Bangladesh has been on the pages of the western media of late, mostly due to political violence, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, and attacks on minorities. One of the minorities rarely mentioned in any media, Bangladeshi or western is the gay/lesbian population of the country. It is a topic seldom discussed anywhere, very rarely even in progressive circles. It is not that the estimated more than 10 million gay/lesbian Bangladeshis are having a great time in Bangladesh. Instead, they are constantly on the vigilance, having to watch behind their backs for fear of being found out. In the process their lives and those who are dependent on them are being ruined.
A new visitor from abroad may be struck by the open display of physical affection between same genders in Bangladesh. On the surface it can appear to be quite a friendly environment for gay people. After all, in how many western countries would you be able to see grown men walking hand in hand throughout the city streets? In the early evenings the scene is even more romantic where a stroll in the park reveals groups or pairs of young men singing love songs to each other, some of them even acting out some scene from a Bangla movie. How can one not be moved watching a man lying on the grass resting his head on another man’s lap while listening to his love songs? One would think this is the paradise that gay men talk about. If only it were to be so.
Legally homosexual acts are an offense, a remnant of the British penal code from the days of British domination of India. However, there is hardly any necessity of invoking those legal codes for the persecution of gay/lesbians in Bangladesh. The social approbation is strong enough to push these acts deep in the closet – so deep that gay people prefer to let the society ruin their lives rather than risk humiliation which is sure to follow any revelation. This is nothing new; most of us have experienced the trauma of ‘coming-out’ and many of us have taken a different route to mitigate its harshness. What is interesting in Bangladesh is that the culture is incredibly homo-social, i.e. there is a strong affectionate bond between the same genders that is allowed in this gender-segregated society. In that sense it would be too simplistic to define the culture as being homophobic – there is really no fear of intimacy between same sexes. Even Islam, the dominant religion, puts emphasis on the brotherhood (literally) of men.
The threat perceived both by society and religion is the exclusive adult union between the same sexes that would threaten the procreation oriented hetero family structure. Parents feel an absolute obligation to marry off their children before their own death. As if driven by a genetic imperative towards procreation Bangladeshis feel that they haven’t fulfilled their duty as parents if they have not carted off their children to the altar of hetero matrimony. And, of course, the next step is the push for grandchildren. Within this context it is very rare that gay men or lesbians can resist the pressure to marry and to procreate. They marry, have children and then have furtive sex on the side. Gay and lesbian relationships are pretty much out of the question. Not much different than how millions of gay men and lesbians are coping with intolerant societies all over the world. However, there is also an aspect of “I refuse to see it unless you shove it in front of my face” which tacitly accepts the semi-secretive extramarital sex life of married gay men. I don’t know much about how married lesbians cope but I doubt that it’s any easier than for gay men.
But I do know many gay men who are married with children. For the most part they live a very secretive life, hiding their innermost feelings from those who are supposed to be the closest to them; their wives, their best friends, their parents, their children. Surrounded by their families and their straight friends they are completely isolated. Nobody knows them, though they are seen by everybody. At least, that is what everyone wants to believe.
What is the social price of such invisibility? To be continued …
[The author Pinku is a repatriated Bangalee scholar writing his diary for MM from Dhaha, Bangladesh.This article was first published for Mukto Mona