Written by Saad Khan
In 2011, a cover story titled Introduction to women, gender and sexuality studies appeared in a youth magazine of the largest English daily in Bangladesh. The author had just returned to Bangladesh after an exchange program in the US, funded by the State Department, and joined a newspaper to work as a journalist. He was an English literature major and took courses that focused on gender and sexuality theories for the first time. Essays particularly on sexuality, made him politically aware and sensitive of his queer orientations.
He had just come out and felt passionate about producing knowledge around LGBT issues in the mainstream media, since he saw no one doing it. He wanted to create awareness among university youths by writing about issues related to gender and sexuality. He was lucky enough to work in a small team that was encouraging and supportive of the article (without requiring him to come out to them). The graphic designer team, who sat on the floor below, and comprising of all cis-heterosexual men, were intrigued by the title. There was, however no backlash. It was a small youth magazine team who had relative agency in deciding what they wanted to publish.
The article ends with the following words:
“But there are stories of struggle and resistance, which give us hope. Only recently, Dhaka observed hijras proudly marching in front of the National Museum demanding for equal rights. A couple of months back, women of Nayani Bagdora and Bagdora villages in Nilphamari district voluntarily constructed a 162-foot-long bamboo bridge over Chekadara River to relieve sufferings of people, especially hundreds of school going children. Only last week Goethe Institute hosted a three-day long LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) event called “Under the Rainbow” to celebrate diverse sexual and gender identities. And of course, how can we forget the three women noble peace laureates Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman, of this year? Educating ourselves in such a field, studying about struggle and resistance and becoming more aware of the world order can enable and prepare us to change the unjust system that we live in.”
Five years later, in 2016, the author asked his journalist friends to take down the piece from The Daily Star website. Two LGBT rights activists – Xulhaz Mannan and Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy, were murdered by Ansar-Al-Islam militants. The author by now had written several other pieces on sexuality, and felt an interesting thing- fear, which led him to decide to take down the writing.
Tirza True Latimer (2016) writes, ‘What if there are no documents, or the documents have been expurgated, sealed or destroyed? Contending with historical erasure places special demands on feminist and queer researcher. They must view gaps, absences, and apparitions as historically consequential’ (93). Tina Takamoto, through her performance video ‘Looking for Jiro,’ (2011) sheds light on how queer archive can be approached. She creates an ‘alternative campy world in which Onuma can dream of musclemen as a way to keep his queer imaginary alive’ (2013, 57). Takamoto’s intervention shows engaging with the queer archive (as opposed to mainstream or nationalist archive) is not only engaging with what happened in the past, but also paying attention to archive’s potentials in seeing how the past affects the present and future. By doing so, she challenges the linearity of ways history is written and recorded and shows how suppressed/ erased past can be redeemed for queer imagination and world making in the present and for the future.
The article, along with many other things and narratives, emerge as queer artifact in the present moment for me (the queer writer, the queer researcher), given how it was erased from the digital space and in tandem the public consciousness. Erasures of different forms, and the role of the archive are thus important methodological questions and concerns for my scholarly activist project. The removal of the article from the online space speaks to ways LGBT individuals tried to temporarily erase themselves due to safety. Several other online pages of LGBT projects were also brought down. Safety, as opposed to visibility emerged as a core concern for LGBT activists located in Bangladesh.
Between the years 2014 -2016, LGBT activism particularly centered on homosexual identities gained a prominent and positive kind of visibility in the public. Roopbaan, the first ever LGBT themed magazine was published; two pride marches or rainbow rallies by Roopbaan took place- one in 2014, then in 2015 during the Bengali New Year; Project Dhee happened, which was a comic flash card series about a lesbian woman by Boys of Bangladesh (BoB)- the oldest running and the largest network of self-identified Bangladeshi gay men living in the country and abroad- now called Oboyob (which means outline or shape); the comic was inaugurated at a public event in the British Council; Jadur Shohor, advertised as the ‘country’s first gay stage drama’ was written and performed at the venue of a public library auditorium; Rupongthi, a book on LGBT poems was published by a mainstream publishing housing and being sold at the international book fair. These projects, initiatives and activist works were not only public, but they also had an informational, educational and sensitizing attribute about them. Through creative usage of narratives, poetry, comic strip, magazines, research and educational courses, LGBT issues, particularly sexuality issues, were emerging as sites of resistance in the face of heteronormativity of Bengali society.
In the aftermath of the murders of Xulhaz and Tonoy, the nascent LGBT movement that was taking place in various forms and spaces, and that was gradually making its way to the public, shifted and went underground. The government condoned the murders, but also held the deceased responsible for their own deaths. Right after the murders, a handful of activists went into hiding in safe homes organized by allies and the US embassy. They deactivated their social media accounts. Activists and community members got disconnected. The different projects and activities were shut down and taken off from social media. Individuals applied for different educational and cultural fellowship and exchange programs in the US, Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands and left the country. Several of them applied for asylum after reaching these destinations.
The murders thoroughly shifted understandings and engagements of visibility; concerns of what can be said in public and what can be made public, and how to continue knowledge production processes about LGBT issues in academic and non-academic spaces have led to imagining different kinds of activist strategies locally. The relocation of activists has however opened up other possibilities of transnational engagements and mobilizations of various kinds. LGBT activists even prior to the murders, had various stances on visibility politics, and did not share a homogeneous perspective. Post-2016, activists and community members are even more critical of visibility politics and the adverse effects that can have to one’s life in the current political climate in Bangladesh, under regimes of state authoritarianism and fundamentalism.
Shift in strategies from visibility to prioritizing safety, discreteness and non-visibility in the realms of activist and advocacy work are connected to self-preservation, re-connecting with community members and thinking about the term activism itself. This does not however mean stopping the activist work but pivoting and thinking carefully about decisions. By paying attention to erasures, and the ways erasures are utilized and navigated, we can see that LGBT activism gets dissociated from logics of ‘out and proud’, to thinking strategically about being public and being in the public. Tensions play out across transnational circuits of LGBT activism, where activists located in different parts of the world, bring in different political expectations and energies shaped by their geographical positionalities, which then impact activists who are located in Bangladesh the most. It is important to see and document how these tensions play out, what new subjectivities they form, and what visions of strategies emerge in the process that are at once in conversations with particular localities and transnational realities.