Inside Out: An Intimate Conversation with Xulhaz Mannan (Part One)

Note from the Interviewer:

Reading through these interviews again, almost 5 years after they were first done, was predictably bittersweet. Xulhaz, in the space of just a few months, became a very good friend of mine and was extremely generous with his time, and as you can see, extremely generous with what he shared about his life too. My heart grows heavy when reading some of this, knowing that less than 2 months after these interviews were made, he was murdered in the very same home where they were done. But I don’t want to dwell on those devastating, and fearful memories. There is so much joy in these interviews, although I’m slightly hesitant about calling them interviews. Xulhaz didn’t need much encouragement or direction from me to talk about his life – it all just flowed from him: the excitement, the pathos, the journey of discovering himself, and others, building up the unique complex picture that each human being shares. I feel extremely honoured, and actually quite moved to have had the privilege to sit and listen at this time in Bangladesh’s Queer History (just history even). And I’m delighted that the interviews are being preserved in Mondro’s archive, for current and future generations of Bangladeshis (both queer and not) to read Xulhaz’s words, and get a glimpse into the life of the human who really helped connect people and bring love to the lives of so many.

Note from the Editor:

Reading and editing this interview was a captivating experience. I knew Xulhaz, but not so close, and not for that long, so we never really sat around and shared our intimate relationship stories. We talked about experiences and families and the things that mattered to us, at the time we had got to know each other. Listening, and yes, reading this felt like listening to Xulhaz describing his life, his memories in the way he seemed to speak – open and expressive. I felt pulled in, enthralled, being able to almost feel his voice explaining how he felt, how he thought. The slight laughs sprinkled across the conversation makes you realize that maybe all he spoke of did not pour out as seamlessly as it reads. Looking back at this interview which took place in 2016, possibly just a few months before his death, now seems surreal. There’s a feeling of completion, of achievement, a sense of both urgency and reflection. It made me wonder about all the questions he might have been holding at that point of time. I couldn’t help but wonder if he anticipated what was about to happen, and change the course of the work he had carried out so dramatically. I hope it gives all of you an insight into the life of someone who seems so much bigger than life today. And hopefully this will remind us that all we want out of life is acceptance, love, to be able to speak our minds and live our lives as we want to.

PART ONE

Xulhaz: So, as you know, my name is Xulhaz. Although, last time I counted, people call me by 22 different names.

T: 22 versions?? nicknames?

X: Nicknames, yes. My family calls me Mumon – actually no one really calls me Mumon these days, because my mum rarely calls me and er, I rarely get to talk to my brother and he also sometimes uses my formal name. My sister has her own versions of the nickname – Mumra. Xulhaz, it’s kind of a long name, so a lot of people use shorter versions – Xul, the Julie, July, then Xan, X-man. There is also a similar name in Bangla, Xulhash which is more common than Xulhaz (haj). So many people tend to call me Xulhash, which is very irritating because hash means duck. But, Xulhaz sounds like Haj…

T: Oh right…

X: So Haaj, that’s the religious ritual that Muslims perform. And that’s the month, Xulhaj, the month when Muslims around the world go and perform Haaj. So, I think, that my name is a sort of derivation of that. In Bangladesh, it’s common that many Muslim families will name their children based on Arabic names and some of them are a mix and match, like in my case.

I was born in Dhaurpur, it’s a district in another division of Bangladesh – Chittagong. I was about 7 or 8 years of age, when we moved here to Dhaka, back in 1983. So, I do consider myself more as someone from Dhaka rather than from Dharpur. I was just born and brought up, I mean not born, but brought up here. I was born elsewhere, in a middle-income household. I went to Dhaka Residential Model School, where I did not stay in the dorms, I studied from my home. You could do that because we lived very close to the school, but a lot of students came from out of Dhaka and were living in the dormitories there.

I’ll be 40 this October. 

T: Really? 

X: Yes, hahaha.

T: erm…I thought you were younger…you must be very happy about the fact that you don’t look 40.

X: No, I want to look my age. I don’t want to look older than my age, but I want to look my age. In Bangladeshi culture, if you don’t look your age, people don’t take you seriously and I guess I also don’t act my age. That’s another thing, you also should act your age to be taken seriously. There’s these certain expectations that come with age, like you have to act more mature, more serious, which I’m not.

T: Yeah, but you’re not immature…you’re light-hearted.

X: Well, when I hang out with people of my age group, like those who are 35 and above, they tend to think I’m not mature yet. Because, you know, almost all of them are already married. Well, most of them are, and many have children who are already of the school-going age. One of my cousins, who are a bit older than me, their daughter, so my niece, she is getting married soon.

