Tanvir Alim a prominent Gay Rights Activist from Bangladesh shares his views on the mindset of the Homosexuals in this pre-dominantly Islamic society. He also gives a vivid description about the contribution of BoB towards educating the gays about their rights and aspirations.
Ashok Deb: Dear Tanvir tell me about your association with BOB
Tanvir: I was basically an inactive member of BoB. Few BOB well wishers cajoled me to be active way back in 2005, but I refrained being scared of disclosing my sexual identity. The prevailing Homophobia in society and office created an invisible wall which prevented me to COME OUT.
Ashok Deb: and then what happened?
Tanvir: Later at a certain stage I felt isolated and lonely in this homophobic society and decided to come closer to like-minded people. I started meeting BoB members in different offline events and found them to be quite friendly and helpful. Sharing my feelings with them was of great relief which I could not communicate with my colleagues, family or classmates. The homely atmosphere of the community inspired me to COME OUT and subsequently work for it.
Ashok Deb: When I talked to Himadri last time, he said that it is quite difficult to make people COME OUT and proclaim their sexual identity. Even after COMING OUT rarely people opts to be an activist. So what is the journey of yours into Gay rights activism?
Tanvir: Absolutely right. At a certain point of time an individual feels that it’s not worth enough to conceal his sexual identity, and at that time he COMES OUT. I found BoB community to be very co-operative which ultimately convinced me to become a volunteer. Initially I advised BoB on concepts of event management and now as an activist and moderator I’m whole heartedly associated with BoB.
Ashok Deb: I think Bangladesh has a higher percentage of Homosexuals than other countries. Some studies have indicated that about 10 percent of the total population may belong to the category of SEXUAL MINORITY taking their count to about 18 million. Still the gay and lesbian community is virtually visible, as people rarely comes out.
Tanvir: No idea about the statistics, but I feel in Dhaka the rate of Bisexual people is increasing. Secondly there is a significant category [I am not aware if there is a suitable term for them. If not, we should make one J] who are gay and later they get married succumbing to social pressures. After marriage still they claim themselves as gay and not bisexuals. These two categories were not identified in the statistics I presume.
Ashok Deb: Why does so few of the Bangladeshis decide to Come out?
Tanvir: I have knowledge of some people who CAME OUT but generally homosexuals lack strong self-confidence, determination and visionary thoughts [actually the correct wordings would be “some people are hopeless”, even though I don’t want to use the phrase] and hence can’t sustain the social approbations. Societal pressures, family bondings, poor skills of managing a crisis, lack of self-confidence, religious beliefs are the main obstacles to COMING OUT. I want to quote a line here.
I often ask people, “Why don’t you be a member of BoB?”
The reply is always, “ki dorker.” I repeat, “Ki dorker” [What’s the need of that?]
The general perception of the homosexuals is “I can get what I need physically without socializing with the community. So why do I need to get in to a coming out hassle?”
If you consider our economy,Bangladesh operates barely at basic levels of survival. Earning a livelihood is the sole priority of an individual and neither are the sexual minorities much concerned about their social bonding, mental needs or community building. In this situation proclaiming his sexual identity or activism is a cock and bull story even among the Gay community, let alone lesbians and others. The consequences of COMING OUT for lesbian in a society like ours is beyond imagination. Hijras and Kothis are OUT in a way but people’s perception towards them is quite shocking. I presume that Bangladeshi Gays opts a path of least social resistance, ridiculing and approbations and hence they get married. In my opinion it’s not the Gays who are solely responsible but also the social structure, taboos, and religious mindset which acts as a barrier to COMING OUT. But I’m optimistic that things will change soon.
Ashok Deb: So the norm in Bangladesh is that ALL GAYS HAVE TO GET MARRIED to avoid social scrutiny
Tanvir: I would like to say the norm in Bangladesh is that ALL GUYS AND GIRLS HAVE TO GET MARRIED to avoid social scrutiny J.The rule applies even to straight people too.
Ashok Deb: yes……I have been watching the transformation of BOB , which early acted just a meeting point of Dhaka Gays is transforming itself as one of the premier Gay activist centre in the country.
