Bangladesh’s LGBT community and the UPR 2013

Published : 27 April 2013, 01:14 PM
Updated : 27 April 2013, 01:14 PM

"Ever since I was in first grade, I was teased by my classmates for my girlish behaviour. Back then, I didn't even know I was gay; and being called gay was quite offending. I used to get teased, bullied and even took a few hits for my 'inappropriate' behaviour.

As I grew up, I started to realize that I wasn't attracted to girls, but to guys. This was somewhere around third grade. At around the same time, I had seniors come and ask me if I was gay. Naturally, I said 'no,' but they didn't believe me. So, as a child I ended up being completely unsocial and without friends, just because I wasn't 'normal.'

I made my first friend (who was a girl, because guys were still pretty hostile towards me) in fifth grade. I told her everything: that was the first time I actually admitted out loud to being homosexual. Eventually, word got around, and a few days later everybody knew I was gay. I still didn't admit to it when asked. I was scared.

I remember that my games teacher didn't like me for my 'abnormal' behaviour. He told me that I walked and talked 'like a girl' and that I should 'fix myself.' When I refused to listen to him, he ended up hating me and not letting me play football or basketball, or do anything the other guys would do.

When I came out publicly, it really wasn't a shock. My classmates somehow learned to accept me; however, the bullying never stopped. The seniors and the juniors started calling me names and some of the seniors even went physical on me. People used to steal my copies, stationery, and pencil-bags; all because I was gay. Of course, when I came out to my mom, she didn't support it: she gave me a long lecture about how it's unnatural and wrong.

I'm in ninth grade now. The bullying hasn't stopped; people got tired but I still get the occasional snide remark from a senior. The games teacher still doesn't let me play and manages to insult me every time I see him. I've learned to ignore that. I have a bunch of wonderful, accepting friends who don't really care what my sexual orientation is.

I guess I just got lucky: if this were some other school, I would have had to face way worse than what I faced here. Some people still choose to tell me that homosexuality is an 'abomination' and that I'll go to hell for being gay. I wouldn't say that it doesn't hurt, but I just choose to ignore it.

Homophobia ruined my childhood. As a child, I wasn't strong enough to bear the insults and the punches all the other kids threw at me. I used to come home and cry every day, and the worst part was that I couldn't tell anybody else. If only the society was a bit more tolerant, and parents taught their children that it is okay to be different, I could have had a nice childhood."

This is the anonymous story of a ninth-grader, posted on one of the various online groups for gay men and lesbian women in Bangladesh. He is not alone. In Bangladesh, like everywhere else in the world, some men love men and some women love women, and their stories often sadly resemble the story of the anonymous ninth-grader. Homophobia is endemic, but things are slowly changing, and Bangladesh's gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) citizens need our support in their struggle against bullying and discrimination.

Since 2001, when the Netherlands became the first nation in the world to legally recognize same-sex marriages, more than a dozen other nations have followed the Dutch example, most recently and just a few days ago France. In 2011, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) passed a historic resolution in which the inter-governmental body expressed "grave concern at acts of violence and discrimination, in all regions of the world, committed against individuals because of their sexual orientation and gender identity." United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had urged the Council to respond to the "widespread bias at jobs, schools and hospitals, and appalling violent attacks, including sexual assault," referring to the fact that gay men and lesbian women have been imprisoned, tortured and killed as "a monumental tragedy for those affected, … a stain on our collective conscience," and a violation of international law.

In Bangladesh, people who are attracted to members of the same sex not only suffer the social stigma of "being different," like the anonymous ninth-grader, but are also discriminated against as a matter of law. Bangladesh belongs to a minority of states that not only refuse to recognize same-sex unions, but also criminalize same-sex sexual relationships.

What many people do not know is that the LGBT rights movement in Bangladesh has gained considerable momentum in recent years. A number of small, yet tangible victories have been achieved. Just a few months ago, for example, National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) Chairman Dr. Mizanur Rahman announced that his team, in collaboration with the National Law Commission, is drafting an anti-discrimination law which would also prohibit discrimination based on a person's sexual orientation and gender identity. Earlier, Dr. Muhammad Yunus and three other Nobel Peace Prize laureates released a statement in which they called for the legalization of same-sex sexual relationships.