T: So, they had children in their twenties?

X: But even those who are in my age range, even their children are also getting married. So, in that context I don’t fit into my age group at all. I mean, I even hang out with a lot of people who are much younger. Like, if I was married according to Bangladeshi norms, I could have sons of that age. You know, it’s common for people do get married in their early twenties here, so if I married at 20, jumping right into reproduction, I could have a kid who’s 18 years old now. That’s a very long answer, I’m pretty bad at giving short answers.

T: No, that’s good, I want long answers. I was going to ask you about your childhood, what it was like growing up with your family and what school was like? You’ve touched on it a bit…

X: I was very very quiet as a child; I wasn’t unhappy or anything, but I grew up mostly on my own since both my parents had jobs. My dad’s village was the love of his life, and he was always doing a lot of things for his village, and we love him for that. We have so much respect for him, and also for my mother. She was the headmistress of a public school here in Dhaka, which meant double shifts for her – a morning and a day (afternoon) shift. The teachers and students would change during shifts, but as the headmistress, she was there all day, and had to do double the work. The shifts were from 8 am to 1 pm, and then the next shift ending at 6 pm. So, she was super busy, and she would travel back home only in the evenings. So, you can imagine, that I grew up almost by myself. I was very close to my grandmother, who was with us for a very long time and I got to spend a lot of time with her.

I was very quiet, and I wasn’t very social when I was growing up. At school, I did not really have any friends. One of the reasons, I think, was because of the age gap with the other kids. I was sort of meritorious, and I skipped two classes when I was young. 

T: So you were young for your year/grade?

X: I was much younger than the other students of my class, at least 2 years older. And some of them were even older, because, you know, probably they didn’t pass. So, most of the students in my class were on average 3 years older to me, and at that time that felt like quite a large age gap. I remember that around that time some of them had their facial hair growing, and I was just like a little kid. And of course, that is also the time you start experiencing different feelings, like love interests and all. It was the same for me, and I realized how different I was then too, because I fell in love with a guy when I was in class 5.

T: So how old is that?

X: I guess, that was when I was only 10 years old. I fancied him like anything, and everybody in class was a crazy fan of him. He was very popular. But I would never go and talk to him, so we were never friends. The traditional school crush of, yes I can see them but no I’m not going to talk to them. Obviously.

But, everybody in the class knew that I liked him, I would buy gifts for him and leave them on his desk. And he also knew that it was me who did it. Because, you know it was for 5 years, so how long can you hide it? Up until the 10th grade, we were in the same school and then he left, because you can change schools after the Secondary School Exams (SSC). So, after class 10, a lot of students left and joined other schools, and new students come in and join for the last two years of school. This was the time I made friends with one of the new students who joined our school.

And, that was also the time I realised that I was not going to change physically. You see, up until then, my understanding of myself was that I was just taking longer to change biologically. That the reason I liked a guy, was that I was actually a girl, and someday I will change and become a man. Because, I did not actually know how biologically or physically girls were different from boys. I mean, I had a sister, but I had never seen that she had a vagina. Of course, I knew that they get breasts and all as they get older, and they have longer hair, but those were obvious things; I didn’t know about vaginas being different from penises.

T: How old were you at this time?

X: Well, when I was in class 7 or 8, I had already realized that I was not changing, but I have to change, so I was just thinking that maybe it’s taking longer. Because otherwise, I would be stuck in this body, so it was kind of like a temporary transsexual time. It was only because I didn’t know that I could be like that. These days, for a lot of teenagers they already know that they can be different like this. But, in my case, I grew up without any knowledge of it.

T: It wasn’t anything that you were aware of?

X: It was another reason why I was never actually hated by other people. I thought that this was so natural, that I didn’t hide it from my classmates or anyone. I just knew that I was going to change later on.  But, when I was growing older and I wasn’t changing by 12th grade, then I was sure that I’m not going to change.

T: By that time you are already 16 years old, right?

X: About 14,15… and that’s when I started doing makeup and stuff. Before that, I wouldn’t use makeup. But then, I thought that probably this was how people change, so I started using makeup and I started wearing bras, and I kept long hair. I started going to school looking like that, and around this time my classmates and teachers started to become alarmed.

T: How did they respond to this?

X: Well, they all knew me from childhood, and my classmates and teachers were, in many ways, used to me being like this. But to the new students who came in, I was like an unknown animal. But because we had all been here for the 10 years before them, we had an upperhand, and they did not know how to react to me. I was very strange to them: like, what is this? A guy? A girl? Haha. But, I look back, and I mean, I was never really bullied; that’s something I’m very sure of. I was never bullied.

