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

[READ THE 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 TWO

X: A lot of people you know that I hang out with they don’t know about this, as a joke I say, when they ask why I’m not in love with anybody, I say I’ve had 5 major loves in my life, so me and my lovers are fine. haha.

And I don’t call any of them exes,  I always say I’m still in love with them, because the only big change that I’ve seen in the last 3 or 4 years, is that there are days when I go without thinking about them. But even after all this time, I still think about them, especially the 5th one. I don’t think I will ever get past him, and I don’t hate it, I love it, it gives me so much pleasure. Because the hatred part is gone, what I didn’t like was the sadness that is gone now; every time I think of him it gives me happy memories. I mean, we had amazingly good times,  good sex,  everything,  all the things that I would do with sex, I did.  You would think that if he was a straight guy, he would only use you in certain ways, but he was very curious, so I would tell him this is how we should, because by that time I knew how to do it, unlike my first time! haha I would tell him and he would let me do him, do with me all those kind of things, so it’s not just like he’s a straight guy he’s going to do his way. He just loved me the way I am. Even with a lot of gay guys I’ve had sex that I hated, because they just didn’t know what they were doing, and that role playing thing which I hate when people ask are you top or bottom? You know, even when I was growing up I didn’t have these terms, so I always hated these questions. I was always like you’re a guy and I’m a guy, at least physically we have the same things, so that means if you’re turned on by this, then I’m probably turned on by this too. Everyone is different as well. Now as an activist, these issues are very specific, and people find pleasure in doing different things. I always get offended when people ask me my role, I don’t have a role. The only role I had was at school, like you have a specific number assigned to you at school, so the teacher knows you and calls you by that number if they can’t remember your name. That’s my only roll.

Yeah, it’s all good memories with him.

T: It sounds like you’re…and I’m obviously not a psychologist, but it sounds like you’re in a healthy place, and having dealt with these emotions and relationships. They are there in the past, but it seems like you really came to grips with it; you’ve understood it, you’ve gone through high and low times…

X: And now I can say that, but I also say that if I didn’t get out of those times in a timely manner, it could have been deadly. With the 2 years of sickness I could have died if I did not have that mental strength, because it was a lot to do with my mental stress of knowing who I am and all that. It was not just physical. I was sick all the time physically, because I was mentally not taking care of myself, and so making myself more sick in the process. So, after two years when I had a chance to get out, I took that chance. University was amazing and also for like, the love situations, all the sad phases, like even with the fourth it was also bitter end with him. But all of them, eventually got back to me, that’s the best part. Like even though these bitter stages I had, with all these people – at a certain time they all appreciated the love they got from me. And they took their time to deal with this, and they got back just for the sake of affection and the love that they got for me or the respect that I deserve. So that was always something I really liked.

Even the first one, who later moved to the States. For 17 years, we were not in touch at all, I didn’t know where he was. Then I met him when I went to the states for the first time. I met him in New York, and we connected immediately. I mean, we didn’t have sex, he was married by then, but the way we hugged each other, I cannot tell you how amazing that was. He even asked me if I can stay back another day. And the way we met, it was so romantic. I was just lost because it was my first time in New York, and we didn’t communicate properly so I was not sure whether he was going to come to meet me or not. And I didn’t know what he did or anything, I just messaged him on Facebook and said that I am going to be there. My plan was actually to meet with my second one who was in Canada. And he asked me that we could meet up in NY, and I said yes and decided to travel to NY from Washington. But then he texted me from the bus (it had Wi-Fi), that he got stopped at the Canada border since his visa was expiring, and he was being sent back. So, I didn’t have anybody to meet in NY. And I just messaged the first guy, before I reached New York, but I didn’t know how he would respond to my message. And he said okay, I will meet you. So, I messaged and told him that I will reach at 4 am, and when it’s convenient if he will come pick me up. I will just wait there since it was my first time in America and my first day traveling there. I flew into Washington and took the bus that day to New York, and I didn’t know anything. And he said he will come and meet me at 4 am. I thought nobody comes to meet anybody at 4 am, and he’s just exaggerating! So, I arrived in New York, and the bus stopped and everyone got out and left right away, and it started raining and I thought, oh my god, this is not happening to me. I am like stranded in New York at 4 a.m!

