The Politics and Meanings of “Coming Out” in Bangladesh | Onnokotha

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Queer visibility and coming out has to be seen through organizing experiences and power struggles that are currently unfolding in Bangladesh and how they are shaped by histories of gender and sexual communities in the region. Visibility is the chicken-or-egg question that divides queer organizers in Bangladesh.

 

In global LGBTIQ+ politics, “coming out” has emerged as a nearly unquestionable, universal, and fit-for-all demand. The closet is to be broken everywhere: Bangladesh is no exception. Here, too, various LGBTIQ+ activists and allies have raised their voices in hope to influence public perception, “normalize” queer visibility, and encourage coming out. In celebration of pride month 2020, Bandhu Social Welfare Society’s video (“The light will come”) highlighted the plight of hijra, trans, and other gender diverse people during the COVID-19 pandemic. Allies organized webinars to foster discussions about LGBTIQ+ rights and organizing, and took to social media outlets to express their vocal support. Notably, Shamir Montazid, ex-tutor of ‘10 Minute School’, drew homophobic hate comments threats, as well as support when he made a post appreciating the LGBTIQ+ rights movement. The U.S. Embassy in Dhaka also put out a pride month post remembering slain gay rights activists Xulhaz Mannan and Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy. These various efforts to support Bangladeshi LGBTIQ+ visibility, intentionally or not, lend themselves easily to the dominant narrative that queer liberation involves the linear progress from normalizing visibility, coming out to broader society, to dismantling colonial era laws like Section 377, legalizing gay-inclusionary measures such as gay marriage, and living happily thereafter. Certainly, coming out is an important dimension of LGBTIQ+ struggle, but how does coming out in Bangladesh differ socially and matter differently under current socio-political circumstances? What are the many meanings of coming out in Bangladesh if we listen to conflicting queer voices? Is coming out indeed the most desirable goal in Bangladesh’s present political climate? In this article, we engage these questions by drawing primarily from interviews. We conducted 23 interviews over phone or in emails with Bangladeshi LGBTQ+ people from various genders, economic and social backgrounds to understand and analyse their take on the politics of coming out. We do not prescribe whether one should or should not come out while pointing out that the Bangladeshi state has no safeguards to protect “out” queer people from violence, stigma, and exclusion.

 

The realities of coming out

Coming out matters. In a country like Bangladesh where religious backlash, social stigma, and queerphobia grow by the day, visibility can challenge the norms and open conversations about queerness. Coming out, whether publicly or within family, allows family members and broader society to recognize the unique realities of LGBTIQ+ individuals and, in turn, make room for queer people to express their authentic selves.  For instance, in the series of interviews conducted for this article, one interviewee stated, “I used to be in denial for a long time because of the contempt people in this country show towards lgbtq people. So coming out made me more sure of myself and my orientation.”

However, like in other parts of the world, coming out in Bangladesh comes with risks. For example, some of our interviewees, who came out and stood up to their families, were forced to visit psychiatrists, undergo therapy, and take drugs in heavy doses to “cure” them of their “unnatural” behavior. Across rural and urban regions, people face risks of homelessness and losing family’s economic support when they come out. Shaon, a young queer person from a rural setting shared, “My family will never understand why I choose to identify as gender queer or why I, being a ‘man’, want to be in love with another man. I am too young and I’m afraid if I come out to them, they will stop my education, or worse, throw me out of the house.” Some interviewees reported that when coming out becomes public knowledge in the locality, families are more prone to throwing LGBTIQ+ people out of the house. In the case of less public coming out, families harass and discriminate against their queer family members. Mamun, a gay man in his late 20s shared: “I came out to my friends and family…it did not go well…to them it was not normal. I had to go through a lot. Some avoided me, some relationships were damaged for good. My family put me through domestic violence, mental abuse, threats.” Often, trans people who come out to their families are forced out of homes. Families believe it’s haram, an abomination of nature, and a matter of shame in a shobhyo shomaj (civilized society) if a child likes to cross-dress. Trans and “effiminate” queer people also experience bullying, physical and verbal abuse, experiences that often lead to committing suicide or running away from their families, as some interviewees highlighted.

Coming out can be a calculative affair in Bangladesh not only because of the varied risks but also for the repercussions for the broader family. Most Bangladeshis, even well into adulthood, live with their families. Due to traditional ways of living, sharing resources and inheritance, children, especially men, end up spending their whole lives living in the same house as their parents. In the absence of any state-provided social security, children are expected to be the primary caregivers and resource providers in many homes. The social and economic standing of children are intricately tied to the rest of the family’s social and economic status. This is why coming out publicly is not merely an individual event, but can mean the entire family having to face the social stigma of having a queer family member. Under these circumstances, people who choose to come out to their families find themselves tackling and negotiating the double pressure of coming out individually and as a family to the broader community. In many cases where parents accept their LGBTIQ+ children, they reject a same-sex partner and “protect” the child’s identity from the rest of the extended family. The nuclear family, in such cases, turns into a wider closet.

Some LGBTIQ+ people prefer to remain closeted, not because they don’t wish to be out, but because they see that the ambiguity protects them from violence and sustains the interdependent familial relationships in a country without adequate legal and social safety net and widening economic inequality. Speaking of these complexities, Sadman, a Bangladeshi gay man now living abroad, expressed that any queer person ought to be careful about the consequences of coming out to family, and their actions must be well thought out and responsible so as not to burden themselves or others. On this same topic, Neela, a transman, said, “Even the folx with the best intentions keep messing up [when they come out]. We’re losing space and in the current situation even more… Ambiguity protects in Bangladesh. I think it does for me. I think people should be aware of the kinds of violences that can befall them before they decide to blindly try. Honestly, I wish I knew better.”