T: That’s amazing.

X: I was teased sometimes, but everyone was teased for something. Even the first boy in class was teased because he was too smart. So, I never thought that I was being bullied or anything. Of course people called me “girly, and there is this term “half-lady”, like you’re not a full lady, just half a lady…so if you’re feminine, you’re “half lady”.

T: Right, ok

X: So that was one of the things I would get teased with, and you know what, I didn’t care much. Then, two things happened. I became social and I got to know one of the guys, he became very friendly with me and we would hang out. Before this, I would only be in my classes and then I would come back home and be on my own. A lot of the students would go to the dorms and hang out there, and then they would go home. We also had huge playgrounds, so many of the students would also play sports after school hours, but I would always skip these and just go home. But around this time, I started going to the movies, doing a lot of the usual things that guys and girls do at this age. So I’m very grateful to this guy, because he made me become more social. My social avenues started from there. At the same time, other things were also happening…I was going through the impulse stage of transsexuality. I thought that now I have to impose this on myself, otherwise I’m never going to change. It was a terrible time and I became a chronic liar at this point. Actually, it started even before, from class 7 or 8, I started lying. I would create these stories around me and I would tell them to people.

T: about anything?

X: About anything! Of course, after three or four months, people would know these are all lies, but then I would top it up with another set of lies. And this continued for those four years. The other thing that happened, like three interesting things happened during this period of my life. That guy, who I was in crazy fascinating love with…that guy came back into my life. My explanation is that he was missing all the attention from me, and he started calling me on the landline phones we had then. He would call me, and we started hanging out.

T: This was what age?

X: I was 15 or 16 probably, or maybe 14.  

T: And he was the same age? 

X: He was a little older, because most of the students were like 2 years older than me. This was back in ’91, so I was 15. I would go to his house and we sort of had something sexual once or twice. I also didn’t know how to have sex with guys.

T: well I can imagine, there’s no sex education, there’s no…

X: So, we would like fondle, and maybe try mutual masturbation kind of things. But, we kissed a lot. I definitely remember we had this huge kiss, that was something that I…I was just swept away by that! And I didn’t have anyone in the scene other than him. I was just taken by these incidents that happened. 

Of course, I also had this other person in my life, you know the friend. So, I had a venting space also, someone with whom I could go and talk with. And other classmates in my school, and I, we were almost graduating, so we were also doing extra tuition classes, so we could apply for university. The admission exams are very competitive, so you have to do extra classes, so you can try to get into the good universities. This friend of mine, he was preparing to study medicine. And I was studying for Dhaka University. And, we would hang out together, and go to the movies, and go to his house. It was nothing sexual, it was just very friendly. The reason I am saying this is because he became the second person in my life. I have had five major lovers in my life. He was a friend, who turned into a lover. And, I have this guy from school, who I was fascinated like crazy about. And then, I had this encounter, but he was basically a straight guy, he was not into me. I wouldn’t say he used me or anything…

T: He was curious?

X: Yes, curious kind of a thing. Then, we finished school and went into the university exams. My friend got admitted to a Medical College outside of Dhaka. He wanted to remain in Dhaka; he wanted to get admitted into Dhaka Medical College which is the best. But, he left Dhaka and I immediately knew that, you know, that he was not just a friend…because I started missing him so much, and I realized all of a sudden just how much…

T: How much you cared for him?

X: What I realised was that, oh my god I don’t have this guy anymore, who I never realised was so important to me. So that chapter of me falling in love with my friend began, and I would go see him whenever I had a chance. But then, I couldn’t go every month, but maybe every 3-4 months. He also realized that I had fallen in love with him and he didn’t know what to do about it, because again he was not interested in me like that. But, he had a lot of respect for me, so he would not criticize me or anything. He just didn’t know what to do about this. And at this time, he was dating and had a girlfriend at the medical college.

I also got admitted into university, but I couldn’t continue it. I was sick for 2 years. Looking back, I see that was my absolute transition time. All that sickness, I couldn’t study, so I couldn’t continue at the university. I joined a general school so as to continue my education.

X: So this friend of mine, I would try to see him whenever he would come to Dhaka, and this was not a good stage of my life. I wasn’t studying, I got admitted to a school – as a Commerce major, and after two years I was doing better physically. I went back to the admissions authority in Dhaka University and wanted to see if I could get a readmission. They took me in, and I started my studies at DU, in international relations.

