(Updated November 2015)
The Bigger Picture
A story about gay Bangladesh does not begin with focused community action and does not describe LGBT venues, social clubs or bars or discos. The reason is simple: there is virtually no publicly identifiable Bangladesh gay community.
More significantly, such a report is subsumed by the density of life in this overflowing country: vast entrenched poverty along with intense overpopulation (140 million people in an area the size of New York state or England and Wales without Scotland), widespread under-education, bamboo-hut slums, chaotic traffic in the streets, high levels of malnutrition (nearly 30%), tangled corruption in the halls of government, frequent electrical failures and subsequent water shortages, and a powerful web of family traditions that allow no place for or knowledge of something so unusual as same-sex romance.
Homosexuality as a viable social issue in 21st century Bangladesh is faceless and invisible with no constituent voice from any leader, activist or politician. It is a much hidden, invisible transparent way of life that is shaped and colored by an intense palette of Islam, low-wage manual labor, unbreakable family knots, ox-plowed rice paddies, extensive fish farms and sclerotic roads packed with honking traffic.
A short walk around a few blocks in the capitol of Dhaka or other major cities such as Khulna or Chittagong provides harrowing evidence of the daunting life most people endure daily with little variation. Barefoot beggars aged 10 to 80 tug with skinny little fingers at the sleeves of a tourist. Construction laborers dismantle a building manually with hand-held sledge hammers and chisels wearing no hard hats, boots or masks while others on the site squat on their haunches pounding bricks into small pieces because the country lacks gravel quarries for making roads or cement.
Countless bicycle rickshaw drivers dressed in worn longis (a skirt-length wrap pulled tightly around the waist) and rubber sandals look with pleading eyes at a visitor hoping for business. A mile long ride through polluted trash-strewn streets that risks being crushed between a swerving battered bus and an equally swerving overloaded truck will reward them with less than 50 cents. Traffic lights mean nothing—red, yellow and green are mere suggestions as countless vehicles crush forward into intersections with predictable tangled results. Road lines are ignored as five or six rows of traffic crowd along three-lane streets, every vehicle honking at the other as if they can get out of the way. The rickshaws’ only defenses in such a mob are quick wits, fast turns and the tinkling of their bicycle bells.
Bangladesh is also countless dark faces, young and beautiful, old and weathered, most with no future except today’s meager earnings that average $1 a day, a communal home with dirt or cement floors, a rough-hewn bed (shared with one or more others), perhaps running water or a local hand pump, a collective squat toilet. (photo right: my bicycle rickshaw driver)
In rural villages traffic is relieved but there is often no electricity or running water in the rattan and thatch-roofed huts. Rice fields are commonly plowed with water buffalo. Crops are taken to local markets on bicycle carts loaded high with hay, sugar cane, burlap bags of rice, green vegetables, melons or kindling wood. Fishermen ply the countless rivers, waterways and coastlines of Bangladesh from dawn to dusk netting fish and shrimp and, sadly, an occasional river dolphin.
The southern half of the country is a vast alluvial delta for the rivers that flow out of India and Burma to empty their polluted waters into the Bay of Bengal. The images are intensely colorful, crowded, noisy, energetic and grim—except for the very few wealthy ones who drive through the city in chauffeured air-conditioned Mitsubishi SUV’s on their way to make deals in the free-enterprise chaos of the city.
Finding Gay Life
Where in this harried congested maze of excess millions does one find something as strange as ‘gay Bangladesh’? Of course, same-sex attraction happens anywhere and everywhere so my search for a gay community led me to Dhaka, the capitol of 14 million where, like the rest of the society, gays are separated into classes based on birth and money.
It is virtually impossible for an outside casual gay visitor to access poorer class gays, unless by accident or an offer of money, both of which are very unlikely since homosexuality as a mutually intentional sex act is indiscernible among the semi or uneducated underclass in Bangladesh. This doesn’t mean all premarital guys have no sexual experience; furtive erotic moments happen especially since same-gender friends hold hands and sometimes share the same bed, but in the morning there is nothing said and ‘romance’ built around such tentative moments is mostly imaginary. (photo left: young workers at the Chittigong shipbreaking yard)
Nevertheless, in huge metropolitan centers every kind of night-life proliferates. Sex can be found for sale but it’s mostly of the hetero variety. There are particular areas in large and small towns where ladies are available (often with the knowledge of their husbands: poverty forces unwanted choices) but certainly no other woman would dare go to such places looking for lesbian contact. Indeed, lesbian contact in Bangladesh is as invisible as the evening star at dawn.
Male prostitution is unusual but not unheard of in the shadow life of Dhaka. It happens: poor young people looking for a way out of rural life or desperately in need to help their families or as a gay person in need of escape from a suffocating straight life. A clandestine male brothel called ‘Sibling’ is alleged to operate somewhere in the bowels of Dhaka where men–mostly likely closeted gay or bisexual husbands–feel urged to go for moments of pleasure, risky as it may be either from disease or blackmail since it’s believed the place is owned by a mafia-like underground gang.
It was easier, indeed necessary, for me to access middle and upper class Bangla gays especially via Internet groups such as BoysOnlyBangladesh (described below). This particular Yahoo group, started several years ago is a treasure for anyone looking for friendship or a pickup. I posted a notice on the site (by joining the group) and requested help and information about gay Bangladesh and received a dozen replies within a few days. The following interviews were conducted with people who offered their own personal stories and insights about being gay in their country.
Martin and Shateel: ‘Typical Couple’
I arrived by way of Tokyo, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur into Dhaka and booked into the comfortable 3-star Golden Deer Hotel ($40 single including breakfast) in the leafy Gulshan area. From my balcony I had a 180 panoramic view of Dhaka and Gulshan Lake (first photo, above).
A few phone calls (everyone seems to have a mobile phone) and my arrangement were made to meet with new friends.
My first evening I was seated at the mid-scale Nirfa’s Asian restaurant overlooking Gulshan Circle with Martin and Shateel. They have been attached to one another for three years in an easy bond that’s often sexual yet equally mindful. Despite the swirl of busy-ness in their lives they have become a compass point for each other that includes frequent mobile-phone chats, check-ins and sleep-overs.
In class-divided Bangladesh these two men have luckily found enough overlap between their slightly different ranks to form a close bond. Martin, 39, an architect, comes from a well-to-do banking family, was educated abroad, and travels to Rome or Sydney when he has time away from his own construction and design company. (Photo left shows the interior of Martin’s house.)
Shateel, 24, is studying for his MBA at the ‘best’ University of Dhaka following an undergraduate degree in civil engineering. He is the son of a well-educated financial consultant father and mother who live in Abu Dhabi for most of the year because of work. Martin and Shateel met through a network of mutual friends when they were both invited to the same (discreet) party.
“Martin drives his own car and I take the bus,” said Shateel when asked how their situations differ. Shateel considers his family to be upper middle class and Martin’s to be upper upper. Shateel is headed for likely prosperity in the merchant-management profession for which India and Bangladesh are famous–keen of mind, efficient, well-educated, reliable and articulate in English as well as the native Bangla languages, both Shateel and Martin have much in common intellectually and socially.
The unfortunate twist in this union is their lack of choice about living together as partners—at least for now–and setting up a home where they can have full privacy or host friends for dinner.
Their relationship swims in a sea of social complexity that leaves no one in Bangladesh untouched, foremost of which is the primacy of family ties and duties. Despite his financial resources, which could allow him full autonomy, Martin dutifully and willingly lives with his 80-something mother in a new four-story house he designed and built overlooking a lake in the upscale neighborhood of Banani, another leafy neighborhood adjacent to Gulshan in northern Dhaka. Shateel, despite his expat parents in far-off Abu Dhabi, is obliged to live with his uncle and sister in a middle class area a short drive away from Martin’s place.
The usual sequence for Bangladeshi sons of all classes is to live with one’s family, get married, bring a wife to live with his parents, (a daughter leaves to live with her in-laws) and start another generation. “The most important connection we have here in this country is with our family. Those ties can never be broken and we take care of each other, like a tribe. They come first,” said Martin as we stood on the roof garden of his new house overlooking the tightly packed houses and lime green lake below.
Within this primacy of family units, there is no place for a gay relationship in the Bangladesh culture. It does not fit into any family arrangement. Gay lovers are left to manipulate their love around obligations, duties and roles imposed from birth and generations beyond. When I asked Shateel how their relationship can work within these limitations, a mask of uncertainty seemed to wash over him as he hesitated to answer: “We will have to take the future one step at a time.”
Martin’s mother has come to understand her son is different and does not want a wife; he did marry once to please her and his late father but it ended badly. She no longer presses him on that matter and indeed is affectionate toward Shateel and enjoys his overnight presence a couple of times a week, “although she does make references to a wife sometimes when I am there,” said Shateel, “perhaps as a last bit of her lingering denial.”
“ I think she knows…mothers know these things even if they don’t’ want to,” added Martin. Shateel thinks his sister is also aware since he spends some nights away but he is not close to revealing his secret to her.
A significant convenience for these men, which straight unmarried couples don’t have, is that they can sleep in the same room and in the same bed as best friends without raising suspicion since it is a common custom accepted by nearly all Bangladesh families.
Ronald and Sagor and B.O.B.
As in many other sexually repressive cultures that criminalize or condemn same-sex desire, the Internet has become a lifeline for otherwise isolated LGBT individuals. From Bali to Buenos Aires to Budapest queer folks are finding hot dates, sincere friends, longtime partners as well as organizing on the Net. Bangladesh is no exception. Several bright men seized the opportunity in 2003 to help start the now popular BoysOnlyBangladesh Yahoo group (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/BoysOnlyBangladesh/) to address the vacuum in the gay community in Dhaka.
It’s mission is “to bring Bangladeshi gays under one roof and provide a safe place for a better united life. It aims to strengthen the bond of gay brotherhood and friendship through entertainment and at the same time raise awareness about safe sex…”
Ronald joined BOB in 2005 and was a co-moderator. He is an executive with an international corporation. At 37 he is handsome, soft-spoken and has been in a primary relationship with Sagor, equally good-looking, for more that eight years.
As usual, they do not live together even though Ronald is in the unusual position of having his own apartment since his parents live in the northern part of the country, and he can afford it.
Sagor has a master’s degree and has worked in merchandising and currently works for a communication service. His family is friendly with Ron and appreciate Ron’s friendship with Sagor and encourage him to often stay with Ron. Of course, Sagor’s family do not have a clue that he and Ronald are romantically involved but a few of Ron’s family members know about the relationship and are supportive.
Because of his position Ronald’s company provides him with a car and driver. He often travels to other parts of Asia as well as Europe and America on business while Sagor remains at home with no opportunity for such international trips. But he does not express discontent (Ronald’s trips are short) and is obviously happy to have Ronald in his life, saying, “in Bangladesh it is not easy to continue a relationship for several years. We are sacrificing lots for each other and our better understanding. Because of our culture and social pressure there is often the possibility to break up, but we have struggled to keep this relation and he does care lots about me. Whatever outside people say or think we know that we love each other.”
In 2003 the gay ‘community’ was only a loose network of isolated individuals who kept in contact by mobile phone or met strangers in cruisy Ramna Park. BoysOnlyBangladesh was started with the intention of creating a focused friendship network that offered more than a secret nightlife of at-risk behavior. With over seven hundred current members today BOB friendship circles have widened and resulted in numerous couples as well as some organized social activities. The essence of BOB is the messaging that happens nearly every day as friends and new acquaintances make contact, arrange dinners or hookups.
Over dinner at Spaghetti Jazz, a lively restaurant in Gulshan, Ronald, Porosh and Prince (other members of BOB) and Tanveer, a good-looking quick-witted Economics sophomore student from BRAC University, described how BoysOnlyBangladesh was seen as a springboard for building a community. They decided to create weekly social gatherings called HOP—hang out place. From tentative early steps when they feared posting the location on the Internet until a couple of hours before the meeting to today’s more bold posting days in advance, the meetings are now more relaxed and bubbly and have their silly moments. During my HOP visit postcards secreted in from Bangkok with erotic male images were passed eliciting mixed expressions of embarrassment and delight.
Unfortunately there are no women who have been bold enough to join in a HOP but for now the men seem satisfied in having a daylight open air place to share gossip, arrange films shows, coffee klatches (‘Coffee with BOB’) and announce parties (some hosted by Ronald or Martin at their residences and BOB gatherings held at Fu Wang Bowling Club). This is not to suggest that cruising in Ramna Park is finished. There will always be fearful closeted men who dare only make such hidden exchanges as they hide their feelings from family and spouses.
Notes From a Gay American in Dhaka
(Update on BOB): A Gay American working in Dhaka for an international finance company sent the following comment to GlobalGayz in April 2015:
“I’ve now been in Dhaka for a year, and I just signed on for another year. BOB still exists, but not so much of a formal organization anymore; it has evolved into a rather large circle of generally elite boyz who put on parties at least once, and usually twice, a month.
“Apart from one or two energetic, politically engaged guys, there isn’t as much social activism here now as I think there was when GlobalGayz was here before (in 2009). They seem to have given up working within the ossified political structure here, where, as you know, there are two parties with no intra-party democracy and are essentially family dynasties who simply alternate in control of the government.
“This is not to say activism is dead, it’s just taking a pause. They’re seem to be focusing, wisely, on getting rid of a certain aspect of the penal code that dates from the British period. I may be missing more of the activism that is taking place, but I think the LGBT community, like all Bangladeshis, is just so disgusted by the general political dysfunctionality and corrupt, dynastic party system that they are raging against the whole system, not specifically LGBT repression.
“Although Bangladesh is a Muslim country, and Muslim beliefs and proscriptions are still strong as well as a lot of repression especially within the family, it does seem that gay Bangladeshis are more at peace with themselves than gay Jordanians (for example).
“One of my friends was explaining to me that in Bangladesh, unlike in Arab countries or in Afghanistan, people openly discuss and debate and raise questions and express doubts about certain aspects of Islam. This has always been the case in Bengali Islam, which drove the Pakistanis nuts when they occupied East Bengal for those 24 years when it was part of Pakistan.
“I’ve really enjoyed getting to know the guys and going to the parties. To my delight, they warmly welcomed me to Dhaka and have been great at including me in the biggest parties. I’ve even hosted a couple of parties at my large flat, one of them a rip-roaring bash for 55, and the other a more sedate soiree for 25.
“Just last night, some of the guys organized a drag party, and I have to say that the dozen or so guys who did dress up and did put a lot of effort into their couture, coiffure, makeup, shoes, etc., were unbelievably stunning. As you know, there is nothing worse than bad drag, and not one of the guys fit into that category (except me, perhaps — I didn’t want to work that hard and didn’t want to shave off my beard, so I put on a full hijab and niqab that I had bought in Dubai!).
“Of course, there are the social realities, in that it’s very difficult for them to be out at work or to their families. But what surprised me is the relatively large number who are out, with varying reactions from their families. Being out does not stop the relentless pressure families put on these guys to ultimately get married, and some of them do succumb to that pressure, with disastrous results (divorces, discovery of their affairs by spouses who retaliate).”
Lesbians and Marriage
Not surprising, there have been few if any BOB postings by lesbians. I asked three different gay men where the lesbians are and all three responded with blank looks. Their guesses had to do with the usual Muslim restrictions placed on women. The destined role of virtually all Islamic women here is marriage and motherhood. Anyone stepping outside that frame by expressing independence or, far worse, as a lesbian, renders herself un-marriageable and sets her on a likely course of rejection and social derision.
The exception of course is money; a woman of high means could insulate herself with sufficient material and social protections. She might travel abroad for advanced study and purchase a second residence there or in a distant area of Bangladesh where she can find privacy. But such a woman is extremely rare and courageous.
As in most Islamic countries the majority of gay men and lesbian women ‘bite the bullet’ and marry (presumably straight) women, make children and play the roles demanded by family and society. Martin was far from alone in following this tradition as a gay man and far from alone in the anguish and pain it caused both families.
Hasib and Rumel: Marriage and Gays
Old Dhaka is a vast jumble of narrow streets jammed with countless tiny shops selling everything from aluminum pots to unrefrigerated shanks of beef to forged iron gates or huge burlap sacks of rice. Chicken meat is kept fresh by keeping the birds alive until the moment of sale, then off with their heads and plucked on site. Squeezing tightly past each other are thousands of colorful rickshaws with bells tinkling; crowds of pedestrians weave and turn as they slowly edge along from shop, mosque, or cafe to home.