T: I’m sure I’ve seen this film, but carry on…

X: And then I saw that there was a yellow cab that stopped behind me, and I thought these guys are going to come and kill me. You know, my colleagues in Washington who I met, they all said New York is very dangerous so don’t make any eye contact with anyone. They had been giving me all these briefings, and I just thought this is going to happen. And I was staring at this huge glass window, which was in front of the shop and pretending to look into it, because they said I should look confident and not lost, so I was trying to follow those instructions. So, I am standing there, like I have a reason to be there and I am not lost here, but then I could tell that someone was coming from behind me, and I was thinking they will hit me and kill me now. And then this guy comes out, and calls my name. And I thought, oh god! Even the robber knows my name… 

T: hahaha

X: This is not happening to me! And I turn around and that guy was standing there, and I could not believe he actually came to receive me, and the reason he is in the yellow cab is because he drives yellow cabs. He left Bangladesh right after our 12th grade, and his father sent him to the States, because he was not doing well in studies. So he didn’t study any further here, so he drives a cab, and I didn’t know that, but this made sense, you see his work hours are 5 pm to 5 am, he drives at night. So, it made sense for him to come meet me at the end of his working shift. Then he took me to his home, and I thought: this is how it happens in the movies, you meet someone after 17 years in New York, and I thought it was super cool! I always think of this as one of my best memories. So, I went to his home, he was married but his wife had not moved to NY yet. It was my first day there, and I was tired, and he had finished his night shift, so he sleeps during the day. So, we both just slept, and then he introduced me to his friends before he went to work, and then we hung out the next day, and then I had to leave and join my training in Washington. And he just hugged me, and asked if I cannot stay another day. And I was thinking that this is so good, it only happens in the movies. One of my best memories.

T: it does sound pretty amazing.

X: And of course every time I go to the States we meet. The next time I went his wife was there and I don’t know if he told her about our relationship. That I was in love with him before and all that, but somehow she behaves with me very nicely. She also knew me a long time ago, she was the daughter of one of our teachers in school, so somehow she knew about how I was and I guess that was fine. I always stay with them whenever I’m in New York. Like I said, I’m in touch with all of my lovers, and that always gives me so much pleasure. I don’t have any bitter memories with any of them, or sad memories, so that’s amazing. And that’s something that always works as an inspiration for me. To give people positive vibes, you can actually think positively and positive things will happen to you. 

T: Amazing, thanks, Xulhaz. 

So, you spoke about telling your friends. What was it like coming out to your family?

X: Well, there wasn’t a single instant actually, there wasn’t a formal ceremony for coming out. I think when I was growing up, no matter how much I wanted to hide the feminine part, somehow or the other they would figure it out. I mean how could you not when we all lived together. They didn’t really appreciate it, they didn’t want me to, but at the same time they weren’t very hard or too restrictive either. Like I said, I grew up by myself, so my parents weren’t that strict and didn’t always tell me what to do or not to do.

Then, when I was around nine, I ran away from home. The reason was not to do with home, and it was actually because of the fascination for that first lover.

T: haha, just to confuse matters!

X: It was a long vacation for about a month. It was a boy’s school and he was my classmate and all that. So I came back and there were a lot of strange things happening after that – I never met him in Chittagong of course, haha,

But I came back home and then my mum took me to see a psychiatrist. Because she just thought that it was too much and going out of control, and that actually did help me a lot. So, I was 9 or 10 years old, and at that age I could not keep it any – I had long nails, with nailpolish, and I would just go to class like that; and it was just too much for my parents to handle. And I clearly remember her say: “there is nothing wrong with you, but you also have to understand that society doesn’t like people like you, so you just have to be very cautious with what you do”. I was telling her how I feel, and how I knew that I was going to change, and she tried to brush it off and said that you don’t change right away, or that it doesn’t happen naturally. But she also didn’t tell me that I will go through anything for certain; but maybe that was beyond her at the time, it was back in ’89. But she did basically tell me that: As much as I could understand about you, you are naturally like this. The psychiatrist, she also carries out these logic tests, and I was fine, I passed, she said: “you’re fine, I don’t see anything wrong with you, but these things you are doing, like keeping the long nails, you see that no one else in your class does that, right? And this embarrasses your parents; it embarrasses a lot of people around you, and you have to be very careful about it. I’m not asking you to change,” she specifically said that, “because no matter how much I tell you to change, you’re naturally so like this that you’re not going to change. But just be careful, because you are getting older now. Because when you are younger, people are kinder to you, they think these things are going to change and they don’t take it seriously. So, she helped me a lot. When she was saying this, I thought about it, that I am a girl, and I didn’t really take her seriously. I told you that part, right? No matter how many times she was saying that I was a guy, I was thinking she didn’t know anything! But, you know, when I look back at it, I guess she could have killed me then, by calling me a pervert. You know a lot of psychiatrists, even these days, say things like that. I know a lot of kids that go to psychiatrists on their own, and psychiatrists say a lot of bad things like they need to get treatment and all that. So, this actually gave me a lot of confidence.