Now, when I think about it, it seems like it was very intentional, that I thought like my life needs to change. Not that I was sad or anything, I was never sad. But you know, those two years of study break and all that loss. I knew that I was loving people who were not interested in me. By this point, I knew I was definitely not going to change anymore, so I had stopped thinking about that. I also realized that I did not actually want to change, that this was like a precondition for wanting all these people I love. It was a strange time, because I knew I didn’t want to be a girl, and I also realized the disadvantages of being female, and so I didn’t want to be like them. Girls, women, they don’t have any freedom, at least not in the context of Bangladesh. And I had that, so I loved it. But if I wanted to be loved by these people whom I loved, I also have to become a girl.

During my university years, I finally decided to get out of my introvert shell, and when I started at Dhaka University I decided to make friends. And somehow, it clicked! In less than a month, I had made lots of friends in my department. Within the second or third month, I was the most popular guy in my batch. Like the person you see now, it started there. My whole life changed, it was amazing. All my friends, guys and girls, they were all crazy about me. I was doing things, going places, we would say we were going on study tours but instead we would just go and hang out somewhere, hahaha. We would come up with plans to go do research, but who would actually work on research; it would be an excuse to go out of Dhaka together. All these things, being in cultural programs, and all that stuff.

Also, it was a time when I was falling in love. Like love, that was sexual. Before that, love was like fascination, love was like friend, comfort. Now, it was hot steaming sexual. Like, oh my god, this guy is hot! Because, you know, you’re seeing guys at the university, like those are guy’s guys. And I was also at my properly sexually active age, so I was falling in love every other day. Having a crush here and there. It was also a time when I realized that I am a guy, and I’m not going to change and probably there’s nothing wrong with me. This was also by that time, that I found information that there are people like me around the world. The internet was available by this time, I’m talking about ‘95-96. It was not necessarily huge in Bangladesh, but we already had computers at home and there was internet. So all these transitions for myself, and this information changed my university life.

And, being at university itself, you know, it’s a public space, you have students from all districts of Bangladesh, students from all economic backgrounds and financial status, male and female. Before this point, I had only been exposed to males, all my classmates were male. I went to dance school, there were girls there, but I never liked them much. They were, you know, kind of…snobbish, so I never made friends with them. All of a sudden, I had female friends and male friends and friends. It was the best part. And I was falling in love. And of course, all my friends were also falling in love. And I was also falling in love with girls too. I mean I knew I was liking them, but I didn’t know if it was sexual or anything. So I thought I was finally falling in love with girls and all, so I was pretty happy about that.

Polaroid of Xulhaz relaxing with friends at a picnic

T: And was it sexual?

X: Then I realized later that it was not sexual. So, you know I was just falling in love with them as a person. It was a comfort zone and all that. One of the girls among the seven girls I hung out with regularly, like we had a huge group of friends, she proposed to me and I said okay because I liked her. So, we went out for a date one day and I told her the next day that it is not happening. She also knew by that time, I had already come out to my friends – after a year it was already a big thing for me.

All my friends were telling me about their love lives, right? Ooh Xulhaz, this happened and I’m so in love with this girl. And my girlfriends would say, I’m so in love with this guy. And I could not tell them, they would also ask me, don’t you fall in love with people? And I was like, no. Because, I couldn’t tell them, and I also knew this was something you could not tell. But, because I was also getting comfortable with myself, the reality was on my face. During my school years, I wasn’t aware of myself, and somehow I just blended in with everyone, so I never thought that I had to hide myself.

T: And no one really talked about it?

X: No, like I said, they would tease but I didn’t care. But here, now, I was also comfortable with myself, and I also knew I wasn’t going to change and that was fine. But I was also aware that this was something my friends were not going to take easily. And, I also didn’t want to lose that popular image I had; how everybody thought I was so cool and thought I was so deserving. All that was too much risk to take, but I also could not live like that for long. So, after a year or so, I think when my second year started, I decided at least 1 or 2 of my friends should know. So, I told one of the girls who was my best friend at the time and it took her about a week to get comfortable with this. And the things she said, “Xulhaz, you’re already married to me so it doesn’t matter and I don’t know much about it. I wish you were like others or like us, but if you are not, it still doesn’t matter.” And she was not interested in me sexually, she liked me just as a friend. And that was a big affirmation for me that I could tell my friends about it.

