LGBTQ+ people don’t exist in a vacuum: TQ speaks to Shakhawat Hossain Rajeeb

Shakhawat Hossain Rajeeb is a leading Bangladeshi LGBTQ+ rights activist. After a series of threats, state persecution and the loss of close friends, he left the country and is now living in exile abroad. He was kind enough to respond to questions sent by Ibtisam Ahmed about the struggles of the movement and the celebrations of its successes.


TQ: Hello Rajeeb, thank you for agreeing to speak with The Queerness. How are things for you now?

Rajeeb: Hello! Thank you for having the time and energy for me. Much appreciated. I am assuming by ‘things’, you meant my overall well-being. I am physically fine at the moment but still in a rather strange psychological state. Soon, it will be two years since April 25, the day we lost our two valiant activists Xulhaz and Tonoy, and the day many of our lives changed forever, but it still feels like yesterday.

Moreover, it has been quite a task to start life from scratch in a new country with a different language, culture and unique challenges. I am still in a limbo in terms of my legal status, which prevents me from getting a proper job, accommodation, and social support etc. I have been aware of the situation of LGBTQ+ refugees in Europe but it is one thing to know and another to actually live it. A life in limbo or a life waiting to happen is not what I would wish even for my worst enemy. Nevertheless, every day, I feel grateful to be alive and to be in a safer place than many of my friends and colleagues who are still living in Bangladesh.

Many of our readers may be unaware of the situation regarding LGBTQ+ rights in Bangladesh. This is a tricky question to answer in just one go, but do you think you can give a glimpse into what has been happening in the past decade?

Tricky question indeed! And it could probably be a stand-alone PhD subject itself! But to sum it up, the LGBTQ+ movement in Bangladesh has been gaining substantial visibility and political edge in the past decade, thanks to a growing number of platforms, brave activists, some civil society support, technological advancement and global influence. But visibility begets violence, especially in a country where there is no legal protection (instead, homosexuality is criminalized), where there is strong religious sentiment, patriarchal heteronormative values, lack of education, civil society space, and resources to mobilise, and space for dissent.

Basically, all anti-LGBTQ+ elements that one can think of exist there. The country has also seen a sharp rise in religious extremism fuelled and sustained by petty political interests that put the progressive and regressive forces of the country at loggerheads in 2013. Since then, the country has witnessed a series of brutal murders of activists, bloggers, atheists, free-thinkers, professors, and minorities by Islamist extremists. And the target range has been ever expanding, making LGBTQ+ activists the latest victims. The State mechanism was no less complicit in safeguarding the extremists (the government being a populist one in a Muslim-majority country) and oppressing the victims further.

One may ask, how was it then possible to work for LGBTQ+ rights in such a dangerous environment or whether it was strategic/prudent at all to work for visibility? And that is a valid question! For that, we need to understand the multiple layers of visibility and the organic formation of a nascent movement. While many of us worked for many years to build a base, foster a support network, generate knowledge and create safe spaces for communities to form in a rather discreet manner, there were others who believed in pushing the boundary and challenging the status quo. And it is not always possible for such human-centered, organic processes to be coherent and strategic, no matter how big or small the movement is. The coordination becomes even more challenging when the movement is led by volunteers, loosely formed groups and a bunch of resource constrained enthusiastic visionaries.

Sometimes, this is what brings positive changes. And sometimes, this is what causes a backlash. So, basically, there is no formula for a movement to succeed. All we could do was to believe and strive for change. The environment may not have been the most suitable but isn’t that the whole point of a movement? It would be victim-blaming and counter productive to hold our actions accountable for our misfortune but yes, soul searching is definitely necessary for the movement to rebound and not to repeat past mistakes.

Could you tell us a little bit about Boys of Bangladesh and what sort of work you did?

Boys of Bangladesh, more commonly known as BoB, is a non-profit, non-funded, non-registered and non-formal organisation, which started its journey as an online platform in late 2002. That makes it the oldest platform of self-identified gay men in Bangladesh. It is run by a pool of volunteers who are divided into a core group (the management board) and the operational part (the executive). Over the years, it has established itself as the pioneering platform of the LGBTQ+ movement by creating a safe space, fostering solidarity and increasing visibility to mobilise the community and its allies.

Our work is divided into three major thematic areas. First is the community mobilisation where we do all sorts of social events, capacity-building training, psycho-social counselling etc. Second is advocacy, which includes public campaigns, research, seminars, knowledge creation, policy debates and the like. And the third is networking, which is very important since it helps us build connections with local, national, regional and international actors. We do all of these works in our own personal capacity since we do not receive any core funding and have no office or staff. All our programmes, projects and events are self-sustaining in the sense that our community and allies own and sponsor them as and when necessary. We also work in close cooperation with other like-minded organisations, which in turn enriches our network, outreach and public visibility.

It would be great if your readers read more about us on our website (www.boysofbangladesh.org) and on Wikipedia.

From the outside, things seem to have got worse. Violence against activists and the recent arrests have grabbed headlines. If you feel comfortable sharing with us, how much are these incidents representative of what is going on widely?

