"Fuck LGBT rights," said "Adam."* I forced a laugh and turned toward the window, if only to hide the look of shock on my face. Outside was Dhaka City, a bipolar urban landscape full of modern homes and apartments for the wealthy and slums and shantytowns for the rest.
Of the over 150 million people here in Bangladesh, a country geographically not much larger than New England, 90 percent are Muslim. Increasingly, some Muslims are turning to violent extremism in order to push for a Bangladesh where women would be forced to stay at home and Sharia law would be the law of the land.
So it's no surprise that my family's homeland of Bangladesh would be hostile to LGBT rights. But that's not why I was shocked by what Adam said. Like me, Adam is Muslim. Like me, Adam is Bangladeshi by blood. And, like me, Adam is gay.
Surprisingly, the lack of LGBT rights in Bangladesh has less to do with religious conservatism and more to do with an intransigence among the Bangladeshi LGBT community when it comes to even wanting such rights. This reality and the reasons behind it were to be the focus of a TEDx talk I was to give this month.
Unfortunately, that is a TEDx talk that you will never see.
* * * * *
"No one wants to face the problem," said "Sasha." He is one of the leaders of "Boys of Bangladesh" (aka "BoBs"), one of the oldest and largest LGBT organizations in the country. Sasha is also one of the few guys within the Bangladesh LGBT community who is on the same page as me. "I can't make them understand," he sighs, his disheartened frustration bleeding through his voice.
By "them" Sasha means two things. First, he's referring to the government, which still outlaws homosexuality and refuses to register or recognize any LGBT rights organization. But secondly, and most surprisingly, Sasha is referring to the Bangladesh LGBT community itself. As a Rice University academic and proponent of LGBT rights in Bangladesh once put it, the Bangladesh LGBT community lacks "initiative" to push for its own rights.
And that's putting it lightly.
* * * * *
"I absolutely do not support LGBT rights in Bangladesh!" proclaimed Adam as his mouth curled into a slight smirk. Compared to lower-middle-class Sasha, Adam talked with an airy confidence and certitude that speaks to his family's upper-class privilege and wealth.
As Adam put it, the LGBT right he cares about the most is his "right to get laid." He bragged, "I've had orgies in my bed." Adam's attitude reflects a reality in the Dhaka gay community: the preference for clandestine, no-strings-attached hookups and the virtual absence of long-term relationships.
"The perception of relationships isn't here yet," confessed "Paul." A soft-spoken guy from a middle-class family, he is the exception to the rule. He has tried many times to sustain a long-term relationship, but, as he put it, "it went nowhere." Sooner or later, his boyfriends would break it off to please their parents by taking a girlfriend -- or a wife.
"There is no end result of a relationship," explained "Wayne." Fashion-savvy and sporting hipster glasses, Wayne is one of the few people in the Bangladesh gay community who might actually ping your gaydar. It's perhaps for this reason that I admire the serene, nonchalant attitude with which he carries himself. "Most are scared of falling in love with a Bengali guy," he said. "It's just not sustainable.... I can't expect a boyfriend to stand up for love." When I pointed out that advancing LGBT rights and acceptance would make this easier, Wayne replied, "Human rights first, then LGBT rights."
I hear that a lot in this community.
* * * * *
"These women are heroes," said "Theo" glowingly. He is a local aid worker for an NGO. When he isn't spending time with his boyfriend, he's usually in some rural village working on a life-saving project. In this case, he was talking about women who were volunteering as community health workers.
In many respects, I envy Theo. He's out to his friends and co-workers but avoids drama by keeping his family in the dark. He manages to do this because he has his own place, with all the privacy he needs. He's independence affords him the I-don't-give-a-fuck attitude he uses to deflect the family pressure to get married.
Unfortunately, in a country where half of children are born into poverty, few are as lucky as Theo. Moreover, the kind of independence that people like Theo have is a privilege reserved for men. Sadly, no matter how hard things are for men, women will always have it worse, gay or straight.
LGBT rights in Bangladesh might seem like an indulgence, something to set aside until more pressing rights are addressed. But the lack of LGBT rights in Bangladesh acts like a multiplier, amplifying every single socioeconomic problem that an individual can face in this country.
And just like poverty, it can kill.
* * * * *
"He was a very good friend," Sasha told me over the phone. As I wrote this blog post, a member of the gay community in Dhaka committed suicide. His close friends are now tasked with the duty of balancing their grief while not accidentally posthumously outing him to his family.
As Sasha explained to me, his friend was facing depression coupled with self-medication through drugs and alcohol. However, his depression stemmed not from a struggle to accept his sexuality, or even from a fear of being outed. Rather, it was grief over a failed relationship.
Being gay and depressed in Bangladesh often means facing a double stigma. Recognition of the legitimacy and seriousness of mental health issues is still culturally in its infancy here in Bangladesh. Many in the LGBT community suffer in secret. I know this all too well, and it eventually forced me out of the closet.
In response to this suicide, Sasha and others in the gay community have rallied in private to start a support group. Think of it as an underground Trevor Project, but with none of the funding or professional training, and with access limited to only those who know it even exists.
People like Sasha know that this is just a Band-aid over a bullet hole. But there isn't much more they can do. In fact, of all the people mentioned in this blog post, not a single one of them is completely and publicly out of the closet. As one of the few who are, I've tried my best to spread the idea of LGBT rights in Bangladesh.
Unfortunately, as I've discovered, some ideas aren't "worth spreading."
* * * * *
"You're not forbidden to mention that you're gay," explained Mohammad Tauheed. He is chair of TEDxDhaka, one of the most prominent, publicized, and prestigious speaking events in Bangladesh. In August, I had been invited to give a TEDx talk at their event this month.
With one confirmed speaker giving a talk on animal rights, I knew in my heart that there was only one talk I could ever possibly give at such an event. I pitched a talk focusing on LGBT rights in Bangladesh, with an emphasis on the need for such rights, and on the internal and external hurdles to achieving such rights.
They said no.
"They are having a talk on the rights of dogs, but not a talk on LGBT rights?!" Sasha asked me with incredulity. While there are other publicly gay individuals who could speak on this issue, TEDxDhaka decided instead to simply keep "the LGBT issue" off the table.
In face of this rejection, and in the wake of this recent suicide within the gay community in Dhaka, I did my best to put LGBT issues back on the agenda. Unfortunately, heartfelt emails to all levels of TED staff (which lends its name to TEDxDhaka) and even the TED founder have been met with silence.
Whether it's silence from TED, the government of Bangladesh's recent rejection of a United Nations recommendation to abolish the laws outlawing homosexuality, or intransigence from individuals within the gay community like Adam, what I've learned is that there are many ways to say the same thing:
Fuck LGBT rights.
*Names in quotation marks have been changed.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this post used "TED" and "TEDx" interchangeably, when in fact TEDx is a program of independently organized events "created in the spirit of TED's mission" and licensed by TED but separate from it. This post has been updated accordingly.