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Define yourself sexually.
Pinpoint the first time you became aware of your sexual organs.
Share when you became cognisant of being a different gender from others.
Those were the provoking, intimate, and self-analysing questions and exercises asked to the participants at a recent gender, sexuality, and sexual rights workshop. These inquiries engaged the participants to comprehend, de-construct and re-construct the social definitions of gender and sexuality imposed upon them.
Can we in Bangladesh say we prefer same-sex relationships?
Can we state, as men, we feel trapped in our biological bodies, and feel, think, and act as women?
Can we equally assert, as women, we feel imprisoned in our female bodies, and perceive ourselves as males instead?
Can you imagine the level of stigma, ostracism, and violence heaped upon the brave citizens who dare to openly declare their preferred sexual and biological identities?
A community of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender (collectively referred to as LGBT) is now emerging in Bangladesh. Inspiring, insightful, and assertive young men and women are identifying themselves as gay, lesbian, transgender, or men who have sex with other men (often abbreviated MSM) and are emerging from beneath the cloak of anonymity.
Their open existence creates a context for candid discussion about their lifestyles and sexual preferences, and focuses attention on their causes. These courageous men and women reveal their identities at the risk of being rejected by families or friends who disapprove of their lifestyles; they also risk harassment and violence.
Members of the LGBT community desire to assert their identities, and crave acceptance – just like the rest of us. They are forced to balance their natural desire for self-expression against their fear of rejection by a largely homophobic society which considers them “deviant” and denies their very existence.
They often reject Western labels, searching for less foreign ways to define themselves. For example, some women (of a certain generation) in same-sex relationships refer to themselves as shomopremi nari (women who love women).
Some men prefer the term MSM (men who have sex with other men). Others prefer gay, queer, etc. In addition, the hijra community has a clear hierarchy based on different roles and relationships within the community.
Many people do not feel confident or secure enough to declare and embrace their alternative sexuality. Some suppress their natural inclination towards same-sex relationships, having internalised the view that such desires are deviant; others opt to conduct clandestine same-sex relationships while publicly maintaining a conventional marriage with children. Members of the second group (who surreptitiously carry out same-sex affairs) tend to expose themselves to great health risks.
The LGBT community is coming together with the objective of educating mainstream society about their existence. This is a necessary step towards the creation of safe and secure arenas in which people struggling to come to grips with their sexuality can come forth. Furthermore, the LGBT community resolves to acquire better healthcare facilities that specifically cater to patients of diverse sexuality.
According to Professor Sabina Faiz Rashid at the Centre for Gender, Sexuality and HIV/AIDS, BRAC University: “Interventions that address reproductive and sexual rights are health-focused with the rights approach largely missing… [the] realisation of the importance of a rights-based approach has not been translated into practice.”
In other words, the healthcare facilities currently offered to Bangladeshi citizens tend to ignore the reproductive health concerns and care for transgender and homosexual citizens. For example, many transsexuals willingly submit to penectomy or vaginectomy (removal of their biological reproductive organs) which is performed by ritual cutters in terrible unhygienic conditions. In the absence of trained surgeons, appropriate surgical facilities and post-operatives care, some of the patients suffer from serious infections and other complications.
The misconception that HIV/AIDS is a “gay disease” has taken hold in Bangladesh: the LGBT community is frequently blamed for the spread of HIV/AIDS. Misplaced blame has led to further denigration of their lifestyles, and may explain why the medical establishment largely ignores the healthcare needs of the LGBT community. The government of Bangladesh has prepared a national strategic plan for HIV/AIDS for the period 2004-2010 but these documents have bypassed the issues related to LGBT except for a “slapdash reference to males having sex with males.”
The legal system also ignores the particular needs of the LGBT community. The crime of male rape is still not legally recognised, rape is seen as a “heterosexual phenomenon both legally and culturally.” Until the law recognises male rape as a crime, men or boys who have survived rape cannot seek justice in the legal system.
Rape should be legally defined as sexual intercourse to which one party is physically forced to submit; the definition should not depend on the sex of the victim or the perpetrator.
The LGBT community also suffers from violence and harassment. According to Professor Rashid: “Sexual minorities struggle to cope with violence in the public sphere, especially by the police, who, instead of protecting them routinely subject them to violence, extortion, and sexual abuse.”
Commonly, hijras, kothis, and effeminate males are subject to severe physical and sexual abuse by law enforcement. Section 54 of the penal code allows individuals to be arrested on grounds of “suspicion of moral misconduct.” The police cite this section to harass, penalise, and criminalise people of different sexuality. However, Section 54 is also applicable to heterosexual “misconduct.”
Marginalised sexual minorities suffer harshly from this legal instrument because of their poor knowledge of the law and because heterosexual society is not interested in recognising or protecting their rights. Members of the LGBT community have declared that they frequently pay bribes to the police to avoid physical harassment and abuse. They also endure abuse and violence at the hands of local thugs, who must also be appeased with money.
The LGBT community is gradually emerging into the public domain and specific groups have formed associations. The debate over their lifestyle and over the recognition of their human rights is slowly attracting the attention of the media and of heterosexual society. Their voices and their experiences of brutality, oppression, suppression, denial, acceptance, and their personal stories of being gay, MSM, lesbian, shomopremi nari, transgender, intersex are now a part of our cultural milieu.
In order to further their causes, what is needed is to build a strong network of support, and gain a level of acceptance which will allow them to come out and be themselves. The LGBT movement needs to become a wider social movement: women and men from all socio-economic backgrounds must be brought on board to support the recognition and acceptance of the LGBT community, as diversity enriches our society.