Great empires may come and go, but like the tides, they leave behind a tangled assortment of flotsam and jetsam. In the case of the British Empire, that included much that one might admire, but also a British Protestant morality that was codified in laws that persist to this day. Section 377 of the colonial Penal Code is a striking example. It classed consensual oral and anal sex as “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” and made it a crime punishable with imprisonment for life. When the British administrators withdrew, they took their soldiers, but left their law books behind. Section 377 was recently repealed in India, but it is still very much on the books in Bangladesh.
Prosecutions under Section 377, which effectively makes homosexual sex illegal, are extremely rare. Section 377, hence, does not impair Bangladesh’s moderate image in the world and questions about the country’s human rights record on the issue of homosexuality are avoided in the international arena. Nonetheless, Section 337 forces the LGBT (“lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender”) community into a shadow existence. Their official illegality silences their voices in the public sphere.
Homosexuality also being a social and religious taboo in Bangladesh, pressure on openly gay men and lesbian women can be intense. In 2003, two Bangladeshi gay men were granted asylum in Australia after a local Islamic council in their homeland had issued a fatwa against them. The couple’s lawyer, Bruce Levet, further reported that they had been assaulted with whiplashes and stones and could possibly be persecuted by the Bangladeshi authorities.
Sam is a self-described bisexual living in Dhaka, the capital, where we spoke with him last December. He is a university-educated Muslim-born Hindu of 25 years and works as a university teacher. Six years ago, after graduating from college at the age of 19, he discovered that his sexual orientation deviates from the cultural norm in Bangladesh. He has had sexual encounters with women before and currently is in a romantic relationship with a man. Sam and his boyfriend go on trips together, hold hands on the streets of Dhaka and share a bed when staying at each other’s places. Since male-male friendships are traditionally very intimate in Bangladesh, these practices cast no doubt upon their presumed heterosexual identities. Family and friends consider Sam and his boyfriend to be close friends. “As long as you don’t come out open to your family, you are safe,” Sam explains. Sam is not his real name. Afraid of the possible social and legal consequences, he agreed to speak only under the condition of anonymity.
Like Sam and his boyfriend, many homosexuals in Bangladesh hide their sexual orientation from their friends and families. “It is easy to live a moderate life with a hidden identity if one is homosexual.” Coming out, on the other hand, can have a wide range of consequences. Some gay men who inform their families about their sexual orientation are forced into heterosexual marriages. Other parents consider homosexuality a mental illness and object their gay sons to religious brainwashing or psychiatric treatment. Sam told us of cases in Bangladesh where electric shocks were applied to homosexual men in an effort to “cure” them from their supposed psychiatric condition. He is convinced that, “unless the government, parents and friends understand that a man or woman can be a gay or a lesbian and yet be a very good and devout Muslim, Hindu or Christian, the chances for LGBT rights in Bangladesh are low.” Society in Bangladesh is far from that. Homosexuality among men is seen as a morally depraved Western phenomenon that needs to be fended off. “While the existence of gay sex is at least acknowledged by most people though, lesbian sex does not even exist in the dreams of people in Bangladesh.” However, mainly due to new media, times are changing.
Starting out as an online group in 2002, an organization called Boys of Bangladesh (BoB) has become a central forum for gay and bisexual men in Bangladesh. BoB currently has more than 2000 registered members, including school students as well as Ph.D. holders. Their ages range between 16 and more than 50 years. BoB is run by around twenty young men and has increasingly become public in recent years. In November 2010, it conducted the second edition of a festival titled “Under the Rainbow”, in cooperation with the German Goethe-Institut in Dhaka. Under the slogan “Accept Diversity and End Discrimination”, the five-day festival included movie screenings, art exhibitions and musical performances and brought together leading human rights activists from with the country and abroad. Angela Grünert, director of the Goethe-Institut, explains her involvement in the LGBT movement in Bangladesh with the belief that “everyone should have equal rights in the society”, regardless of religion, ethnicity, sex or sexual orientation. BoB organized various other events, mainly in Dhaka, and its representatives attended international conferences on LGBT issues in Nepal and Thailand. The organization further provides homosexuals in Bangladesh with information on health and legal issues on its website at http://boysofbangladesh.org/.
Change on the subcontinent is also happening on the legal front. An Indian court in the country’s capital, Delhi, decriminalized homosexual intercourse by repealing Section 377 of the Indian Criminal Code in July 2009, saying that treating certain forms of consensual sex between adults as a crime is a violation of fundamental human rights. For Sam, this is a sign of hope. He is convinced that, due to the profound cultural links between India and Bangladesh, the Indian court’s ruling will spark a public debate on LGBT issues in Bangladesh and encourage the homosexual youth here to fight for their rights. “It is the youth, exposed to international media and increasingly educated, that is empowering the LGBT movement in Bangladesh.”
Some movements in Islam, such as the US-based Al-Fatiha Foundation, accept and consider homosexuality as natural and work towards the acceptance of non-heterosexual love-relationships within the global Muslim community. Progressive Muslim scholars around the world argue that Qur’anic verses on homosexuality are obsolete in the context of modern society and point out that, while the Qur’an speaks out against homosexual lust, it is silent on homosexual love. However, in Bangladesh, religion remains the single most persistent obstacle for LGBT rights.
The LGBT rights movement in Bangladesh is growing rapidly and the voices for the repeal of Section 377 are becoming louder. The issue is bound to emerge into a public battle over the young nation’s religious and cultural identity, human rights and modernity and will pose a challenge to policymakers, religious authorities and leaders of civil society alike.
This post was co-authored with Mahmudul Hoque Moni. Mahmudul is the founding director of the Centre for Practical Multimedia Studies at the Department of Mass Communication and Journalism at the University of Dhaka.