A conservative society with its prevailing and defining standards on sexual orientation is not the most fortunate place to grow up in when you do not conform to the set norms. People are expected to live within the rigid expressions and identification of sexuality and gender pushes LGBT people to lead invisible lives.
GHRD had the honour of hosting Tanvir for the launch of the report ‘The Invisible Minority’, a cooperation effort between Boys of Bangladesh (BoB) and GHRD. This proved the perfect opportunity for an interview. As a human rights defender and director of the Boys of Bangladesh (BoB) – a network for gay men and women in Bangladesh – he is dedicated to ensure that people who are struggling with their sexual orientation can find a safe place to share their feelings and insecurities. Such a network is a true necessity in a country where coming out is a frightening process. It is not without reason that a survey, conducted in 2014, showed that 60.1% of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community experiences feelings of frustration and 20.9% admits to feelings of self-hatred. Here is Tanvir’s story.
Many people of the LGBT community in Bangladesh are less fortunate than you, and their sexual orientation proves to be a struggle for them in many ways. What are the issues they face on a daily basis?
Being different or unique is mostly frowned upon in Bangladesh where the society is driven by heteronormative patriarchy. Being effeminate is labeled inferior and being gay is considered a weakness. One can be bullied just for having an effeminate voice or gesture. Almost all the LGBT people go through different sorts of mental trauma. In a recent survey we found that 66.5% of the community live in constant fear, 69.6% admit to feelings of depression and 26.5% have suicidal thoughts.
Even Tanvir, nowadays a vocal advocate for the rights of the LGBT community, struggled with the intrinsic homophobia during his younger years. Before he heard of the Boys of Bangladesh for the first time he had never thought of getting engaged in activism in any way.. For Tanvir, homosexuality was at that time still a taboo subject. His coming out to a close colleague years later proved to be a turning point. Having told his close colleague the truth about his sexuality, Tanvir watched the relationship turn cold and realised he needed to mingle with likeminded people.
In the years that followed your first encounter with the Boys of Bangladesh, you worked your way up the ladder. Nowadays you are the director of the network. Could you describe the work BoB does?
Boys of Bangladesh, popularly known as BoB, is the oldest network of self-identified Bangladeshi gay men and women from Bangladesh. Contrary to what the name might suggest, BoB is not a exclusively gay man platform: we welcome everyone from the wider queer community as well as its allies and supporters. It is a non-registered and informal group run by a group of dedicated volunteers who strive to provide a safe space for like-minded people. One of our key tasks is raising awareness about diverse gender and sexuality issues and eventually building a strong community based on friendship and solidarity. Community building, strengthening and mobilizing are our top priorities. Along with community-focused work, we are also strategically expanding our support network by getting in touch with people at home and abroad and informing them about our existence and work.
Why is it so important to provide safe spaces for the LGBT community?
It is important so that we can come together, and share our thoughts, feelings and experiences and ultimately find a place where we can truly belong. A country where the predominant religion identifies us as a sinner, the law of the land as criminal, social norms as a pervert, culture as ‘imported’, life of an LGBT person in Bangladesh can be terrible. Like other human beings it’s equally important for us to express feelings. Living in a conservative society, LGBT people don’t have many spaces in Bangladesh where they can speak their mind.
During Tanvir’s traineeship at Global Human Rights Defence he served as a vocal advocate for the cause of equal rights for the LGBT community. In his capacity of director of Boys of Bangladesh, he met with several members of the Dutch parliament and members of the European Parliament to draw attention to the current situation of the LGBT community within Bangladesh. Not only did he meet with representatives in the political world, but he, together with our Human Rights Officer, Naz Tuncay, also gave several lectures at the Dutch universities to shed light on the issue for a wider public. During his stay in the Netherlands, Tanvir also participated in storytelling event that served as a platform to launch a jointly created LGBT report “The Invisible Minority”. The report discusses in detail the situation of the LGBT community, including the Hijra and Kothi communities not particularly familiar to the European public, in Bangladesh and is based on the original data collected by BOB and analysed by GHRD's Human Rights Officer, Naz Tuncay, who is also the lead author of the report.
