The Shadow Citizens
There are gays in every society, including Bengali
society, and there is no sense in suppressing and stifling homosexuality.
Magazine, May 2004
By Afsan Chowdhury
They will forgive me if I commit a murder but not if they
find out that I have a boy friend.” Mohsin is 28 years old, a Bangladeshi,
and a gay. He was speculating on the possible reaction of his upper middle
class family members if they were to discover his sexual preference. Having
graduated two years ago, Mohsin has landed a decent job in a development
outfit and knows his mother will push for his marriage as soon as his youngest
sister ties the knot. He is terrified of that moment. He plans not to tell his
family, and not to marry either.
Is he overreacting? There has been a number of cases
where the family has accepted the same sex proclivity of their sons, and even
daughters. While family dinners with same sex partners are still not in,
children are not always thrown out if they are revealed to be homosexuals.
But there certainly are difficulties when homosexuals
first declare their preference, known as “coming out” in gay parlance.
Most families respond with dismay and a kind of corporate shame. Many feel
that they have gone wrong somewhere in the child’s upbringing.
Since some gay activists in Bangladesh are very highly
educated, once in a while, foreign education is cited as a reason for being
gay. In fact, Bangladeshis are very active on the global gay scene. But those
still in the closet oscillate between confusion, guilt and fear. “Why do
they hate us?” asks a gay man in Dhaka. “Except for preferring people of
the same sex as partners we have done nothing wrong.”
Being gay in Bangladesh isn’t easy because society
responds differently to sexuality in public and in private. To put it bluntly,
society is hypocritical, for it says one thing and does another. People
involved with gay issues say that between 5 to 10 percent of the population is
homosexual. That would mean at least 6 to 12 million Bangladeshis, more than
the total population of many countries, prefer the same sex.
Even if that estimate is considered to be on the higher
side and is reduced by half, the number left would still be significant. But
almost no discussion can take place on the subject, even with the threat of
HIV/AIDS looming over Bangladeshis and gays being identified as one of the
most vulnerable groups.
One of the reasons that homosexuality is treated so
gingerly is that the country’s Criminal Code decrees sodomy (homosexuality
or advocacy of the same) a crime which is punishable with a jail sentence. Any
discussion, not to speak of debate, is hence ruled out and homosexuality is
driven into the shadow world.
Demonstration of homosexual tendencies for short periods
is quite common in Bangladeshi society. Those practising it are not ostracised,
although if caught, are ridiculed. Like in other societies, gay relationships
flourish in dormitories, barracks, labour colonies and hostels, and
authorities are hard pressed to keep them a secret.
In the Dhaka University dorms, cases of young boys being
kept as “regulars” are well known. Male prostitutes are available in most
towns. And in rural areas, homosexuality is generally considered something
that young people do for fun and some elders may do in secret. Male
homosexuality is tolerated despite religious sanction. Yet divorce citing gay
behaviour by any partner is not known.
It is a different story for lesbians, however. Although
it is no secret that dormitories record incidences of lesbianism and studies
have corroborated the fact, it is kept a secret fearing loss of marriage
prospects. And marriage, after all, is society’s idea of a woman’s
ultimate nirvana. Literature has recorded a high incidence of shakhi culture,
where proximate friendship develops between two women in which emotions are at
least romantic and may lapse into “touching”, though both parties may deny
any sexual overtones in such relationships. Psychologists say many shakhis may
be substitutes for boyfriends.
Society frowns upon single women, and the social pressure
to marry—doesn’t matter who to—is intense. Most succumb to it, despite
their sexual preferences, and end up miserably knotted.
Heterosexual girls suffer in marriages with male gays
too. “I can’t run away from my responsibilities. I have a family. So I
stay although we are like strangers at home,” says Sultana, a 30-plus
housewife married to a gay. Many gays, forced into marriage, often resort to
clandestine and then increasingly open gay relationships, leaving women with a
dead marriage to have and to hold. Children, economic dependence and
“shame” prevents any divorce actions.
There are some instances of lesbians entering permanent
relationships, but most lesbians are married and whatever sexual liaisons they
may enter into are purely by chance. “I have had sex with a woman only once
in my life,” says Zaheda, who works for a travel agency and lives with her
disabled sister. The tolerance level for lesbians is very low in Bengali
society. It is low for women in general. One either worships them (mother
models) or abuses them (partners).
West Bengal (India)
The situation is somewhat different in Bengali society
across the border in India. At the elite level, there is considerable
acceptance of homosexuality and of gay groups.
Homosexuals keep in touch with each other through
magazines like Provortak (published from Calcutta) or through gay
organisations. Some activists in Calcutta are directly involved in running
sexual health projects jointly with official agencies.
Although India also has the same laws relating to sodomy,
gays are not prosecuted. A petition for scrapping the sodomy laws is awaiting
action at the Supreme Court in New Delhi. A number of organisations like the
Humsafar Foundation have been working for wider acceptance of gays in Indian
society with some degree of success. In West Bengal, there have been
occasional instances of harassment, but gays can operate with relative
openness. Gay prostitution is high, operating out of parks and other public
Some Calcutta lesbians, many of them married, have set up
private clubs which are basically places to get together. But the stigma of
female homosexuality remains strong in West Bengal as well, even though the
pages of Provortak are full of pieces by lesbians discussing their problems.
In Bangladesh, it looks as if the sodomy laws will remain
in the books for some time to come, not a little because of religious
opposition. Whatever society may do in private, publicly they want respectable
laws. In India, social attitudes are more liberal and relaxed, which allows
gays to “come out” and access health and other services more easily.
Meanwhile, the least that the authorities could do is
wake up to the reality of gay behaviour and recognise that health and social
issues are becoming more and more pressing where homosexuals are concerned.
Homosexuality does not disappear by ignoring it. Some Middle Eastern societies
have adopted a pragmatic approach by maintaining that because homosexuality is
a crime committed against God, the matter should be dealt by Him on Judgement
Day. Perhaps this interpretation should be used to provide Bengali gays with
some respite as well, if not in society at large, at least in law?
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