Like, I say this later on, looking back, that there was not a single incidence of me coming out, but I got all these signals here and there. My brother found me trying to sleep with a guy, and maybe I will tell you that story at another time – it’s super interesting – so many interesting things happened in my life. We weren’t like making out; a friend came over after class and we were just cuddling and probably attempting to kiss each other, and he beat the hell out of the guy and told him to go away. But when he tried to come beat me, I would just close the door on his face; I mean I knew, I thought it was fine, why would he beat me up for that. So, I was like a super rebel kind of person. So, my brother had already found that out, and his control over me grew cos he had seen me with someone. But he could never control me, and he didn’t live with us since he went away to college. And he is a typical male person; and my sister who lived in the house with us (my brother only stayed here during breaks); whenever he came home we would have fights for sure. It was always me and my sister on one side, and him on the other. We could never beat him because, first he was bigger than us, and second he was at Army College. But, we would still try to fight him. 

And my sister, she again also saw all the signs that I was different as I grew up. And to her, her way of accepting me was to tell me to be careful. She used to read a lot, so maybe she had actually read about these kinds of issues, and she would say things to me, like I was getting older, I should change. She knew I was older now, and I will be in trouble, and that I embarrass them. So, she was like the guardian person for me, and she would advice me to change. But, when I really grew up, like during my university days, she was the first person to accept me; like we had conversations about it, and I told her that this was it and I wasn’t going to change. I actually came out to her friends before I came up to her. She had a very good boyfriend; she had these 7 guys she used to hang out with; the opposite of me – I used to hang out with 7 girls. So, when she was in university, this guy, but they were not dating at that time, he used to come to our house very often. Somehow, I thought that this guy would understand me, and I told him that this is how I am different. I don’t think he told her or anyone else, he might have had but probably later on sometime. Five or six years later, when she went to the states and we had a phone conversation about this, then she also came home during her break and we had a big fight. This was after 2003, maybe 2006 or ’07; so by that time, I was already 30 years of age. So we had this fight at the house, you know how families tend to get together (for holidays) and there’s always a big fight because there is so much to express and vent about and so many suppressed feelings…like Thanksgiving or Christmas dinners…

T: You don’t need to explain this to me!

X: So, we were having this huge fight and all that. And of course, then she had to put me down and she says: tell mother why you’re not getting married, because you’re gay! And of course my mother doesn’t understand what gay means, hahaha. But she said it because now she had to find something wrong with me. And in response, I told her the stupidest thing ever, which I had to laugh about later. I said: well, if it doesn’t matter if you sleep with a guy, why does it matter if I fuck a guy?! Hahaha…can you believe it? It’s like, what am I talking about – she’s supposed to fuck a guy!! Haha. 

T: So, this logic wasn’t ringing with your mother. haha!

X: That was sort of the first time we had uttered these kinds of things in the house. Everybody – her husband was there, my brother was there, everyone was there while we were having this cat fight. Then finally, my last lover came up, and that was so intense and so obvious that my mum had sort of figured it out by that time.