Tanvir: Yes, but few are supporting the concept where majority thinks it still not the right time and is unnecessary. I personally enjoy the transformation as a gift of time.
Ashok Deb: Even the same feelings echoed with my conversation with Himadri, who told that people wants to use BOB more as a Gay meeting place
Tanvir: Earlier members used it as a cruising site but things are changing. Lots of appreciation, suggestions, ideas as well as criticisms towards activism are appearing on the message board. Initially the general members may not approve of this TRANSFORMATIONS but I believe it will have an impact in changing their mindset and will contribute in awareness building. You may have already noticed that some people have found BoB message board as their room to give independent opinion which I feel is very positive.
Ashoka Deb: So what BOB is doing to help the homosexuals come out and recognise their sexual orientation
Tanvir: Well, BoB is working very strategically and with caution. Initially BoB Management arranges get-togethers, hang-outs and picnics. When the new members feel comfortable with BoB volunteers and understand that we can be relied upon, they start keeping in touch [Community Building] and at a certain level, community develops. In this development process it helps people to recognize their sexual orientation and some people do COME OUT.
Ashoka Deb: Generally I feel that there should be more visibility of the homosexual community and that cant be achieved if people don’t come out.
Tanvir: You are right that there should be more visibility of the homosexual community, and truly it cant be achieved if people don’t come out. But the closeted trend so far and the hesitations to COME OUT reflects that the members are not comfortable with the concepts of coming out and visibility. Even the online message board is saying the same regarding activism. While arranging some events, I found people are more still prefers meeting someone in private , rather in an event. I was often asked in online chats, “Are you very open? I don’t prefer too open people to meet.” Even my X boy friend was discouraging me sometimes to attend BoB meetings frequently though he was open to his parents. If you add all, the abstract is – people do not encourage this coming out and visibility right at this moment. There are lots of factors, variables, misperception, and politics working behind it. I believe, let them take their time and come out naturally. I think we need some more time to establish our own visibility.
Ashoka Deb: It means still we are not even near to push for same sex rights in the country.Right??
Tanvir: Yes, I don’t think it’s the right time. The recent crowd are not ready for it.But I strongly believe that we should start the ground work for the same sex rights. Finding our identity, coming out, relationships, social bonding, relying on each other are dependent on this.
Ashoka Deb: Is BOB taking any steps of awaring the society that Homosexuality is not a sin but a natural phenomenon
Tanvir: Yes Bob is doing it in a very strategic ways. The events are the best solutions I felt, the film shows, the hang outs, workshop, training seems initially fun but deep inside it is giving the message to the people - Homosexuality is not a sin but a natural phenomenon and come out with your identity. You are what you are. There is nothing to feel shy or hide and you are not alone. We are here with you.
Besides while arranging events, we generally inform the venue owners about the crowd. Often there are heterosexual peoples whom BoB never restricts , so the message in a way goes out.
Ashoka Deb: I heard that last few years in Dhaka Book Fair there was few gay affirming literatures
Tanvir: Yes, there are books like Prantiki, Iraq er Diary and some others. Some other writers a re-working on it I know. I hope there will be more reviews on these books so these issues can come to the lime light.
Ashoka Deb: Even BOB has written many Gay affirming letters to the dailies for granting rights for the sexual minorities, aint it?
Tanvir: In Daily Star there were submission of letters and debates on homosexuality in 2006. It was quoted that even though homosexuality has been omitted from the psychological disorder list but in Bangladesh we are still under Sociatal and Governmental pressure as it is perceived more of a perversion.
There was a telecast at ETV on THIRD GENDER where our friend Katha Apa speaks on the issue. Last month I was watching a documentary at Goethe Institute “Reflection” based on MSM populations. One of our friends has prepared an article for Bangla newspapers which I was reading the other day. I admit that things are a bit scattered but still in progress.
Ashoka Deb: That’s good. Tell me about your new publication
Tanvir: Well, during my early days in this community, I heard lots of efforts for a publication but it never came out.So I took up the challenge and started working for it. Our major objective is to reach the general community people who can not access the internet or read English. That’s the sole reason we have opted to publish it in Bengali.