While these developments give hope, the struggle for LGBT equality is still in its early stages and LGBT activists in Bangladesh try to use every opportunity to bring attention to their cause. One such opportunity is only days away: On April 29, Bangladesh will be subject to Universal Periodic Review (UPR). The UPR is a UNHRC mechanism that will examine Bangladesh's human rights performance. It will be the second time that Bangladesh is evaluated by other UN member states, following the first time in 2009.

The UPR aims at improving the human rights situation on the ground in each of the 193 UN member states. Each UN member state is subjected to this review every four and a half years. A notable characteristic of the UPR process is that it allows for civil society participation at almost every stage. Most importantly, stakeholders (including NGOs and other civil society actors) are invited to submit their own reports along with the one from the government. The UPR hence gives a voice to those neglected by their respective governments and has proved to be a powerful tool in upholding the human rights of marginalized and disenfranchised groups.

Bangladesh's LGBT community, too, has discovered the UPR process as a way to raise awareness for the violations of their human rights on national and international platforms. During the first cycle in 2009, based on reports prepared by Bangladeshi rights groups, Chile and the Czech Republic made recommendations to the Government of Bangladesh that, if implemented, would improve the legal status of LGBT persons in Bangladesh. Both Chile and the Czech Republic recommended that Bangladesh consider abolishing Section 377 of the Bangladesh Penal Code, a remainder of British colonialism which criminalizes sexuality against "the order of nature". The Czech Republic further recommended that Bangladesh provide "human rights training to law enforcement and judicial officers, with a specific focus on the protection of the rights of […] persons of minority sexual orientation or gender identity and adopt further measures to ensure protection of these persons against violence and abuse."

While the Government of Bangladesh accepted the recommendation with regard to the human rights training of law enforcers and judicial officers, it refused to abolish Section 377, arguing that "Bangladesh is a society with strong traditional and cultural values. Same-sex activity is not an acceptable norm to any community in the country. Indeed, sexual orientation is not an issue in Bangladesh. There has been no concern expressed by any quarter in the country on this."

When Bangladesh comes under review for the second time in a few days, we expect that UN member states will again address the legal discrimination against LGBT people in Bangladesh, and ask the government to take decisive steps toward LGBT equality. But, given the country's current political climate, the issue may be buried beneath a pile of other issues. That is why it is important that the media, civil society and the community at large speak up and draw attention to the plight of LGBT people in Bangladesh.

Boys of Bangladesh (BoB), Bangladesh's largest platform for self-identified gay men, has put forward a number of recommendations from the LGBT community in the stakeholders' report this year. One of the main recommendations is that the government conducts a survey of human rights violations victimizing LGBT people in the country. Such a survey is necessary to learn more about the discrimination, stigma, and violence LGBT people face in Bangladesh, and to develop effective strategies to address these issues.

Given that the government already runs an extensive HIV/AIDS programme which also includes men who have sex with men (MSM), their claim that "sexual orientation is not an issue in Bangladesh" is disingenuous. It is their way to brush aside the realities on the ground and to avoid acknowledging that the human rights of LGBT people in Bangladesh are continuously violated. It is time for the government to acknowledge the existence of that clandestine but significant part of the population, and to take appropriate measures to ensure their safety and dignity. LGBT people are our brothers and sisters, our children, our friends and our colleagues, and they deserve to be treated with the same respect as heterosexuals.

Of course, LGBT equality cannot be achieved through legal processes alone. After all, prejudice and misinformation, rather than legal norms, are to blame for most of the de facto anti-gay discrimination. A number of organizations, including the Bangladesh Liberal Forum and BoB, seek to remedy this deficit and started an educational campaign to inform the public about issues of sexual orientation. They published a brochure that contains valuable information about these issues, and made it available to the public at the following URL:

What you should know about homosexuality

Representatives of Bangladesh's LGBT community, along with other Bangladeshi human rights activists, are in Geneva right now to participate in a UNHRC session that will address Bangladesh's human rights record. They will try their best to draw the world's attention to the situation of LGBT people in Bangladesh, and we all should support their noble cause. LGBT equality is not a matter of culture or religion, but a matter of basic human rights.

Shakhawat Hossain is a human rights activist and a volunteer at Boys of Bangladesh, a non-registered, non-funded, informal network of self-identified gay men in Bangladesh.

Rainer Ebert is a graduate student of philosophy at Rice University, a founding member of the Bangladesh Liberal Forum, and an Associate Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics.