Raju Ahmmed was on a photography assignment in the Tangail district of Bangladesh in April 2016 when his phone kept ringing.
When he finally checked his phone and read the message left by a friend, his feet turned cold, and his throat became dry. He immediately called his friend to ask what had happened. In a quiet, subdued voice, his friend told him that Xulhaz had been attacked.
Xulhaz Mannan’s crusade and murder
Xulhaz Mannan wore many hats. Professionally he worked as a Foreign Service National for USAID. Outside work, he was a prominent gay rights activist and the founder of Roopbaan, Bangladesh’s only LGBTQI+ magazine. In addition, he was a member of Boys of Bangladesh, the country’s largest gay rights group since 2005.
Ahmmed, 32, met Mannan on Facebook in 2012. As a closeted gay man, he found support and friendship in Mannan, also a gay man. Over the years, their bond deepened. “As a person, he was way ahead of his time,” he recalls.
“He spent a major chunk of his monthly salary on causes and organizations working for the LGBTQ community in Bangladesh. He passionately believed in the cause and used to say, ‘If I don’t fight for my cause, my community, who will?’” he adds.
On April 25, 2016, five men from the banned militant outfit Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT) entered Mannan’s house in Dhaka, posing as couriers. They hacked him and his friend Tanay Mojumdar, a gay rights activist, to death with a machete.
Mannan’s murder sent shockwaves through the LGBTQ community in Bangladesh.
“The first thing I did was deactivate all my social media accounts. We [queer community] stopped communicating via WhatsApp or other messaging apps. We were scared of being tracked,” says Ahmmed.
Ho Chi Minh Islam, a prominent transgender rights activist and the first transgender nurse in Bangladesh, remembers feeling shocked, numb and contemplating going into hiding. “Even the rustling of leaves would make me jump. I was paranoid,” she says. She was terrified of leaving the house for a few weeks as her security concerns were heightened.
After Mannan’s horrific murder, despondency settled in the queer community. Those who were out of the closet went into hiding. Some even left the country. Before Mannan’s murder, the queer community was visible. Even though same-sex relationships were illegal, it was acceptable to cohabit alongside the community, turn a blind eye, or not take legal action.
Section 377 of Bangladesh’s colonial-era penal code criminalizes same-sex sexual conduct, also known as “carnal intercourse against nature”. Persons convicted under this law can spend ten years in jail or be sentenced to life.
A 2021 U.S. Department of State report states that the Bangladesh government does not actively enforce the law. According to LGBTQI+ groups, the government retained the law because of societal pressure. However, the police allegedly used the law as a pretext to harass LGBTQI+ people and those who were perceived to be LGBTQI+ regardless of their sexual orientation or used a suspicious behaviour provision of the police code to limit registration of LGBTQI+ organizations.
Nadia Choudhury, a Dhaka-based lawyer, says it is difficult to persuade politicians to overturn this law. “The political leaders are aware that the decision to overturn the law will not make them popular.”
“If anyone takes a stand against section 377, most of the country would turn against them. Though they may support the cause personally, they do not publicly acknowledge it,” she adds.
A news editor working for Bangladesh’s largest private TV channel says, “We are sympathetic to the LGBTQ community, but we can’t advocate for their rights. Only the Hijras are officially recognized. The others aren’t.”
Recognition and humiliation
In 2013, the Bangladesh government formally recognized Hijras as a separate third gender. As a result of this decision, many feel that Hijras and transgender people have it relatively easy within the LGBTQIA+ community. However, that is not the case.
In December 2014, the Ministry of Social Welfare invited hijra and transgender people to apply for government employment. Several candidates appeared for an initial interview. However, things did not turn out well; many candidates felt humiliated by ill-informed Social Welfare Department officials during their interviews. The candidates were harassed and asked inappropriate questions about their gender identity and sexuality.
In January 2015, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare issued a memorandum requesting that “authentic” Hijras be identified through medical examinations. In June 2015, twelve people were selected from interviews and ordered to report to a government hospital for the required exams.
During the medical examinations, doctors allegedly ordered non-medical hospital staff to touch the candidates’ genitals while other staff and patients observed and jeered—sometimes in private rooms, sometimes in public spaces.
Ho Chi Minh Islam says Hijra is a profession and not a gender. For centuries in South Asia, Hijras have performed various roles-from blessing newborn children to holding ceremonies for prosperity or health.
“The government has not defined Hijra or the third gender. Most people believe [erroneously] only intersex people are Hijra.”
She works in a government hospital and applied for the nurse position as a male (biological gender). She has not changed her identity documents, given the fiasco unleashed on the transgender and hijra community during medical exams. For many transgender persons working for NGOs or private companies, it is the preferred choice as these jobs do not require medical tests to confirm their gender.
Queer women’s dilemma
According to Nodi* (name changed), a queer woman, the participation of queer women in the LGBTQ rights movement in Bangladesh is disproportionate as their prevailing circumstances differ.
In South Asian countries like Bangladesh, an unmarried woman can be the subject of gossip. For Nodi, the situation is no different. To delay the pressure of marriage, she developed a strategy to divert pressure.
“I give them absurd criteria I want in a husband, which is difficult to fulfil.”
She also got some leeway because her older sister got married late. “After my sister’s marriage, I had pressure to get married, but I clearly communicated to my parents that I didn’t want to get married,” she says.
Finding a female partner has also been challenging as societal pressure forces women to marry young and settle down. Nodi believes that queer women remain closeted out of fear of society and do not reach out or do not know who to reach out to. “This is because the community is very underground,” she says.
The Digital Security Act
In 2018, Bangladesh enacted the Digital Security Act (DSA), which has been used to silence journalists and stifle dissent. Human rights defenders have highlighted that the Act can be used to muzzle contrarian voices from exercising their freedom of expression. The Act’s broad scope and vague provisions make it easy for prosecutors to target anybody from any profession.
The DSA criminalizes online content that may offend popular sacred sensibilities, religious or nationalist. The vaguely worded sections of the DSA operate as “de facto” blasphemy laws in Bangladesh.
Since the murder of Mannan and Mojumdar, the country’s LGBTQ rights activism has primarily moved to the virtual domain. Social media is the most popular tool for creating awareness about LGBTQ rights and building safe spaces for community interactions across the country. The DSA threatens LGBTQ digital presence and organizing.
“If someone feels that I’ve hurt religious sentiments or that my words offended the government or were against the government, that person can sue me under the Digital Security Act. In addition, the offences are non-bailable and come with many hassles,” says the news editor.
The Act does not define “religious sentiment” and opens it up to vague interpretation and misuse against the LGBTQ community.
With the national and local media muzzled, Ahmmed feels the international media and human rights organizations must do more to spread awareness that homosexuality is not a disease. “LGBTQ people have human rights,” he says. And also discuss the issue with the Bangladesh government.
Queer discos and a glimmer of hope
Being forced to conceal your true self and live in the closet is exhausting and affects mental health. Maya* (name changed), a queer man, and others from the community have been organizing queer discos since 2019 to give queer people a safe space for the community to come together, dance, be who they are and get to know other queer people. “We make these events accessible in terms of not being expensive, but also being fun,” they say.
There are security concerns about infiltration by extremists. So, the utmost care is taken to invite only trusted members and allies.
“Very few allies are invited, and allyship is not given on a whim. So, we also educate allies about what it means to be an ally in this space and how to do that safely,” says Maya.
Nodi says it is difficult and uncertain to predict the future of the LGBTQ community in Bangladesh. “The present government is not much bothered. What if the next government starts actively cracking down on the community?”
She adds that the community needs visibility. “We have to start slowly, increasing visibility, sensitizing people. It’s also important to secularize the country slightly because it gives rise to fundamentalists and extremists. It’s a slow process. In addition, we must continue to work towards decriminalizing same-sex relationships,” she says.
Starting a new life
Raju Ahmmed’s life in Bangladesh was difficult, and Mannan’s murder jolted him. Some of his siblings supported his sexual identity, but others issued veiled threats of disowning him from the family business and property. Ahmmed bore it all for the sake of his parents.
“There were times when I wanted to get out of the country. But the only thing that stopped me was my emotional attachment to my mother,” he says.
After his mother passed away in 2021, he contemplated leaving the country. That would mean leaving behind an established life, the family business and an inheritance. “It was not an easy decision. But I decided to prioritize my mental health. I have the basic human right to be myself, at least,” he says.
Last year, he moved to the United States and applied for asylum. “I don’t like not feeling safe. Honestly, I chose peace over material possessions,” he says. He started from scratch, working odd jobs and building a new life.
“At least at the end of the day, I’m happy. I feel safe, and that’s all that matters to me.”