The way I understand it now, because I would say that we were not seeing each other anymore, and it was like a series of breakups. Like, before we finally decided we were not going to see each other at all, there were a few big fights, and on one of the last nights, KL brought me home and it was probably midnight and my mum was very very worried. And I could not stop crying, and even when she opened the door I was crying my eyes out, and KL was there. And he was leaving, and I did this stupid thing again…we had taken a rickshaw, and after he left I started running after him. Somehow, I thought that if I couldn’t stop him today, then I can never stop him at all, and all these stupid thoughts. And he was totally freaked out, and not knowing what to do, so he held me and walked me back home, took me upstairs and inside the house, and I was still crying. And my mum kept telling him that he should stay, and he kept saying that he cannot stay. And she kept on insisting: “no, you cannot leave my son like this. He needs you here tonight. You must stay.” And he promised her that he’s going to go home, take permission from his parents and come back. So, then I went to my room and I was still crying, and I knew that this was over, over for good. And my mom, she was sitting with me, and after about half an hour, I told her that she should go to sleep. And she said: no, KL is going to come back; and I said, no he’s not going to come back, and you should go sleep. So, these are, I think, her ways of telling me that she understands this.

And the final sign is when the issue of marriage comes up. When my sister got married, she kept on saying, “get married, get married”. Then she said, just get married to any girl you like; and because I was hanging out with 7 girls then, they just thought I will probably choose one of them. And then there was KL?, and she started saying, get married to whoever you like, but she just wanted me to be with somebody. And even then, I wanted to tell her that I do not want to get married, I just don’t want that for me, and it took her another 2 or 3 years to say: “ok, I understand what you mean when you say that you don’t want to get married. You should leave the house and live by yourself, so you know how to do it. Because now you live with us and you don’t actually know what it means to be by yourself. So, I lived by myself for about 3 years, and then we moved into this house. Because it was also difficult for her to move to this house and stay by herself, and my dad had died by then, and my family thought it would be better if I stayed with her. But, the thing is, she accepted all those things I was trying to tell her at all those times.

I never got to come out to my dad, because I don’t think we had more than 100 conversations throughout our lifetime. It’s not that we hated each other, but he was always busy with work and engaged with all these social issues. And even at night, when he came home, people were always coming over and he would always give them time. You know, I don’t really give my family any time, I’m basically his copy. I am not a family persona type at all – I don’t give my mother time or anything. I just live in the same house, that’s it. So, I never had a chance with him, but I think he understood as well. All these things were just so…I was never hiding myself, but in our times we didn’t really have these labels. Nowadays, there are these labels, to be able to use and say: Oh mum, I’m gay. I didn’t even know that word until I was 25 or so. So, I couldn’t really say what it meant, but my behaviour, my lifestyle, I sort of made a point. And you know, in Bangladeshi families, we sort of don’t really talk about love and sex life anyway, so it’s not really different from my brother really. My brother did not come to my mother and told her that this is the girl I want to be with, we’re dating. Instead, when he was of the age to get married, he just said that this is the girl I want to get married to. So, it’s usually more about when we are talking about marriage specifically, before that we don’t talk about this with our families anyway. So, that’s how it goes – a very long answer!

T: No, this is much better like this. In general, I also want to ask about Roopban, and your activism.

X: It was during that time, when I used to roam around in the parks. So, I would meet all these people and with most of them I was not intesreted to have sex with, but I would talk to them. And they would see me around all the time, and they started to come to me and tell me their stories. I had created this image that at least in the last 5 or 6 years, I was someone who has been treating them differently from how society treats them. And even at that time, we would try and get together, we would organize small house parties, get togethers, some of the people were regulars and some random ones, they wouldn’t come there all the time and when they would come it would be to just find someone and leave. Some, they maybe would be there once a month to try and find a sex partner, but the other three or four times, they would just be there to spend time with similar minded people. We would hang out and all, and later we would start chatting with people online, yahoo and all that.

Then later, someone told me B, so I joined that yahoo group. And it was just a mail exchange kind of thing, so people would write and it would go to everybody, and others will reply to all. So, I was in the group for three months and I didn’t like it much, but what happened is that I met some people through that group and I got out of the online thing and met people in real life. So, I would organize this and that, parties, and hangouts and have dinners here and there. And whoever I would meet, one of the things I did, was to not make a separation that these are my straight friends and these are my gay friends. I was very much actively still in touch and hanging out with my university friends, even after my university years. I was the person that everyone sort of knew, so I would hang out with them. So, I didn’t make this distinction between these people, and inevitably sometimes they would both want to see me at the same time, so I decided to have a get together, and I think that’s when my so-called straight friends started meeting my so-called gay friends. And that was a good thing, because I was no more the only gay person my friends knew. And that’s how some of them, they started meeting with the community in general, and rather than seeing me as an individual, it was easier for them to put me in a bigger picture, not just this one case. You know, like an exotic case. They started to think that this is also just like people here and there, just general people. And for the gay friends, they were meeting people who weren’t homosexual, but they were accepting them, and they could see the way things could be someday, it gave them inspiration. If I could be out with my friends, they can also try and maybe life will be different, more comfortable.