The murders of the two activists and the detention of 28 gay men from a social event grabbed major headlines and justifiably so. But that was really the tip of the iceberg. The conditions for the LGBTQ+ community in Bangladesh have indeed got worse. And by that I don’t mean there are more killings or arrests happening. I mean State-sponsored homophobia, shrinking civil society space, clamping down on basic human rights, denial of protection, crackdown on social spaces, increased fear of persecution and violence, and the death threats looming on every activists. None of these is less dangerous than the killings or arrests.

LGBTQ+ folks don’t exist in a vacuum. They are disproportionately affected by everything that is happening around them. More importantly, our sense of solidarity and community network has suffered a major blow and has been struggling to recuperate in the face of State harassment and extremist threats. Activists are continuing to receive threats and intimidation. Some well-established organisations have been warned of registration cancellation or stifling of their funding. Mainstream human rights organisations, which used to be our allies, are unable to talk on our behalf. There is an indirect ban on media to publish any positive news on LGBTQ+ issues. Even the Hijra activists and their organisations, who enjoy relatively more social acceptance and State recognition, have been under the fire. People on social media have gone a step further by launching a witch-hunt and outing LGBTQ+ folks.

In what ways is it important for LGBTQ+ rights to be considered its own separate issue? And in what way is it important to consider it part of a wider human rights concern?

I don’t think LGBTQ+ rights are a separate issue. As I mentioned above, LGBTQ+ people don’t exist in a vacuum. Our issues are very much a part of the wider human rights movement and should be looked at from all forms of identities and intersections. Activists must acknowledge how race, religion, class, ability, ethnicity, language, gender, sex, patriarchy and other norms affect the life of an LGBTQ+ person.

Having said that, it is important to pay more attention to LGBTQ+ rights in countries like Bangladesh, where it is rarely part of the mainstream discourse. Here is where the issue of organising and resource distribution at the micro and macro levels comes in. If we look from the macro level, society consists of multiple minority groups. Strengthening each of those groups will eventually strengthen the society. We are a minority within minority. While the leadership and directive must come from the grassroots LGBTQ+ specific organisations, the implementation and sustainability should be cross-sectional. Here, I must clarify that the onus to be nuanced and inclusive falls on the mainstream organisations since they have more resources, capacity and approval compared to grassroots LGBTQ+ groups. It does not mean every human rights organisation must work on LGBTQ+ rights. It is not expected and also not the right thing to do.

However, a human rights organisation must have a non-discrimination policy based on sexual orientation, gender identity and sex characters or other identities. It must base its mission, vision and activities keeping in mind how different issues affect different communities and how they can minimise inequality and injustice. So the inter-identity approach should be at the core while identifying issue-specific activities. And most importantly, ownership and leadership of those issues must lie exclusively with that community.

LGBTQ+ folks don’t exist in a vacuum. They are disproportionately affected by everything that is happening around them.

Bangladesh has homophobic laws but the culture is also steeped in queerness like the visibility of the Hijra community. How do you try and explain such complexities?

Again, another PhD topic! But let me try. Bangladesh is a country of paradox and extremity. The society is also steeped in hypocrisy along with its queerness. Sex is an extremely stigmatised and taboo subject. But we are also one of the most densely populated countries – the irony! So, we frown upon anything that has to do with sex. The reason why the Hijra community has gained substantial social and State recognition is because Hijra individuals are commonly understood (or misunderstood) as asexual beings. In fact, the anti-discrimination act (which is in its drafting phase) and the government ordinance (not a law to clarify) declaring Hijra as a third gender mentioned them as ‘sexually disabled’ persons.

So, when some of them were sent for medical tests (to determine whether they were ‘real’ Hijra) for a government job, most of them were disqualified as doctors found them to be perfectly capable ‘men’. The ones who were certified as Hijra had undergone the castration process. So, for the government and the society the idea of gender identity does not exist. I wonder how society and the government will react if they were to learn the truth about the gender identity and sexual orientation of most Hijra. In fact, a segment within the Hijra community has gradually started to work to bust these myths and emphasise self-determination. They do not want to live their lives based on any ignorance or false idea of acceptance. However, we must acknowledge that the Hijra community is an extremely diverse one encapsulating a wide range of gender identities (or the lack of it) and sexual orientations (or the lack of it).

The same goes for the homo-social environment where same-sex physical intimacy is accepted under the context that two guys holding hands or male friends staying over at night does not mean anything sexual. Moreover, intimacy between same sexes is seen to be only natural in a setting where gender segregation is commonplace. But put a sexual connotation to that intimacy and all hell will break lose. Moreover, the patriarchal values may allow men to be ‘adventurous’ to an extent as long as he fulfils the social obligation of marriage and conceiving children.

So, in Bangladesh’s context, ignorance is bliss. And many gay men are weary of disturbing this setting, which allows same-sex relationships to flourish in discretion. They are strongly against any activism that may hamper that status. This plays out within the framework of identity versus behaviour. For many men, especially from an underprivileged background, being gay is limited to sexual behaviour. Most of them would not identify as homosexual, especially the men who play the active role in the intercourse.

