Society and the freedom of choice in the personal sphere

In Bangladesh, like everywhere else in the world, some men love men and some women love women. Love is love, one would think – but has anything ever been that simple? Since 2001, when the Netherlands became the first nation in the world to legally recognize same-sex marriages, ten other nations have followed the Dutch example. In 2011, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a historic resolution in which the inter-governmental body expressed “grave concern at acts of violence and discrimination, in all regions of the world, committed against individuals because of their sexual orientation and gender identity.” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had urged the Council to respond to the “widespread bias at jobs, schools and hospitals, and appalling violent attacks, including sexual assault,” referring to the fact that gay men and lesbian women have been imprisoned, tortured and killed as “a monumental tragedy for those affected, … a stain on our collective conscience,” and a violation of international law. In Bangladesh, people who are attracted to members of the same sex are discriminated against as a matter of law, and societal acceptance is virtually non-existent. Bangladesh belongs to a minority of states that not only refuse to recognize same-sex unions, but also punish men who have sex with men – and maybe also women who have sex with women; the law is unclear on this point.

What many people do not know is that the gay rights movement in Bangladesh has gained considerable momentum in recent years. A number of small, yet tangible victories were achieved. Just a few weeks ago, for example, National Human Rights Commission Chairman Mizanur Rahman announced at a program organized by the Bandhu Social Welfare Society that his team, in collaboration with the National Law Commission, is drafting a law that would prohibit discrimination based on a person’s sexual orientation. A few months earlier, Muhammad Yunus and three other Nobel Peace Prize laureates released a statement in which they called for the legalization of same-sex activity.

Rather than legal norms, however, prejudice and misinformation are to blame for most of the de facto anti-gay discrimination. A number of organizations, including the Bangladesh Liberal Forum and Boys of Bangladesh, seek to remedy this deficit and started an educational campaign to inform the public about issues of sexual orientation. They published a brochure that contains material from the authoritative American Psychological Association, part of which I think is worth reproducing here:

How do people know if they are lesbian, gay, or bisexual (LGB)?

The core attractions that form the basis for adult sexual orientation typically emerge between middle childhood and early adolescence. Different lesbian, gay, and bisexual people have very different experiences regarding their sexual orientation. Some people know that they are lesbian, gay, or bisexual for a long time before they actually pursue relationships with other people. Some people engage in sexual activity before assigning a clear label to their sexual orientation. Prejudice and discrimination make it difficult for many people to come to terms with their sexual orientation identities, so claiming a lesbian, gay, or bisexual identity may be a slow process.

What causes a person to have a particular sexual orientation?

There is no consensus among scientists about the exact reasons that an individual develops a heterosexual, bisexual, gay, or lesbian orientation. Many think that nature and nurture both play complex roles. People choose their sexual orientation no more than they choose their skin color.

What role do prejudice and discrimination play in the lives of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people?

Openly lesbian, gay, and bisexual people in Bangladesh encounter extensive prejudice, discrimination, and violence because of their sexual orientation. Many face discrimination at school, university, and their workplace, are denied access to health care and justice and find little support from family members and friends. Section 377 of the Bangladesh Penal Code, a colonial law enacted in 1860 and left behind by the British Empire, makes same-sex intercourse a crime punishable by imprisonment for life. As a result, only few are open about their sexual orientation, while most are forced to live a life of secrecy and lies, conformed to bigotry and misguided notions of morality. With heterosexual marriage still being considered a woman’s nirvana, the level of tolerance for lesbians is particularly low.

What is the psychological impact of prejudice and discrimination?

Homophobia is endemic in Bangladesh and has serious negative effects on the mental health and well-being of LGB people, especially if they attempt to conceal or deny their sexual orientation. Prejudice, discrimination, and anti-LGB violence are major sources of stress for LGB people. A study conducted by University of Dhaka professor Md. Kamruzzaman Mozumder et al. found that 47% of gay men in Bangladesh have considered suicide at least once.

What can people do to diminish prejudice and discrimination against LGB people?

Lesbian, gay, and bisexual people who want to help reduce prejudice and discrimination can be open about their sexual orientation, even as they take necessary precautions to be as safe as possible. Heterosexual people who wish to help can make a point of coming to know LGB people, and they can work with LGB organizations to combat discrimination.

Is homosexuality a mental disorder, a disease, a disability, unnatural or abnormal?

No. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual orientations are not disorders. Several decades of research and clinical experience have led all mainstream medical and mental health organizations to conclude that these orientations represent normal forms of human experience. Homosexual relationships, just like relationships between men and women, are natural and healthy forms of human bonding. The World Health Organization (WHO) removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses in 1990.

What about therapy intended to change sexual orientation from gay to straight?

Being LGB is completely normal and healthy. Homosexuality and bisexuality are not illnesses and hence do not require treatment. To date, there has been no scientifically adequate research to show that therapy aimed at changing sexual orientation is safe or effective. Furthermore, it seems likely that the promotion of change therapies reinforces stereotypes and contributes to a negative climate for LGB persons.

Is homosexuality a Western phenomenon?

No. Homosexuality has been part of every society and every culture, and also occurs in animals. Different surveys around the world have found that between one and ten out of 100 people are attracted to members of the same sex. Ancient Indian literature, Mughal paintings and other historical evidence indicates that homosexuality has been prevalent across the Indian sub-continent throughout history.

Can culture or religion justify discrimination?

Cultural or religious norms no more justify discrimination against LGB people than norms of this kind can justify racism or sexism. Bullying and harassment, denying LGB people equal opportunities and respect, or prosecuting them for who they are is neither pious nor cultured but immoral.

What is “coming out” and why is it important?

Telling other people that you are homosexual or bisexual is called “coming out.” Coming out is often an important psychological step for LGB people. Lesbians and gay men who feel they must conceal their sexual orientation report more frequent mental health concerns than do lesbians and gay men who are more open. However, you should only come out if you want to and if you are ready. Although you hope that your friends and family will support you, it is possible that they will not. If you are financially dependent on your parents, you may want to wait to come out to them. It is possible that they may react poorly and try to force you out of the house, into a heterosexual marriage or into unnecessary and harmful psychiatric treatment. If you do come out, it is a good idea to start by telling someone who you are pretty certain will have a positive reaction. Coming out might be one of the most difficult tasks you confront in your life, but it can also be one of the most rewarding. Coming out is one way of affirming your dignity and the dignity of other LGB people.

Is homosexuality a sin?

Judaism, Christianity and Islam traditionally consider homosexual behavior sinful. Hindu, Buddhist, Jain and Sikh teachings regarding homosexuality are less clear, and religious authorities voice diverse opinions. Today, leaders from all religions are increasingly accepting of homosexuality, with some of them going as far as endorsing gay marriage. Progressive Muslim scholars, for example, argue that Islam does not condemn homosexuality and point out that, while the Qur’an speaks out against homosexual lust, it is silent on homosexual love. Many Bangladeshi LGB people, including followers of all religions, report that they experience no conflict between their sexual orientation and their faith.

The brochure referred to in this article can be found here.

Versions of this article were published under the following titles:
“Society and the freedom of choice in the personal sphere,” The Independent 18 (Bangladesh, 24 February 2013)
“সমকামিতা : ধারণা বনাম বাস্তবতা,” Bangla (Bangladesh, 30 May 2013)