For those who are not familiar with these communities, could you explain us what Hijras and Kothis are and whether they are accepted in society?
Hijras were assigned male at birth, but do not identify with being male. They are recognized as semi-sacred individuals who live in groups, who can bestow fertility, prosperity and health upon a newborn and its family. Hijras are treated as outcasts and many do not have access to a proper source of income and cannot hold mainstream jobs due to social stigma and their lack of access to education. Kothi is a Bangladeshi term used for effeminate men who have sex with other men. Kothis also face similar issues due to their non-conforming gender expressions which are not accepted and stigmatized by the society due to rigid and binary understanding of gender expressions.
Do you think the socio-cultural and religious taboos regarding sexual orientation are likely to change in the coming decades in Bangladesh?
Being a human rights defender, I obviously believe that there will be change in the coming years. The change will occur when there is sexuality education, social awareness and discussion as well as international pressure. For the discussion and awareness, fact-based research like this [i.e. the report ‘The Invisible Minority’ is very important. Moreover, there should be more information and discussion available of these issues in social media, so that people of all ages and social groups can access the information quickly and easily.
Is there an active civil society in Bangladesh working on LGBT rights that can facilitate this change?
Unfortunately, there currently is no active civil society working on LGBT rights, but there are several informal platforms who talk about the issue to raise awareness in the society. The formal networks, especially international ones or sponsored by the international community, mostly focus on the health perspective. However, few civil society organizations such as ASK include LGBT issues in their annual human rights report. This is understandable, since officially working on LGBT issues from a human rights perspective in Bangladesh is quite difficult at the moment. Addressing the issued from the health perspective, however, can limit the effects such work has. I believe in the value the human-rights based approach directed at the wider behavioral change.
Fortunately, the online activism among the LGBT community is rising towards a community movement with the help of NGOs like Bandhu Social Welfare Society (BSWS), and platforms like Roopbaan, Shambhab (gay women’s network), and, of course, Boys of Bangladesh (BoB). Another step forward is the Bangladeshi Government’s positive statement on the recognition of ‘hijras’ as third gender in 2013. This was the same year in which BoB raised the issue of LGBT rights at the Universal Periodic Review in Switzerland.
There is still is long way to go in Bangladesh. One of the most frightening laws is Section 377 of the Penal Code of Bangladesh which criminalises same-sex relations.
Even though this section has never been invoked in Bangladesh, does it impede you or the LGBT community in any way?
Section 377 has never been enforced in Bangladesh. However there is no point of keeping this provision, which imposes inequality in the society. We want to highlight this issues so that the Government engages and takes the lead in the public discussion on the negative effects of section 377. Besides it’s also important to have more debate about this penal code so that people are more aware of it in our society.
Tanvir, it has been a true pleasure having you around. Your visit to the Netherlands has almost come to an end. Could you share some of the most memorable experiences with us?
I liked the way the Dutch MPs are quite to the point about the issue. They were very clear that as a foreign country you cannot directly influence the policy of another country. But I liked their perspective regarding foreign trade. The consumer behavior of a person here might change towards ‘Made in Bangladesh’ if they are fully aware of the human rights situation there.
To end our interview in a more positive way, are there any funny cultural differences you encountered?
The co-existence of so many different people all together in GHRD’s office and outside was mind blowing. The number of bicycle surprises me a lot too. I also liked the warm nature of the people, especially the way they smile and say hello, good morning or thank you to a stranger is really nice.
What could you advise the readers who wish to contribute to the struggle for LGBT rights? Is there anything we can do from outside Bangladesh to help?
The readers can support us by reading the report as well as following both GHRD and Boys of Bangladesh on Facebook. They can also contribute by sharing their views with others because discussion is the first stage of any social change.
 The survey was carried out among the LGB community, mostly focusing on self-identified gay men, in Bangladesh by Boys of Bangladesh.