Great empires may come and go, but like the tides, they leave behind a tangled assortment of flotsam and jetsam. In the case of the British Empire, that included much that one might admire, but also a British Protestant morality that was codified in laws that persist to this day. Section 377 of the colonial Penal Code is a striking example. It classed consensual oral and anal sex as "carnal intercourse against the order of nature" and made it a crime punishable with imprisonment for life. When the British administrators withdrew, they took their soldiers, but left their law books behind. Section 377 was recently repealed in India, but it is still very much on the books in neighboring Bangladesh.
Prosecutions under Section 377, which effectively makes homosexual sex illegal, are extremely rare. Section 377, hence, does not impair Bangladesh’s moderate image in the world and questions about the country’s human rights record on the issue of homosexuality are avoided in the international arena. Nonetheless, Section 337 forces the local LGBT community into a shadow existence. Their official illegality silences their voices in the public sphere.
Sam is a self-described bisexual living in Dhaka, the capital, where we spoke with him in December 2010. He is a Muslim-born Hindu of 25 years and works as a university teacher. Six years ago, he discovered that his sexual orientation deviates from the cultural norm in Bangladesh. He has had sexual encounters with women before and currently is in a romantic relationship with a man. Sam and his boyfriend go on trips together, hold hands on the streets of Dhaka and share a bed when staying at each other’s places. Since male-male friendships are traditionally very intimate in Bangladesh, these practices cast no doubt upon their presumed heterosexual identities. Family and friends consider Sam and his boyfriend to be close friends. "As long as you don’t come out open to your family, you are safe," Sam explained. Sam is not his real name. Afraid of the possible social and legal consequences, he agreed to speak only under the condition of anonymity.
Like Sam and his boyfriend, many homosexuals in Bangladesh hide their sexual orientation from their friends and families. Coming out can have a wide range of consequences. Some gay men who inform their families about their sexual orientation are forced into heterosexual marriages. Other parents consider homosexuality a mental illness. Sam told us of cases in Bangladesh where electric shocks were applied to homosexual men in an effort to "cure" them from their supposed psychiatric condition. He is convinced that, "unless the government, parents and friends understand that a man or woman can be a gay or a lesbian and yet be a very good and devout Muslim, Hindu or Christian, the chances for LGBT rights in Bangladesh are low." Society in Bangladesh is far from that. Homosexuality among men is seen as a morally depraved Western phenomenon that needs to be fended off. However, mainly due to new media, times are changing.
Starting out as an online group in 2002, an organization called Boys of Bangladesh has become a central forum for gay and bisexual men in Bangladesh. BoB currently has more than 2,000 registered members. In November 2010, it conducted the second edition of a festival titled "Under the Rainbow," in cooperation with the German Goethe-Institut in Dhaka. Under the slogan "Accept Diversity and End Discrimination," the five-day festival included movie screenings, art exhibitions and musical performances and brought together leading human rights activists from within the country and abroad. Angela Grünert, director of the Goethe- Institut, explained her involvement in the LGBT movement in Bangladesh with the belief that "everyone should have equal rights in the society," regardless of religion, ethnicity, sex or sexual orientation. BoB organized various other events, mainly in Dhaka, and its representatives attended international conferences.
Change on the subcontinent is also happening on the legal front. An Indian court in the country’s capital, Delhi, decriminalized homosexual intercourse by repealing Section 377 of the Indian Criminal Code in July 2009, saying that treating certain forms of consensual sex between adults as a crime is a violation of fundamental human rights.
"The people who were against homosexuality before are still against it," said Arunima Ray, who grew up in Kolkata and joined the Mathematics Department at Rice as a doctoral student in fall 2009, "but with Section 377 repealed, people can be more open about their sexuality, and children will not grow up thinking that having a different sexual orientation from the norm is unnatural or abnormal. With openness there will be communication, and someday understanding, and maybe even acceptance." For Sam, this is a sign of hope. He is convinced that, due to the profound cultural links between India and Bangladesh, the Indian court’s ruling will spark a public debate on LGBT issues in Bangladesh and encourage the homosexual youth here to fight for their rights.
Some movements in Islam, such as the U.S.-based Al-Fatiha Foundation, argue that homosexuality is compatible with Qur’anic and Hadithic teachings and work toward the acceptance of non-heterosexual romantic relationships within the global Muslim community. However, in Bangladesh, religion remains the single most persistent obstacle for LGBT rights. Shams Imam, a doctoral student in the Department of Computer Science, expects that political leaders in his home country of Bangladesh will use traditional interpretations of Islam as an excuse to keep Section 377 on the books once the issue of homosexuality has risen to broader public awareness. He would find "such a move rather hypocritical given that only a fraction of Bangladesh’s Muslim population performs Salah (ritual prayer), Zakat (alms-giving) and other obligatory acts in Islam."
The LGBT rights movement in Bangladesh is growing rapidly and the voices for the repeal of Section 377 are becoming louder. The issue is bound to emerge into a public battle over the young nation’s religious and cultural identity, human rights and modernity and will pose a challenge to policymakers, religious authorities and leaders of civil society alike.
Column by: Rainer Ebert, philosophy doctoral student, and Mahmudul Hoque Moni, University of Dhaka