For another group of men, who identify with the Westernised definition of being gay, their sexuality is much more than just physical pleasure. They associate human rights, emotional bonds, and a whole different life with their sexual orientation. It is the latter group, which has been spearheading the movement and hence also has been the most vulnerable. Nevertheless, these two groups are not mutually exclusive and can be equally affected by homophobia, State persecution and social ostracisation. The key is to find this common ground and come together despite all the differences.

I personally find this ignorance, hypocrisy and fluidity very intriguing. The less rigid form of masculinity is refreshing and the absence of a concrete identity box is less toxic. If only this came without the burden of discrimination and violence! Also, this blessing of ignorance will not last forever, not when we are a part of the global village. What happens in India or the USA or elsewhere has a ripple effect. When India makes Dostana or when Moonlight wins an Oscar, our discreet same-sex relationships will not get away by simply saying ‘we are just friends’. Two guys holding hands in public will be beaten up (which is already happening), hotels checking in two girls will inform the police (which is already happening as well) or, like Indonesia, they will barge into our homes and drag us out for public lashings. So, this argument about identity versus behaviour will be futile unless we prepare ourselves for the future.

However, we must acknowledge that the Hijra community is an extremely diverse one encapsulating a wide range of gender identities (or the lack of it) and sexual orientations (or the lack of it).

How can Bangladeshi voices be heard without resorting to the victim trope while also acknowledging the dangers faced by Bangladeshi activists like yourself?

Great question. Thank you for asking that! The answer is simple; we must acknowledge the agency of the individual and not impose our own narrative or understanding of victimhood. Just like any other identity, this should come from the person. Just because I suffered violence or discrimination does not mean I am an individual with no agency or dignity. The victim trope, no matter how empathetic it is, can be further stigmatising and disenfranchising. The media loves a victim because it generates more likes and shares for their social media content. The international NGOs love a victim because it means more money and more fame at the expense of that individual. They make the victim believe that they are needed whereas the truth is actually the opposite.

While a victim may momentarily gain from all the attention, it does not lead to any substantial change either in the person’s life or in the community. So the world must learn a more humane, informed and empowering way of talking about struggle and individuals. The click-bait, fast-paced, fame-mongering and money-making attitude must go. When we are listening to an individual, we must realise how traumatic, difficult and heartfelt it is for the person to share the story. We must surrender our ego, our saviour mentality, our privileges, and try our best to treat the person with dignity. This requires a lot of energy but if we are not willing to spend that then we should not be engaging. It may sound like I am expecting a lot from an individual who might be just doing their job (which may involve listening to hundreds of others) but then what can the cost be of having access to a person’s most intimate details?

You do so much amazing work without wanting any type of recognition and I feel that applies to many activists from the Global South. How do you tackle something like visibility, or the lack thereof?

Visibility for us is a double-edged sword. Too little of it, we are non-existent. Too much of it, we are exiled or worse, dead. And I don’t think we have a choice here, sadly. We must strive for visibility but at the same time try to keep ourselves as safe as possible. It is more about being strategic, about knowing what I am getting into and how I will face the consequences. It is about making informed decisions.

But sometimes, all precautions fail. We go three steps forward and then retreat two steps. But even in that process, we make at least one concrete step. That’s how we move. It is a long, arduous road. Short-term narrow vision won’t help. It is important for the leadership to sustain its momentum, to help prepare future torchbearers. Unfortunately, ours is not an attractive mainstream movement where one can become a celebrity activist overnight. It has more dangers, fewer perks.

Without any disrespect or belittling anyone, it is far too easy and glamorous to lead an NGO for underprivileged children and become an icon. You will find hundreds of volunteers running through the streets for them. But it is extremely difficult to find someone who is willing to take so much risk and yet have complete dedication without expecting any reward. Hence, it is really trying for someone to keep on fighting for LGBTQ+ rights in the face of so much adversity, personal safety and resource constraint. It is an exhausting, thankless but extremely gratifying job.

So the world must learn a more humane, informed and empowering way of talking about struggle and individuals. The click-bait, fast-paced, fame-mongering and money-making attitude must go.

Do you have any personal wishes going forward?

I would like to see my memoir, which I am working on now, get published one day. I believe this will be an important documentation of the LGBTQ+ movement in Bangladesh, an inspiration for future activists and a tribute to the heroes we have lost.

What would you say to someone in Bangladesh reading this right now who afraid of what is happening and is afraid of their own identity?

Someone reading this interview in English language on an electronic device, I assume, has substantial resources and certain privileges. My suggestion would be to find out how best the person can contribute to the movement without compromising personal safety or identity. There is always something we can do, no matter how small or insignificant. Not everyone has to be on the frontline. We can make a difference by sitting in our couch in our comfortable room. The idea is to make ourselves useful, be a part of the community and then we will not feel alone or afraid. We are the strongest when we are together.

You can find out more about the work of Shakhawat Hossain Rajeeb’s work at the website for Boys of Bangladesh, including ways to support the movement.

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