So, I was volunteering for whatever B was doing, but also as friends we would do this and that. Initially, it was just doing fun programs, like basically parties and get togethers. For the first 5, 6 years we weren’t doing anything serious. The B had a platform, and Rajeeb even at that time had a very long vision, plans related to the platform and all that. Even though I didn’t consider myself an activist, I was just trying to be a catalyst. I always felt that my life has been so wonderful, and I wanted all those people to have some taste of it. I think Roopban came in much later. We were trying to do another magazine beforehand, SB and I, back in 2010 were talking about it. I’m not in any of the social networks, just Facebook, and even that I am not really into. I just find it too fake, in the sense that these are not real people, even if you have an original profile. Even with chatting, I don’t quite understand what the person is exactly saying, because I cannot see them, to me that is the real thing that matters. And same for magazines, I wanted to see it on the real paper, I prefer that. So, there’s a lot of things going on online, so we came up with a four page tabloid kind of thing. But active participation was very difficult, because I can do a lot of the labor, but I don’t have all the capacities needed – like, I have limitations, I’m not very good at writing or editing, and those we relied on others to do. And SB also didn’t have much time so it didn’t happen. Then Rasel came on board, he was one of the first editors, so he took over and we were thinking that we want a new name, definitely a bangla name. As much as I liked working with B, there were a lot of things that I didn’t like, so I was kind of the antagonist in some sense. I volunteered with them, but since I was critical of their approach, they always thought that I didn’t quite like them, and now this proved it.

T: Cause you set up a rival?

X: Yeah. And I thought this has to be in Bangla, it has to be very locally sensitive. A lot of the things B would do were based around a Western-centric model. Like, things that were being said in the west, like sex is glorified, and love is not. And we decided that we will talk about homosexual love, and we will not talk about sexuality. So, approach-wise, we changed the focus there, and we also wanted lot of bangla words to be used, so that it would make sense to a lot more people out there. And we thought we could then reach out to other people too, people who do not really look like us, you know like reaching out to the lower classes. Because, even at that time, the B group was very much English speaking, middle income, and because it wasn’t really online-based, it was very limited to who knew whom personally. Nowadays, people have a lot of access to the internet, but at that time it was very very limited to only a certain economic group. So, we figured that we had to break that, and those are things that we wanted to change, and that’s how Roopban came into being. 

Like I said, at that time we didn’t want to be a platform, we just wanted to be a magazine. But, when we started talking about it, of course we needed to talk to the community to see what they wanted, so that meant we had to organize events to engage with people, and that’s how it became a platform rather than just a magazine. So, even before the magazine came out, the name was already out there – we were doing talks and of course parties and get togethers.

And then when I moved into this house, this house became a sort of melting pot for everyone to come to. Because was always used to seeing people in the house, it didn’t matter to get, and now she was also at an age where she didn’t care anymore. Other than Roopban, this house is like a hub, where people can come and just be themselves, they can be here and don’t have to hide themselves or act differently. But the house is not part of my activism, it’s there if you want to come and have a good time – fine. And I don’t really invite people to come over, but sometimes I will come home and see that there are already 5 people in my house, having a good time. I think my mom is fine mostly, but maybe once a month she gets irritated with the number of people! Maybe she has a bad day now and then, but mostly she’s okay with it. So, after a year of work, the magazine came out, in 2014, and then it was like a tidal wave. Because it was talked about on every other newspaper, we were being talked about online, and then a few months after that we did the rally. And both of these things were just too massive for people to handle, and suddenly everyone knew about Roopban, the name was out there, even among the general people.

T: So, it was controversial?