Ashoka Deb: Is it a work by the gays…..or FOR the gays
Tanvir: It’s on Sexual diversity. The contents cover homophobia and lesbians, articles on personalities, dialogues between Hijra community, community news, book reviews, interviews, travel etc both from Bangladesh and Kolkata. Now we are working on photos, classified ads, quotations, cartoons etc. You can say it is a collaborative work by the sexually diversified people to all. On the other hand a straight person can read it and have an impression or awareness about sexual diversity
Ashoka Deb: Is it a little magazine or a full fledged BOOK
Tanvir: It’s going to be a twenty page mag and will be published every four months.
Ashoka Deb: So its more of a BOB mouthpiece or in other words the voice of sexual minorities of Bangladesh
Tanvir: The Voice of sexual minorities of Bangladesh. We initially asked for the write ups at BoB message boards. Besides messages were put up at Bombay-Dost and kolkata_ gayindiansmeetingpoint message boards too. There were oral communications to our friends. The response came that way. Here I want to mention a point
Ashoka Deb: Yes
Tanvir: The content of the publication is the people’s voice, which may not go with the motto, moral, mission or vision of BoB
Ashoka Deb: I could conceive it……so the appeal or target audience is the homosexual community.Right?
T:anvir Yes, you can say sexually diversified bangla speaking people who does not have internet access or cannot read English.
Ashoka Deb: and where did u get the funding from
Tanvir: No funding so far.
Ashoka Deb: But have you guys approached any international Gay Rights Agencies for fundings of your activities
Tanvir: We can easily get funds but in that case we may have to compromise with our morals. For example, now I identify myself as a male homosexual, in that case may be I have to call myself an MSM. But still we are thinking of this issue. If we can get a fund with comfortable guidelines, which could really help us to bring a creative communication.
Ashoka Deb: Yes funds do come with guidelines, fortunately or unfortunately.
Ashoka Deb: I know that BOB generally prescribes people to Jagory for voluntary blood testing
Tanvir: Yes, from our experience they proved to be the most homo friendly, educated, reliable and cheap. To them BoB has a certain image which is reflected in their service.
Ashoka deb: If I may summarize, BoB have an aids awareness program, workshops on sexual diversity and its own publication.
Tanvir: Regarding HIV, we generally distribute safe sex manuals and had voluntary HIV testing. But our main work area is rights activism. At present there is a training program in progress on Gender, sexuality and rights. We have a good coalition with other people like lesbians, bisexuals, Hijras etc and organizations who are working on this with that we are participating in some national and international workshops. We are planning for the next phase of our organizations. If we can become an organization in near future, we have plan to document the rights violations in Bangladesh, special campaign to remove homophobia etc. There are loads of on line and off line activities in the pipe line that are about to come
Ashoka Deb: Did BoB ever send any representation to the government about Gay rights
Tanvir: There are some ground works in progress from our end where some other organizations are also involved.
Ashoka Deb: Now as a journalist I hate to ask this question. I was in Bangladesh and so I am aware of the volatile political situation and the influence of Jamaat and Islamic Unity Alliance in Bangladesh scene. Recently The Islamic Ain Bastobayaon Samiti is pressing for Sharia Law ,which was hithero unknown in our society and scrapping of all development projects by UN. Do you fear that at one time your visibility will be a problem for you?
Tanvir: When we plan for something, we keep that in mind. Even in small get together we have to think of security measures. It will be a problem for sure, but we have to fight. Jamayet is a threat for progressive thinkers let alone us.
Ashoka Deb: Later when the community increases in numbers and starts fighting for its rights, there may be persecutions. Does that make you people less confident?
Tanvir: We are not. There were prosecutions as well as compromise with them before. So are we supposed to sit idle thinking of that?
Ashoka Deb: its great to have this conversation with you. It will be posted in BOB page of LGBT Bangladesh
Tanvir: I enjoyed talking to you a lot. For further details or clarification readers can e-mail me anytime. firstname.lastname@example.org