In the center of the old town is a wide grassy expanse enclosed within the high brick walls of the 17c Lalbagh Fort (photo left). It’s a former royal residence that includes a hammam (bath house), a princess’ mausoleum and an antique mosque.
I was escorted around the old walls by Hasib and Adnan, two natives of Dhaka. Hasib is a university graduate in philosophy. As we strolled the large grassy expanse inside the fort I asked Hasib about his connection with other gays in Dhaka.
Hasib is a mild-mannered man of 29 who told me he is bisexual. He and his boyfriend, Rumel, have been an invisible couple for five years. He thought the majority of Dhaka’s gay and bisexual men do not belong to BOB or go to a HOP. Rather they usually have a primary friend or two (sexual or not) whom they see frequently and who may regularly sleep overnight in their family’s home. Bisexual men do not usually congregate with gay folks since they prefer not to be perceived as one of them.
Both Hasib and Rumel live with their own families and both expect to marry women sometime in the next few years–and they do not intend to give each other up. They will carry on as they have since they became lovers.
As we walked around the fort, populated with strolling heterosexual couples, he seemed unconcerned about taking a wife and keeping his lover: “it’s accepted here to stay with a friend and no one gives it a thought. They have no idea about homosexuality so they don’t’ even think about it. You can see how this ‘denial’ works to our benefit. They would never accept our relationship but we are best friends—everyone has that, so we can continue and they don’t see it. It’s quite convenient, don’t you think?”
As Martin and Shateel revealed the day before, such ignorance and indifference allows countless gay and lesbian couples to exist inside the homes of their parents and siblings without suspicion or scrutiny. After Hasib marries his wife will come to live with him in the same house as his two brothers (and their eventual wives) and his parents. He fully expects to live with them for the rest of their lives.
Ironically, Hasib’s girlfriend, with whom he is also secretly sexual and expects to marry, cannot currently stay overnight in the same room with Hasib although young men and women are free to interact freely during the day. Couples can be seen in parks and public places in Dhaka sitting close and whispering sweet nothings. Bangladesh is a Muslim country but it is not an Islamist one so people don’t live under the gender-separate strictures seen in other more fundamentalist countries as Saudi Arabia or Pakistan.
Hasib and Rumel have little awareness of gay life outside Bangladesh or Dhaka. They don’t much see farther than their own families or careers since there is no ‘place’ from which to look. Like most most LGBT people Hasib and Rumel are content to live in sexual isolation, which does not feel oppressive in their daily lives. Secrets are their pleasure and their protection. Like most middle class men they have computers at home and can access the wider LGBT world community but they have little interest. Hasib, for example, was not aware of the Gay Games or the OutGames; he had other things to do.
Hasib and Rumel are far from alone in their household romance. There is a similar truth about the other couples I met during my visit. Prince and his boyfriend Aminul of two years study the same subject—English literature—at Daffodil University in Dhaka (there are hundreds of schools of higher learning there). Because Prince lives in a dormitory Aminul’s mother wants Prince to stay with them to be sure he gets proper food and rest. Needless to say this gives the young (22 and 24) couple plenty of opportunity to study each other as well.
(Another truth is the role of the firstborn son in the family structure who is looked to for grandchildren and eventual support of the parents, which puts further pressure on gay men if they are the oldest. As one man observed, it’s easier on gay sons if they have one or more hetero brothers who please the parents with grandchildren.)
Adnan and his Transsexual Friends
My other companion at Lalbagh Fort was Adnan, a college lecturer in Development Studies at British-American University, a small new college, one of many in Dhaka. (The desire for higher education in Dhaka is ‘ferocious’. Photo below: Dhaka University.) Adnan is probably the most knowledgeable person in Bangladesh about the outcast hijra transsexual ‘shemales’ of the Bangla culture. His interest in human sexuality extends across a broad social spectrum from queer studies to transgender identity. He has extensively researched and written about the under-served and scorned world of male-to-female trans persons who inhabit the nether-land of cross-gender life.