X: Yes, of course, even within the community people started blaming us for doing too much in such a short span of time and making this issue too available to the public. But, we didn’t do it for the sake of the popularity, we were doing it because we wanted to do it.

Even for the rally, the initial idea was that we go and join the rally anyway, so why not just walk together and add a rainbow to it? It was as simple as that, and we didn’t want to make any big point. You know, we had these discussions a lot when we prepared for it, like should we make a point out of it, and we decided to just have a good time and not be activists that day. So we didn’t have any specific point, we just used the rainbow; and when we came back we posted it on facebook as we had a great time. And again that went viral because one of the newspapers, which usually publishes raunchy news because that’s the kind of news that go fast, like tabloids go viral so fast. So they wrote about the rally and then the name of Roopban went out and people started talking about it.

And after a year, we went through a major change, because Rasel and I had a huge disagreement over the way we should work; I had my way of working and he had his point of view, so we decided we should not work together anymore. And at the same time I realized there was a reason for Roopban to become a platform, and who wants to do that without fixing any mission. So, that’s when Tonoy and a lot of other people came in and we talked, we decided that no matter what, we should at least meet every fortnight, and we can decide what we want to do, and try and do it more organized than what we were doing before. So, now we had a 10-person Executive Committee, whenever there was a serious decision to be made, we put it out there, and it needed to be a majority voted decision. Initially, I was deciding, and people were just doing the things, and in some cases they might not have been the best decisions; and then it’s also more autocratic. Now, anyone who wants to do something get together, and everyone has an opinion, and we don’t do anything unless it is passed by the Executive Committee.

Then, last year we had the Youth Leadership Program, and got this pool of young volunteers signed up, so whenever we need any kind of voluntary work they participate. I also volunteer to do this work, but we specifically call them volunteers. And later, some of them can make it into the Executive Committee. One of the trans men who was in the EC, left and went abroad to study, so he is no longer in the seat. So, some of them from the volunteers can be part of the EC, I am not sure if we are ready yet but we can talk about it. And I am already in the second year, so after this year the EC should dissolve, and other people should take over. But, we don’t see anyone yet, or at least I don’t see anyone. To see anyone is actually difficult so it has to go through a process, and that I will see. This came out as a result of my brainchild, so it’s a bit funny to put me out of it, this is difficult.

T: I can understand that.

X: So, the way I see it, is that of course I will be a volunteer, but I don’t want to be in the leading position for years and years and years. So, if it requires another two years that I lead it, fine, but honestly I don’t think that’s a good idea, because then it will continue like this for another 2 years, and nobody will take charge. That’s my logic for it. It’s the same everywhere in our country, until the Prime Minister leaves, no one else steps up. The current leader needs to step back, or someone else will not come out there. But I haven’t seen anyone yet, and again the problem is I don’t know how to solve this thing – if I don’t step out, no one will step in. But the way we are doing it now, we are doing individual projects; I’m delegating. At least, that’s how they are able to practice some leadership; nobody taught me these things, I just knew I had to do it and I did it. In the same way, if I wasn’t there, someone else would have done it. But now everyone thinks, he’s doing it so I guess he’s doing it, we just have to follow and I think that needs to change. We have to find a more practical way to do that. 

T: It’s about finding someone who is passionate and organized.

X: So RM is doing the RYLP. Most of the youth leaders, we are giving them the assistant positions – like assistant program manager for that. That way they also get a chance to learn the way these projects are run, and they can also give their inputs from their perspective as youth. They can come and join the EC meetings and give their opinions there, but we don’t allow them to vote there since they are not regular members, and that can just complicate the process, but their opinion is always valid.

T: What are your thoughts about how Bangladeshi society could start to change, you know, like in its societal practice, thinking about LGBT issues?

X: Even two years back I had high hopes, if I take myself as the case study, I always actually blamed the gay people for not expressing themselves. I was always saying you blame the heterosexuals for not accepting you, but you haven’t given them the chance to accept you. And, if they don’t know about something then they will fear it, because that’s what they’re supposed to fear. Nobody’s coming to change it, so it is partly our responsibility to be out there. So, if we organized ourselves and took the right way to teach people, we should make more progress. Even 5 or 10 years ago, in terms of religion or ethnicity, people were more open, because we never had religion as a big issue in society. It was more political or fights over land. If two Muslims were fighting over land it was about land, but if it was a Muslim and a Hindu then the issue was about religion. But now, with religion and ethnic differences becoming major issues, and people tend to be labelled right away for their political and religious differences. And that worries me, because if there is no space to express your differences, if I have to worry for my life at all times, if I have to talk about this, and somebody will come here and kill me, then it slows you down in a way. I could have done more, but homosexuality is always a taboo, and now it’s just more obvious.