Over the next year, all those times I was saying that I was falling in love every other day, 1 or 2 of those continued and would grow over time, and I would tell her about them. I also told her about the guy in my class who I admired, and somehow this guy, who was part of our larger friends group, figured it out and asked me directly, “you’re not being normal with me?” This was because initially we were friends, like classmates, but later my behaviour towards him changed since he had a long-standing girlfriend from before. His girlfriend would visit the university sometimes, and because he used to live with his family in Dhaka, he could not take her to his home. Bringing a girlfriend home is a big issue in Bangladesh. So, sometimes, I would help him by meeting with the girlfriend and take her around so he can meet her somewhere and go on a date. Sometimes, they would come to my home, and it was a lot for me to take. So, he noticed that when these things happened, I would be upset with him. So, I told him that I had feelings for him, and he did not take it well. He reacted very aggressively, and said that he couldn’t even think of something like this, and that he didn’t want to talk to me anymore. That was a big shock for me, and of course because we were both part of a larger group of friends, others also noticed this. I had only told 1 or 2 friends by this time, so I just told them that we had a fight and are not talking to each other.

T: How did you feel about him reacting in that way?

X: I was just devastated and this was a gradual process. I was just falling in love with somebody, and I had not even asked him out. He had just asked and I had only said, this is how I feel for you. And he was just telling me that he cannot take it easily, so I was just devastated. But, I had those two friends who supported me at that time. But, at the same time, it was also alarming kind of a thing, that if this person who I’ve been friends with for over a year could not accept me, then maybe my other friends would also not be able to accept me for this. So, it was again a time when I was trying to close myself down. And, I was heartbroken and sad, but as everyone does it, I moved on. 

Slowly, I also came out to one of my male classmates. Him and I would hang out after class hours, because we were neighbors. He was a bit of a poet, so he would write and his friends from school would hang out at his place, so I got to know all of them and we all became friends. As I mentioned before, I have had the two years gap and then started university, so somehow that age gap I had earlier in school, was no longer there. I was studying with people who were of my age, and I could immediately become friends with them easily. I was expanding my horizons, and it acted as a huge support system for me, even though I was heartbroken I was alone, crying at home. I had avenues where I could vent out, we would spend time at university and then go home and spend time at his place or they would all come over to my place. In our house, it was always like a melting pot for everybody. My brother used to bring his friends, my sister always brought her friends, so my parents didn’t care. Even how you see it now, there’s always people coming here. My father, whenever he was at home there were at least 10-15 people around him; he was always solving people’s problems. We were always like that, always having a lot of people in our house. And the reason I’m saying this, is that at the same time when I was heartbroken, I always had the comfort of friendships. But, I also felt that the more friends I had, the more I have to hide myself. Even though I didn’t want to hide myself, I knew that these people were not going to accept me how I was. All the social reality checks were making me feel that way, so I just kept on pretending. Also, I was doing great at university.

T: Yeah, you were a good student?

X: In my first year, I stood first in my batch.

T: Of how many roughly?

X: We had 120 students.  That again was another reason for being popular. You know, if you’re the first of your batch people want to hang out with you. haha

T: haha, that’s something we don’t always have back in the UK. 

X: Well, now we have a grading system in universities here. But back then, we were always given marks, so you would know that you’ve got the highest mark, and then you had a first-second ranking system in class. Now, there is A,B,C,D grading system, so you can’t tell if someone is on the top. I think it was right after our batch that this grading system changed.

Like I said earlier, it was also around this time that I was sad, and I started to come out to my close friends. So, there were about 10-15 people who knew about me. She also knew about me, and she still said that she liked me, and I thought, okay, maybe I will give it a try. So, we started dating, and it was not even sexual, I just spent time with her and I realized that’s not how I feel for her. And more importantly, during this, I realized that I am not actually a relationship person. I wanted to be in a pool of people, like I am hanging out with a group of people, and doing things together, but I didn’t want to be one-on-one with anyone. I also started to realize that all the people I had loved till then, I never wanted to be with them. As in, I never wanted to be married to them, I just wanted to know them and be loved by them and love them, but I was never really thinking of wanting to have a family with them. So, I told her that I don’t actually feel for her in that way, and that I was not a relationship type person. I didn’t think I wanted to be in this one-on-one interaction, because I kept on thinking about all my friends and fun stuff they were probably up to, and joining them instead. Hahaha…so you know, this was not happening!

T: That’s so funny. 

X: So, we tried to get back to our former friends relationship, and it took about six months for her to be normal with me again. And, she was a big support for me again. This was like a reality check that I’m not into girls at all. haha. 

T: so, you did check, like over the years?