During my visit to his university office, Adnan insisted the word ‘hijra’ is difficult to translate into English because it is a summary word that encapsulates a variety of ‘other-sex’ people. “Hijras are a mosaic of polymorphous gendered females who live on the impoverished fringe of society. Nearly all of these women are male-to-female. Many have had sex change surgery yet many have not. The latter are not simply transvestites because these ‘men’ identify as women and feel that is their true gender ID. Keeping their cocks acts like a mask that protects them from being identified as a hijra in the areas where they live with their straight families.”
Adnan claims hijras are seen by straight society as sexually impotent, but closer analysis reveals them as authentically sexually desirous beings who gain gratification as passive partners of males and being in that role allows them to feel vicariously female.
“The hijra subculture is a very closed subculture. They are ridiculed and scorned by the larger society so they are naturally protective of their bodies and community. It’s difficult for an outsider to get inside their minds, their community, their mythology and secrets.”
Adnan is nevertheless passionate about his desire to talk and act on behalf of the hijra community, which numbers in the thousands in Bangladesh, to improve their dim destinies. “Some of them are so uneducated they cannot even write their name…I would like to start a school for them and help them to find work other than begging and prostitution.”
Yet despite their questionable status hijras are occasionally called to ‘bless’ childbirths or entertain at weddings (where more than one seduction has occurred) stemming from old cultural myths that ‘inter-sex’ people had spiritual powers of wisdom and healing. Indeed, across southeast Asia similar folklore regarding enhanced spiritual authority of polysexual people are woven into ancient legends and mythologies.
But not uncommonly, even in western ‘advanced gay societies’, transsexuals and transvestites are often the orphans of gay lib and gay rights movements. Bangladesh is no exception, Adnan explained. “There is no outreach to the hijra community from the gays here—assuming they could find each other. Even if there were a distinct gay community here, they would have nothing to do with hijras,” Adnan declared. “It’s another example of what I call ’horizontal hostility’ –discrimination against one’s own type or rank.”
However, Adnan does recognize that it’s more than just a sexuality issue. “We are a very class-separated society. You don’t find the classes mixing very much. Hijras are very poor and without education. The middle and upper classes don’t deal with such people except as laborers. It would be virtually impossible for these two extreme opposites to meet as equals. There are many well-to-do gays who drive around in their family’s car and go to universities abroad. This is unthinkable for the vast majority of hijras. So I’m not foolishly idealistic but I think hijras do deserve a small chance at a better life.”
The negative view of hijras was further confirmed over the dinner one evening at Spaghetti Jazz restaurant, mentioned above. (An electricity outage cut the air conditioning while we ate but we continued our ‘heated’ discussions.) When I asked Tanveer why gays don’t connect with hijras. He said, “because of their weird behavior. They harass people. They don’t just beg. If someone refuses to give them baksheesh (money) they will start yelling at the person or they may expose themselves and act crazy. Who wants to be around that! I think that they are caught in a vicious cycle of cultural norm–a transgendered person can’t find any normal job anywhere. So, the only thing they can do is go and live with people of their kind and extort money from others or work as sex-workers.”
However, even though he keeps a distance from hijras, he does not feel they should be treated so badly by society. Tanveer told about a debate with his father when the latter expressed his disapproval of transvestites one evening at dinner. This was just after his parents had sympathetically viewed an Indian TV program on HIV, which included reference to same-sex relationships. (Parental reactions to sexual matters can vary greatly: when he revealed his sexual orientation to his masters-degreed mother she immediately broke into distracted prayer. And his brother does not understand it at all.)
Adnan’s Family: Primary Network
Adnan is also a good example of what communal extended-family living is like as children grow up among parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins and even second cousins. This was the way his Hossain family lived when I visited one evening. In the course of a two-hour dinner (eaten with fingers) I met eight different relatives of Adnan’s including an expat aunt visiting from London where she is a citizen. (She was, to my delight, actively interested in my views of the ‘gay world’ beyond Bangladesh.)
In addition to his family, there were four servants (who averaged US$15-18 a month salary plus housing and food) who helped in the household and who also lived in the large five-story apartment block that housed this populous family. (The family owns the apartment block as well as other real estate.)
In previous generations large families were considered a happy abundance.