Like atheists were hated even before, but they were not killed. But now, they are being killed, and it is popularized, as a celebrated thing to kill an atheist. If you see the news of an atheist blogger being killed, you see the comments you’ll see a lot of people congratulating the act and saying that they have done a great job. And if I just consider this as an opinion poll, then I know that’s how people think, that just because someone has a different point of view about religion then they should be killed. And since homosexuality is strongly related to religious beliefs, that’s what worries people most, not that they care about people, and I mean it’s anyway illegal in this country. 

T: People don’t seem to talk about that much.

X: They don’t even know about it, it’s one of these stupid ancient Colonial laws (377). But they definitely know that it’s forbidden in the religion, they know that they will go to hell. So, that’s what worries them, and that’s why talking about it is difficult. So, even with the rally, whether we will be beaten up by someone or the other next year, is a possibility. The space in which you can try to do something different, that leading your life how you want to, it’s become more difficult. Like, five years ago, I would say that okay I’m different, and some people don’t like me and that’s fine. Like, I don’t want everybody to like me. But now, trying to be different means some people don’t like me and many of them may even want to come and kill me. And that is worrying, it limits your ability to work, because you have to worry about that, and even to organize people. I think we were making more progress 5 years ago in terms of trying to have people come and work, or volunteer, now everyone is more worried and don’t want to work on this issue. Like, I’m saying LGBT people in general, they worry a lot; before I guess they were worried about shame, or what will happen if the family finds out. But now it’s more about security concerns rather than just shame and all that. So, that has to change, and that depends a lot on the government’s will to change that situation. 

I seriously think the government needs to take stern actions on that, so that those people who are trying to manipulate these things get the message that they can’t do that. There needs to be a large level awareness campaign in terms of saying that people may have differences, people may say different things, may have different lives, but that doesn’t give you anyone the right to go and kill them. And if somebody does that then they are a criminal, and should be treated as a criminal. I’m sure there will be people out there that want to take radical action like this, but other people not hail them, it should be considered a crime and not an act of heroism. At least 50% of the country would clap if a blogger is killed, and maybe 100% will clap if tomorrow I am killed. And this will show up as a homosexual activist or leader, or volunteer for Roopban has been killed by this Islamic group, or doesn’t even require an Islamic group – by this person; and a 100% people will clap. For Tonoy, maybe 95%, not 95 in terms of percentage of the population, it will be 99.99% even so called progressive writers and stuff, since they don’t know much about it, they will also want to at least in this case, say that it is the right thing to do.

So, we have a lot of work to be done. Reaching out in Dhaka is very important, even though it’s very Dhaka-based, at least voices from different parts of the country are important. And we definitely need to reach out to other human rights organizations, human rights groups, and do a lot of communication, because as of now, in all the LGBT related activities, we don’t fight for the ethnic minorities, we don’t go on and fight for the rights of garment workers, we don’t go and fight for these other issues. I think we should go join forces, and then there will be more voices speaking for us.

T: Has there ever been gay characters in Bangla television shows or movies?

X: There are effeminate characters, usually as comic characters, so people don’t talk much about homosexuals, not even in our literature. We had a writer’s workshop last year, and the sessions were taken by renowned poets and writers, and they were bragging about how they have brought these radical speakers. So I ask them, how come none of their writings have brought up this issue, at least in the Bangladeshi scenario. How come you’ve never talked about same sex love, or made one of them a character in your novel, or in your poetry, or in your story? As a writer, you’re talking about women or men, farmers, politicians, but do you not know about this issue, so how did that not happen? They have so much imagination that they are able to write about people going to Mars, but how come this doesn’t come into their imagination? And basically, they did not have an answer. Why are they so shy about this? So, that’s why we have to publish our own magazine, if nobody else will be talking about us, then we will talk about us. haha 

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