X: It wasn’t really intentional, I mean she came in and I liked her. I didn’t exactly like her-like her and I was trying to tick off the box. I thought I actually liked her, and when I said yes to her, I meant it. But later, I realized that it was just a reality check. You know, when I said, I like you and I love you, it doesn’t mean that I want to have sex with you. 

These things are so complicated, there’s no reference point for any of us, so I’ll go through this and realize something. But a lot of people, they don’t realize and they just complicate their life more. I’m happy that I have so much support around me that I could experiment with these things and still get away with it. So, all these different things happened. And, I had my popular life in my university, and then I would hang out afterwards with my other friends. They weren’t at university with me, but they became a very important part of my life at a later stage.

So, those guys I would hang out with, after classes, he became the fourth major person in my life. I fell in love with him later, and one of his friends became the fifth person in my life. By that time, though, I was a more matured person, so these things weren’t like fascinations or obsessions, they were serious feelings. Both of them, they were my friends beforehand, and it was very difficult getting over those heartbreaks.

This fifth person, we were actually sexually engaged with each other. But, up to the fourth one, it was all one sided. I liked them, and they knew I liked them, and the first person, remember, he didn’t like me, and was so disgusted, and stopped being friends with me. After about a year, he changed his mind and stopped avoiding me, and we became friends again. Just friends.

Around early 2000, this fourth person said – we would hang out at his place – and he was a poet, and they would do music, like some of them would compose music, he would write, it was like being a part of a band. I don’t really sing, so I would just sing along with everyone, it was a great time! The only thing I didn’t like about them was that they were into drugs. At that age, I didn’t do any drugs. These days, I drink alcohol sometimes, but I don’t smoke or anything else. So, there was that thing which I didn’t like much, and we would always fight about it.

T: Yeah, I can understand that.

X: So, these two persons, the fourth and fifth ones, they came into my life one after the other. We used to spend a lot of time together, hanging out, and then one night something happened.

I mean, we had spent nights together before. But, I also knew that just because we were sleeping in the same place together did not mean that anything sexual will happen with a guy. And I didn’t want to mess anything up with these guys, by giving them any kind of sexual hints, in case they hate me later on. I mean, when I was younger, I was spending a night with a guy somewhere, I would always wonder if something could happen. But by now I knew I shouldn’t think of it like that. Because, they might take it badly, and would hate me for thinking it. But, with this guy, the fifth one, something happened.

About a week later, I initiated a conversation, because we were very good friends and I didn’t want to ruin the friendship because we had sex. And he said we should do it again, and then we said we should stop, and we ended up having sex again that night after the talk. And after that, we did not stop having sex. We had sex everywhere, in his house, on his rooftop, on my rooftop, everywhere. We had sex like bunnies, hahaha. He was more interested in me; I always said he loved me more than I loved him. Also, again, he was a straight guy; I wouldn’t even call him bisexual. I didn’t see any kind of sexual tension or attraction to any other guy, it was just me. I even asked him a few times: “do you think I am a replacement for a woman for you?” He said no, he made it very clear that he likes me the way I am. But we also knew that there was no future with us. Oh, and the most interesting part of this story is that he was interested in the girl who fell in love with me.

T: hahaha

X: So, I thought this was a good match, because I liked him and I also knew that he’s not going to be mine, so I was very happy to make that connection. She was a good friend, and he was a good friend, and our larger friend’s circle also thought it was a good idea. So, we initiated it, but she wasn’t interested. He was heartbroken, and that brought us even closer, like we were inseparable for two years, 2002 to 2004. We were always together, and it was very obvious to other people what was happening. Also because I was becoming more vocal, I was talking about these issues, becoming an activist already. Even with random people, I would tell them that I liked guys and all that.

T: So you had come out in that sense?

X: I knew that I had my zone of comfort, so they were going to protect me, so I was just being a bit adventurous. 

