Ruhul.

And I wonder if our reliance on such spaces allows for us to imagine & think about more long-term sustainable solutions, which may be queer-led and designed to allow greater agency for their communities to make decisions about the utility of these spaces.

 

Entrepreneurial ventures that center community support

Decades of experience as a community organizer gives Little Boxes valuable insight about this matter. In fact, when I called him to talk about this article and issue, he let out a sad remark: “Are there any such spaces now in Dhaka? Barely any, as far as I know.”

He’s not wrong, which is why I find it important to talk about the restaurant he created and operated with his colleague. Although Café M no longer exists, it did serve as a safe space for several community events for some time between 2013 and 2015. Identifying a distinct need for a space that could be regularly frequented by gender and sexually diverse people every now and then for casual addas and dates but also for community events and projects, he figured that a self-sustainable commercial venture could be a solution.

Café M was established in Mohammadpur – a part of Dhaka that is diverse in the demography of the population it holds, not only by socio-economic status but also by cultures, languages, and a rich pre-liberation history. Today, Mohammadpur is busier and full of restaurants as gentrification has rapidly taken over these last few years. But Café M was one of the first restaurants to operate in the neighborhood before Dhaka’s craze for food-businesses started.

Located at a corner of the second floor of a building that was also occupied by other businesses, Little Boxes’ goals for the restaurant was fairly simple. He wanted to create a space that could be accessible and used casually by queer people in a manner that wasn’t a burden to their pockets. So that a simple plate of fries or a drink could suffice to spend a few hours with company. But he was careful: he never promoted the restaurant as a queer space. That the café was safe for queer people was often shared by word-of-mouth among community members. His goals for the café centered the larger community’s needs often, which is why he often facilitated and hosted various events big and small in the restaurant. He recalls that because this was a commercial dining space, it was relatively difficult for curious outsiders to hold the restaurant management questionable about who visited. So the restaurant did not face any troubles or questions regarding inquisitions. But because this was a queer-led space, people could also change their attire and feel comfortable inside, because it is otherwise difficult to travel while appearing visibly queer. For small regular community sessions and workshops, debut exhibitions of artists, private birthday parties, Café M has had an illustrious journey as a safe space for sexually and gender diverse folks.

But operating a restaurant is no easy business. From logistics to menu updates, Little Boxes had to be involved in every decision to keep the restaurant financially sustainable. And with one job already, this was a project on the side for him that gradually became more demanding of his time and energy. Eventually, after his business partner left the country, he had to shut the space down. But in retrospect, he now thinks that it was probably a safe and timely decision to do so. The 2016 murders took place shortly after, and by then, Café M had already made a reputation among urban queer networks as a “gay café”, as he remembers. Much like an open secret.

A business venture such as this is heavily dependent on certain factors: Little Boxes had managed sufficient capital and is also an educated cis-passing male. His social capital and physical mobility allows him certain privileges, which he wanted to channel into a sustainable solution for larger community needs.

Meanwhile, Poly is perhaps one of the better-known and successful entrepreneurs, and she commands the respect of many. Based in Rajshahi Sadar, she now employs more than 300 artisans in her establishment D A Boutique House, and is a proud recipient of the government sponsored Joyeeta Award. She has trained more than 900 artisans herself and made a name as a successful entrepreneur in festivals and projects across the country. But in spite of her many laurels, she has been unable to rent a space to use as a showroom cum workshop in all of Rajshahi.

Poly is a transgender woman, but unlike many, she has the support of her family even in this small town far away from the modern airs of a city like Dhaka. So after she failed to find an appropriate location for her business in 2013, she established her boutique in an extension of her parents’ house, where she also lives with her family. Over the years, she has used this space and her resources to actively provide support and resources to her larger communities, which also include people from Hijrah collectives of her locality. Until now, she has trained and provided employment opportunities for at least 15 transgender people.

Poly’s work is perhaps a true demonstration of intersectional organizing. She not only trains and creates employment for “neglected women and community people*”, but also provides resources and facilitates the paperwork required for people to avail social services and benefits from their local governance. Over the phone, she tells me there are perhaps at least 900 cards for all of the disability pension and survivor allowance recipients she has helped register in her local ward. She is also an official trainer for the Ministry of Women Children Affairs. And during this pandemic alone, she has not only helped channel resources to her community for relief, but also combated the problem of unemployment for them by producing masks for sale orders.

Poly’s achievements are no small feat. And yet, the only loan she has now for her business is not even under her name, but her sister’s. Bank loans, such as those for SME, should be available to support businesses like hers, but they are systemically made unavailable to visibly gender-diverse people.

“Hijrah and third gender people are usually a floating population, because it is hard for us to settle anywhere due to social prejudice. So banks often use that as a reason to not trust us with loans. And although Bangladesh Bank signed a circular in 2015 and announced that third-gender people should receive SME loans, I have yet not been able to even procure a copy of that circular from them even after many requests. Can you believe it? If I had the circular now, I could at least show it to the banks to support my claim!” says Poly.