Indeed, Adnan’s mother has four sisters and one brother. His father has thirteen siblings; his grandfather had ten siblings. It’s no wonder Bangladesh is the most densely populated country in the world. To counter such proliferation the government has been promoting a widespread education program encouraging smaller families of two or three children, which seems to be happening.
Rezwan, the International Student
When we met, Rezwan had recently returned to Dhaka from Boston, Massachusetts (USA) by way of Florida and Houston where he has relatives. (Like other SE Asian countries Bangladesh has a huge diaspora population many of whom help support their immediate and extended families back home.)
He is one of many fortunate upscale Bangla students who go abroad for university studies. Dublin, London and the USA are popular destinations because of the English language base as well as high quality coursework. In Bangladesh, English is the language of university education and private schools as well as international business.
(One afternoon I happened by a practice cricket match at the Chittagong Grammar School (K-12) in Chittagong. (photo left) As soon as they saw my camera they crowded forward pushing and squealing to be in my photo. Aged about 11 or 12 they spoke fluent English. “Yes, our school is based on the Cambridge model,” they proudly offered–along with an unfathomable explanation of how to play cricket).
Rezwan graduated from Boston University with a degree in environmental studies. His ‘gay story’ has an upbeat flavor in that he is out to almost everyone in his family. He has told them, as well as his straight friends, of his feelings for other men, and insisted he not be pressured into a sham marriage. He feels relieved having no secrets or pretending to be something he is not. He is too advanced in his own truth to hide or lie to them. Yet, honest as he has been, it’s unlikely his parents really understand his gay orientation even though they have let up on their expectations for him.
Nothing has changed as a result of his coming out. He lives closely with his family and travels, hangs out or goes shopping with gay and straight friends. After his return from America his immediate efforts were aimed at securing a satisfying job, which he found with a large NGO called BRAC that works to educate rural villages and alleviate poverty—no small task in this country. (See their web site: http://www.brac.net/index2.htm)
Typical for a member of a better class family he picked me up in his family car with their driver at the wheel. As with Adnan’s family, it’s common to have several domestic staff (who are glad to have the job). When I suggested a ‘nice’ restaurant Rezwan knew immediately where to go—Sajaa “an exclusive restaurant” as stated on the door. Indeed, the tables were set with linen, goblets, flowers, a formal menu and the waiters wore white jackets. Despite Bangladesh’s spoiled reputation as an impoverished country the large population of 140 million includes many reasonably prosperous business class types who ride around in chauffeured air-conditioned SUV’s or luxury Toyotas and dine at finer restaurants.
Rezwan’s gentle masculinity and easy manner (despite being an unusual six feet tall with a sturdy build) made it easy to approach him with questions about his gayness and how he segues that into his life back in Dhaka. With long jet-black sweeping hair and a ready smile he expressed a calm self-assuredness that probably came, in part, from his American college years, which included marching in a couple of Boston Gay Pride parades. I suggested he could be the only gay man in Dhaka who has marched in such a parade!
During his time at Boston University the Massachusetts supreme court validated gay marriage, becoming the only US state to take that monumental step. Rezwan could not help being impressed by this great stride—especially since it was in stark contrast to his home country where such coupling is unheard of.
Was it hard for him to put all those out experiences back into a closet? “Not really. Since I came back my time has been taken up with finding a job and going for interviews. That is my priority so I can begin my career. Besides, I know the gay situation here. I don’t cruise public places but I have gay friends. I don’t expect much romance. I have my family and they are very important to me and now I have this exciting new job.”
In the long run, however, Rezwan feels Bangladesh does not have what he wants as a gay person or as a businessman. He is pleased with his new job because it will allow him to become acquainted with international clientele and gain some advantage as he eventually seeks out a future position, perhaps like Ronald, with a multinational company. Since most foreign companies in Bangladesh are based in the Americas or Europe he also hopes to fulfill his personal dream of a long-term relationship with a partner from a more tolerant, gay-visible land.