So, that girl friend of mine, she was still not married, and it’s marriage age for women at that time, so many of them were already getting married, but not her. Then some of our other friends and I, we thought it might be a good idea to try to match the two of them together again. We thought that the guy, he was not in a position to marry her since he didn’t have a job or anything, so maybe she wanted to give him time to get established. So, some of us went and spoke to her to see if that was what she thought, and she didn’t really agree or say no, but was happy to explore the avenue. So, we took this up as our mission, he was a bit anti-her since she had dumped him earlier. One of her friends suggested that she should be the one to propose to him this time, since he had already done his part. So, after two years since when he had last asked her, we set it up so they will meet, and she will propose to him. Of course, somewhere in the back of his mind he had a soft corner for her, and he said yes too. So, they were like a perfect match and I was super happy. I love this person so much, and I loved the girl too, and they are going to be together; I did not have any other intentions, I didn’t get anything out of this. How I mentioned earlier, about not wanting to be with only one person, I knew I did not want to be under the same roof with him, I just wanted to know him forever. If he’s with this girl, who already likes me how I am; of course she didn’t know that we were having sex. That would be something difficult for her to get, you know, it would be difficult for anyone. I told him that once the situation changes, we have to go slow also, so I don’t walk out. That’s something we talked about a lot, and he came up with different propositions, “I will spend six days with my wife, and one day with you.” I said that won’t be practical. Then he said we could all live in the same house or something. It doesn’t have to be anything like that, just as long as we all know each other. I probably did not think about this enough, I was feeling adventurous. Because, you know he was with me, and I didn’t know how it will be when he’s not with me. I remember we met in a café in Uttara.

T: Where is Uttara?

X: Uttara is like where the airport is, her house was there. So we took a yellow cab, the four of us – myself, the guy, this girl, and another girl. So, she sat up front, and the two of them were sitting with me in the middle, my arms outstretched. I was feeling like a king. The girls would get out first, since their houses were first on the way. And I had my hand on his shoulder, and playing or fiddling with his ear. He immediately jerked his head away, and I knew, it hit me that I cannot do this anymore. And I could not take it, it was terrible.

T: I can understand, that it’s a sudden rejection…

X: I mean, I don’t think he even thought about it. I mean, there are those things that you don’t really intend to do but it’s so in you that you just do it subconsciously. And from then, he just drifted apart from me, and I knew I could not take it. It was terrible, just absolutely terrible. And I did really bad things, I just became a monster at that time. It was a terribly bitter end, and I could not take it that he was not with me anymore. It took me about two years to distant myself, and by this time they planned to get married, and she got to know how intense our relationship was, so she also hated me. I was not the good friend that I wanted to be. I can also accept that I did some really bad things too, I yelled at him, I slapped him many times. We had these huge huge fights, and things just got bitter and bitter and more bitter.

I already had a job at this time, and I left the job and just wanted to retreat into my shell. I also didn’t have any friends basically at this time. It was a terrible time, because all my friends, they also didn’t approve that I was having sex with one of their group. I think the love part, they could all understand, but the sex part, I don’t know. We never really talked about, so it was never clear. But I was just left by myself. Then, they got married, and I didn’t go to the wedding. I mean, what am I saying, I didn’t even get invited.

I think the first one among our friends to reach out to me was PP. I’m really grateful to her. She and I both got into an NGO, and we worked there for two years. I left my job, and I started to work here.

T: What was the job?

X: I was working for a corporation here, the head office in Kawran bazar, then we started that NGO and it didn’t work out. So, that was not a good time either. 

T: What was the NGO about?

X: It was for youth entrepreneurs. I was working with this British guy, he wanted to start this NGO and I was a program manager. PP was working there too, it was a very small set up in Dhaka. The main organization was based in the UK, and they support offices here. So we work for the initial 2 years to start it up, so I was there voluntarily, and I was drained and I didn’t have money or anything.

And, I had been a monster, I didn’t have any friends anymore. They thought I was an evil person. I started exploring other places. One of the things I did to kill time was walk around the park. I would go to the park, and just walk around. I would wake up at 9 am, have some breakfast and then take a bus to Shahbagh. It took about half an hour to go around the park once, so I would do that 12 times, that’s about six hours. I would come back home tired, and then cry for 4 hours, and eventually go to sleep. It was just a terrible terrible time.

T: It sounds exhausting.

X: Yes, it was just a terrible time. And that continued for two years. Again, you know what happened, there are gay people in the park! Which I didn’t know!

T: You weren’t aware of this when you started going?

X: No, so they would come and talk to me and I would talk to them, and of course they wanted – I never hid it, I would never hide myself from anybody – so they would come out to me immediately and of course they wanted to have sex. I was not interested, but then I also did have… you know when you are sad, you do weird things. So I did try with some of them, and I knew I could not do this, so I remember kicking two guys out of my bed. Because you know, after some time, it’s like if you bring a guy with you, and you change your mind and say that I’m not going to do it, and the guy wants to force you then, “oh hello it’s my house, I can actually kick you out!!”