She demands that quotas must be available in City Corporation markets so that entrepreneurs from marginalized communities such as hers can finally rent spaces for their business. Because if she had the opportunity, she would definitely move out of her family’s house and expand her business.

 

Imagining creative queer-led solutions

Tehai in an interdisciplinary art space, built to host and organize programs surrounding the performing and concept arts. Akramul, a notable gender-bending performance artist themselves, felt the need for a more accessible space that doesn’t rely on the bureaucracies and curatorial restrictions of larger theatre venues. And although dance and theatre are realms that have traditionally been occupied and frequented by various traditions, cultures, and sensibilities of many sexually and gender diverse people, they are not overtly celebrated as queer spaces in the mainstream either.

Similarly, this quaint little space doesn’t claim to be an exclusively queer space either, for obvious security concerns but also because their interests in social issues and reformation are over-arching. Akramul primarily manages the space and designs the programs now. Because of their own involvement with various queer networks over the years as a volunteer, they make this space accessible for queer meditations, explorations, and healing in a way that non-queer led spaces fail to do in their tokenizing programmes. The space has accommodated various queerness-centered therapy and healing sessions, in a way that shields visitors away from the public gaze for a while in an intimate setting.

But what remains most fascinating is the location of this space. Located in a busy corner of Old Dhaka, this is neither your usual Hijrah commune nor a fancy art space. Akramul was able to rent this space out in a residential building as a dance-school, and has been able to operate it safely so far without too many inquisitions. This requires for them to stay vigilant about their own appearances in the neighborhood because they also live here, and they have to be careful about wearing nail polish when they step out for groceries. But this is a compromise they are willing to make. For them, the strongest point for the location is the diversity of Old Dhaka, where diverse cultures, languages, and artistic traditions have co-existed for a long time. The space becomes accessible not just by location, but also by virtue of how they work with very few resources found within the vicinity.

For the foreseeable future, they are settled here and want to develop sustainable financial models to operate this space. But they also entertain ideas that require them to move and resettle eventually, because they understand that resources are not always guaranteed for such initiatives.

Similarly, Little Boxes understands that staying in one place for too long does become unsafe as it catches unwanted attention and develops reputations for being attractive to visibly queer people.

“If we do rent a space now, it will become identified eventually. Say I rent a room out in Badda or Lalmatia as an office space. And when Hijrah apus or LGB people frequent this space, then people and offices nearby will be able to identify that. So, if there is someone in the locality that poses threats to the community, they may create obstructions for us or even put people’s lives at risks.”

But he is also able to imagine alternative solutions that navigate these socio-political challenges with knowledge from past traditions.

“My colleague and I were discussing the other day the possibility of mobile spaces, much like the way nomadic people traditionally live on boats in this region. We could set up an office such that we can pack everything up and set up again after we move to a different location 3 months later. Ideas like this are very romantic and interesting to discuss, but the reality is also that it’s very difficult to operate this way without a permanent space.”

It is important to note that the cases in this article are only a few examples from a myriad of solutions that queer people have adopted here over time, to navigate diverse challenges. And in no way, are these cases entirely representative of all of queer Bangladesh, especially since most of these examples are from Dhaka. As many challenges and threats as there are for sexually and gender diversified people to navigate their socio-cultural realities, that doesn’t stop us from existing and pushing the boundaries of our existence. Yes, one step forward may seem to be followed by two-steps back at times. But failure perhaps is the greatest learning curve that diverse queer communities have for them to develop deeper and nuanced knowledge of their realities and think of slow, holistic solutions.

Can we ever have spaces that are truly ours? Perhaps not. And this is a larger queer struggle, not limited to the laws and streets of Bangladesh alone. I distinctly remember the Donald Trump cardboard cut-out that stood behind me in a community event hosted at The American Center last year, particularly when a Caucasian staff of the center dropped the names of Stonewall riot heroes Marsha and Sylvia. I remember feeling truly lost in the irony of how our existences and struggles are lost and pinkwashed in transnational politics and co-optations as we struggle even for borrowed spaces and hand-outs. The irony runs deeper now as Black Lives Matter protests against police violence have spread worldwide and the Trump administration just very recently tried to remove health insurance benefits for transgender people. We probably can’t win these negotiations now or ever. But as bleak as it sounds, it is also a manifestation of queer strength: That there is no one win but a constant struggle for justice for all people, forever.

 

*The word “queer” is relatively unfamiliar in the grassroots and larger advocacies for sexually and gender diverse people in Bangladesh currently, except for a few English-speaking communities. Many people may not prefer to use the word, and find it foreign and borrowed. The term “community people” is often used loosely in conversations for/related to sexually and gender diverse advocacies among diverse communities. However, for the purpose of this article and for the lack of a better word, the author uses the word “queer” interchangeably as an umbrella term.

 

 

Maliha is a writer, research, and community organizer based in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Their focus remains largely on the queer-feminist intersections of art and politics, and the use of arts as a community tool to build agency and self-narratives.

 

 

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