Two Gay Organizations
The evening I went to the HOP with Ronald, Rezwan, Prince and Porosh, there were about twenty guys gathered by a small lake to meet new people, hug old friends, cruise a bit and plan for other events such as a film screening or a party. (photo right)
Prince told me BOB also quietly works to promote homosexuality as a positive truth in Bangladesh. It has worked with health organizations such as Ayeen O Salish Kendro, ICDDR-B UNICEF and Bandhu in awareness-raising programs concerning HIV/AIDS and safe sex. BOB has sent the highest number of gays for HIV/AIDS testing to Jagori–a sister concern of ICCDR-B working on voluntary HIV/AIDS testing. Further, BOB has written gay-affirming letters to the media and some of them have been published in the local newspapers.
Despite its noble mission and its quiet educational efforts, what was not discussed at the HOP that day, or later, was organizing into a visible political organization for the purposes of promoting homosexuality as a valid lifestyle with rights and recognition or actively lobbying the government to change anti-gay laws.
But the momentum seems to be building to such a readiness. The ‘shadow’ BOB is a courageous start; from a handful of Internet savvy guys who created the Yahoo group—a silent, secretive act—to their current once-weekly public gatherings at the pond and HIV advocacy represents significant progress in this city of 14 million—with perhaps half a million LGBT folks.
Still, there is a huge discrepancy between such a number and the reality in the streets; between the upscale educated middle/upper class BOB members with computers and western-gay-identified understanding of their feelings and the squalid dwellings of barely literate men who have sex with men (MSMs) with no concept of ‘gay’ identity—nearly all of whom are married with kids. (Needless to say, many upper and middle class gays are equally uncognizant of their orientation and for whom marriage and parenthood are powerful masks.)
Given the lack of any overt alternative community there is, nevertheless, one organization that works in the ‘trenches’ of furtive lower-class MSMs in the dense heart of Dhaka is called Bandu. Although far from calling itself a gay organization this group–a health and education NGO (non-governmental organization)–offers assistance, advice and information to men who feel a strange draw to the pleasures of other men. Indeed, Bandu leaders decline to identify their clientele as gay, which displeases some BOB members who accuse Bandu of denial and homophobia.
But Bandu’s reluctance to accept the gay moniker is understandable given the current state of the gay life in Bangladesh. Homosexuality is technically a crime, an anachronism left over from the British Raj empire days when ‘unnatural’ acts were forbidden by law–a statute that has not been challenged or changed since the late 1800’s. Identifying Bandu’s clients as ‘gay’ risks both social and legal estrangement that could well reduce their acceptance and effectiveness in a community where they are most needed.
And needed they are. One extended visit to this politically under-served country, where cronyism and corruption and chaos overtly and covertly effect the lives of its citizens, thus keeping millions in poverty or driven to crime, is readily sufficient to see how vast the problems are regarding health and survival.
Street demonstrations against electricity blackouts and water shortages (photo left) occurred nearly every day while I was there. Unemployment reaches over 30%; solutions for pollution of the rivers and air seem unapproachable; transportation infrastructure suffers from poor road conditions and crowding, cumbersome bureaucracies, minimal railroad services, inconsistent tourist services, and wild bus, truck and taxi drivers who offer no courtesy to pedestrians as they speed and swerve through villages expecting children and old folks to jump out of the way when they hear the blast of a horn.
Who has time for something as odd as homosexual rights—or even women’s rights? Odd indeed, for homosexuality is a mystery to most people here. One might as well advocate for the rights of Abyssinian cats, which don’t’ exist in Bangladesh.
Homosexuality is not shunned because of its criminal tag; it simply does not exist in the common mind as a variant of human behavior. This is a highly social culture with large and extended families, friends coming and going, eating and sleeping together at different times—all encased in strong social traditions. So what is this strange thing called gay love? Few have an answer.
Survival and Hope
So the gay scene in Bangladesh is ‘not’, and will not be in the near future. When a country operates at the level of survival there is little place for luxuries such as gender studies or homosexual rights or gay organizations. For now only a lucky few who have been given the gifts of an education, access to a computer, self-awareness about sexual orientation and perhaps a romantic connection have found their way to other gays with awareness and identity.
How soon these fortunate few will coalesce into a public forum is an easy guess—not soon. And there is also the question if such a forum is welcome or needed since traditional social invisibility serves well to protect the privacy and pleasure of gay and lesbian citizens.