T: Hahaha

X: And then I thought I should not do this kind of experimenting and I stopped doing it. I would still go and talk to people, so that again was an interesting time. I think I talked to about 500 or 600 guys. I just liked hearing their stories, and I became this person who they would just come to and talk. Haha. Because I had so much time, all those hours I was spending at the park, I spent hours just listening. I also realized that these people, they hated themselves so much. I didn’t find anybody who was comfortable with their sexuality. I would ask, what is wrong with it, why do you hate yourself? And they would say things like, we are sinners, we are going to hell, we should not be doing this. But then they would want me to have sex with them. So, I also asked why then do you want to have sex with me? They would say, we just wanted to do it, and we will not do it again, and I said, no sorry. Well, of course there were some, whom I found sexually attractive, and I said yes, but then I didn’t enjoy the sex much, because I was just still into him, from before. I kept on smelling him on them, and it was a big turn off for me. Somehow, his smell has stuck in my memory, even till now, I remember it.

You know, because with him, it was the only time it was so intense. Before that, it was just emotional. We were inseparable for two years…we knew each other for 10 years. I knew him before, but those two years were too intense, and then all those things happened later. It was all just too intense.

Then, things started to change again when I applied to the US Embassy, and I got a job there. That was a big change. I started earning money, and it was a full time job, so I wasn’t going to the park for walks anymore. You know those are dangerous things that put you into the cycle of depression. Like, you do these things, and they put you into the cycle. And something, somewhere needs to change, and I always say that I’m lucky that those things happened at the right times. Otherwise, I probably would have become a crazy person.

And then that guy, he came back after maybe 3 years. So, one day, we were drinking…you know the R bar?

T: Yeah…

X: There’s a bar over here, and we were drinking, and he came in there. We’ve met each other two or three times before, and I’d acted super weird, I could not take it well. But this day, probably since things have changed for me, like I had that job and probably I had my confidence back, so I took it normally. Then, he was outside also when we got out to leave, and he asked if we could get a rickshaw ride together? And somehow I took that very normally we got on the rickshaw together, and we started talking to each other, and that friendship that we cherished so much, just came back. I felt awesome, like it was such a good feeling! I mean all of a sudden, those grievances, that hatred, the sadness that was within me for him, all those just swept away, and only the love part, the affection part came back, and we were friends again. So, I really love that this thing happened, and we still keep in touch. But, that incident also sort of put a cap on my feelings for other people. Like, I always say that I’ve had so much love from him, but my expectation for love is filled up! 

I never thought that I needed to be in love with anybody. All of those people I was craving to love, where I would love someone but they would not love me back the same way. So, that craving, even when it wasn’t successful, I always knew that someone else will come. I always knew that someone else will come and love me the way I love that person. But in his case, he always loved me more than I loved him. I cannot explain to you what I mean, it was amazing. So, I just didn’t feel like I need to be in love with anybody. So, when I started chatting with people, like on social media and online, I could just talk to people. There were no conditions, or reasons I was talking to them. Also, at this point, I was not having sex for 2-3 years, and this exercise in abstinence helped. I mean, after 2-3 years, I was ready to get involved with potentially interested people, but I was not crazy for it. So, I guess, it helped me be friends with other gay guys. Because when people saw someone who was not looking for sex, they had that soft corner for me, well, that trust or whatever. And that let me become more active, and start doing things around this issue. I guess that helped a lot, because if you’re only into sex, people just want to do it and forget you, they don’t want to see you. That happened to me as well, with others I slept with and they wouldn’t socialize with me afterwards, and I did not like that. If I liked you as a person, I would want to know you more, and they would not talk to me, they would not answer my calls. Not that I was in love with them, but I wanted to know them as friends.

All these things, they led me to become more active, that I wanted to do something about this. And, I guess, I carried forward the genes of my parents. They were activists in their own way, like my father was about his village, and my mother in her school, she did amazing things there. They both had their causes they wanted to fight for. Also my sister and brother, they were all into social things that they would do by themselves. So somehow as a family we would all do that. 

I wouldn’t say that after that point I didn’t have any crushes on anybody or anything. I did, but somehow that intense desire that I have to have somebody for myself was just gone. I don’t miss love to be very honest, so I don’t miss that I’m not in a relationship, and I don’t miss that I don’t have anybody that loves me, I mean I have a lot of people that love me in that sense, yeah so that’s sort of the short version!! hahaha

T: the short version! Hahaha. I mean it’s amazing though, thank you so much for sharing. Well, I also wanted to ask you about your Roopbaan stuff, and yeah, fighting for a cause. But I’m slightly conscious of when I’m going to have to go. I should probably leave in about 10-15 minutes to get back.

[READ THE PART TWO]

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