Not all coming out stories in Bangladesh end in isolation, harassment, and exclusion. For instance, Dina, a graduate of an American college and founder of an NGO, shared: “I’m out to quite a few people… people I have come out to, it’s been a very casual transition—just simply deciding I will start making references to my bisexuality in conversations, sending gay memes. To both friends and family, it has not been a big deal at all.” Some might argue that in such cases a smoother coming out is the result of class privilege, among other factors.

 

Bangladeshi “coming out” in national and global politics 

In Bangladeshi conservative circles, homosexuality is a western import worthy of scrutiny and trials, and ultimately unacceptable and intolerable. In Bangladeshi progressive and left-leaning circles, homosexuality is a universal phenomenon that has always existed in South Asia. While the conservative narrative erases the deep history of gender and sexual minorities in the region, the progressive narrative flattens our histories, depoliticizes our struggles, and ignores the global North-South power imbalance. Queer visibility and coming out has to be seen through organizing experiences and power struggles that are currently unfolding in Bangladesh and how they are shaped by histories of gender and sexual communities in the region. Visibility is the chicken-or-egg question that divides queer organizers in Bangladesh. Until 2016, initiatives like the Roopbaan magazine were the flag-bearers of visibility in Bangladesh. Visibility promoters believe that Bangladeshi queer people won’t have rights and a better life until they become visible and assertive. They take the consequences as a necessary cost for achieving gay rights. Opposing organizers believe that visibility does not automatically mean acceptance and rights. They believe there are other pressing needs such as housing, employment, and family abuse, which if tackled can form the bedrock for our rights struggle. They perceive the queer community as disorganized, the capitalist state violent, and heterosexist society too vicious for queer people to fight for visibility. The 2016 murders have positioned the opponents of visibility as the realists.

The contemporary Bangladeshi state has neither presented itself as champion of rainbow progress, nor launched an explicitly anti-LGBT campaign to present itself as defender of traditional values. The present government, like many NGOs with a human rights agenda, maintains an ambivalent silence. Silence, particularly from the state, has set up the stage for the growth of anti-queer fascist politics in Bangladesh. This is why, according to many, Bangladeshi queer people’s security is a more pressing concern. After the 2016 murders of gay activists by Ansarullah Bangla Team (now Ansarullah Islam), which is a cell under the Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), security emerged as one of the biggest problems for queer people. Additionally, digital visibility and activities of queer community members are now threatened under the recent Digital Security Act. This draconian law can put someone behind bars for something as minor as putting up a status on social media that criticises state activities or can be deemed “offensive” to religious groups. Particularly during the pandemic and resulting lockdown, the Bangladeshi state has increased the use of the DSA to criminalize activists. To summarize, there are no laws that protect us, but there are many laws that make us and our organizations vulnerable. In addition, state negligence towards homophobic attacks creates a sense of immunity among violent third-party actors.

One important matter here is Section 377, a remnant of British colonial law that criminalizes sodomy in Bangladesh. However, as community organizers attest, section 377 has not been widely used to incarcerate queer people in the country. Neela mentioned: “The violence, phobia and policing are far more ingrained than just the law. The law sits there in the background like a creep.” A segment of Bangladeshi queer activists who settled abroad also believe that queer visibility should be the primary goal of queer liberation in Bangladesh. These diaspora activists tend to refer to the 1969 Stonewall uprising as their inspiration. Reflecting on the centrality of visibility in such perspectives, one interviewee said: “Western queer activism is very much reliant on coming out and we must not conflate our activism struggles with theirs…taking Western activists as our role models is problematic and facilitates the binary narrative that their movement is progressive and ours is not.” Moreover, within the queer community, the broader pressure of visibility can turn into peer pressure. Community members refer to assumed hierarchies where the “out” person sits at the top. Many feel ashamed, weak, and pressured to come out in those circumstances. Any unthoughtful attempt to “normalize” queer visibility in this context can further add to our vulnerabilities. The recent incident with Samir Montazid, ex-employee of ‘10 Minute School’, is a case in point.

The homophobic reactions and counter-reactions to Shamir Montazid posting a photo with pride flag have taken social media by storm and reopened the conversation on ally politics in Bangladesh. Montazid did not explicitly refer to Bangladesh in his post. But given Montazid’s tutoring position in a popular education platform, homophobes in social media accused Montazid of spreading anti-islamic values among Bangladeshi youth, and eventually accused ‘10 Minutes School’ of the same. The matter went as far as the co-founders of the online educational platform receiving death threats. Queer community people who appreciated Montazid publicly or backed his posting have been threatened, bullied, and stalked as well. The incident goes on to show that in Bangladesh’s context, simply standing up for LGBTIQ+ visibility in a public platform like Facebook is insufficient, even at times counterproductive, for Bangladeshi queer liberation. Ally visibility, which is much needed, has to engage more deeply with local organizing and find productive ways to support Bangladeshi queer lives.

Security concerns, social stigma, state-mandated legal oppression, third-party violence, absence of support structure, socio-economic status, and unthoughtful allyship make the politics of coming out and visibility a contentious affair in Bangladesh. Focusing on coming out can also sideline how queer people continue to struggle with trauma, mental health issues, unemployment, and homelessness, to name a few. This is not to say coming out is any less significant. But even though coming out is deeply personal and empowering, depending on how one comes out, coming out can play out as a matter of communal conflict and national politics, within and beyond the Bangladeshi LGBTIQ+ community.

 

The names in this article have been changed to maintain anonymity.

 

Banner art credit @andro.dite

 

 Onnokotha (অন্যকথা) is a queer collective that produces queer political writings relevant to Bangladesh and the Indian subcontinent. The members of the collective prefer to remain.

*Anonymous due to fear of persecution.

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