Empowerment of the transgender, rights to the LGBT and ensuring their social respect is essential


Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury

In the Indian subcontinent, a transgender child is considered by the family as “abnormal” or even a “curse”. Most of the time, parents would physically assault them with the desire of getting them ‘straighten’ up. Even when they fall ill, family would never take them to a doctor or hospital for treatment, fearing social wrath. A transgender girl told a reporter, “My father used to tell me that I am abnormal. He used to say abnormal people do not need any treatment; he said it would be better if I died. My mother would bring me medicine from a dispensary. But I was never taken to any doctors for healthcare.”

The transgender child laments about never being treated the same as her siblings because she is different.

“My mother took care of my siblings, fed them big pieces of fish and meat, but she always neglected me,” she added.

This is not the only case of a transgender child. Most of the transgender children in the subcontinent grow up in a state of constant insecurity and abuse.

The girl further said, “I have a boyfriend. I had four other boyfriends before this, but they all left after a few months. Some of them got involved with me because they wanted physical relationships. But their families would never accept me as I am a transgender.”

When asked why she had sexually involved herself with her previous boyfriends, she said in a voice filled with deep pains, – it was her loneliness that compelled her in seeking company. If those boys were not allowed to have sexual relations, they would not stay with her. Men took undue advantage of her just because she was an outcast and would not be able to speak out against their indecent approaches.

With her eyes filled with tears, this transgender girl said, “People think we are somehow inauspicious – would only bring bad luck to them. They even do not want to see our faces. But why? We are human beings – just like them. We have the right to live with dignity like everyone else”.

Transgender men in Bangladesh:

According to the Human Rights Watch (HRW), in October 2017 this organization had interviewed six transgender men living in different parts of Bangladesh. All of them spoke of bullying at school, barriers to employment, difficulty accessing health care, as well as harassment and verbal abuse in both public and private spaces. On top of these difficulties, they feared for their safety amid a climate of impunity for attacks on minorities by religious extremists and feared that, if they were targeted, authorities would deny that they were targeted because of their gender identity rather than come forcefully to their defense. Interviewees also highlighted the difficulties that arise because their gender identity does not match the gender listed on diplomas, passports, or other legal documents, including their ability to get jobs and to travel.

Transgender men have a male gender identity that does not conform to the female sex declared at birth. There is a dearth of information on the experience of such men in Bangladesh.

According to HRW, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) populations in Bangladesh more generally face a climate of hostility.

In a 2015 report, Bangladeshi LGBT rights groups noted that “visibility…can be life-threatening and isolating due to social stigma, religious beliefs and family values that create a hostile environment for LGBT individuals.” Following a 2015 visit, the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of religious belief said, “Sexual minorities do not find much acceptance in the society and often experience verbal or other abuse.” In a 2009 UN human rights review, the government of Bangladesh received a recommendation to train law enforcement and judicial offers to protect women, children, and LGBT people “and adopt further measures to ensure protection of these persons against violence and abuse.” The government accepted the recommendation with regard to women and children, but said: “The specific recommendation on sexual orientation cannot be accepted.… Indeed, sexual orientation is not an issue in Bangladesh.” While the experience of transgender men is in some respects typical of sexual minorities in Bangladesh, they are all the more vulnerable because they visibly transgress societal norms through their gender expression.

In a 2015 manual on sexual and gender minorities, the National Human Rights commission acknowledged that members of the police physically and sexually assault LGBT people, and arbitrarily arrest them based on their appearance.

Transgender men interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they fear they may be killed if religious hardliners find out that they identify as transgender or are perceived to be gay or lesbian. For example, Nandini, a transgender man told Human Rights Watch: “Many people assume I am lesbian or gay based on how I carry myself. That assumption threatens my life.” Jamal explained why he had little hope that government authorities would seek to protect trans men from such attacks: “If we were targeted by extremists our government wouldn’t provide any legal or moral support or justice. Since the government hasn’t even recognized the issues of transgender men, there is no possibility that they would help us.” Jamal also expressed fears of being prosecuted under section 377 if he were to seek government assistance due a lack of understanding of what it means to be transgender.

For transgender men, this climate of fear is exacerbated by social marginalization and discrimination as well as legal impediments to accessing employment, health care, and education, including the absence of a mechanism for changing one’s gender on legal documents, as noted above. These barriers and the climate of insecurity have left Jamal feeling extremely frustrated:

What’s the point of me living here? I can’t transition. If I do manage to transition elsewhere no one is going to accept me. The government won’t recognize me. Society won’t accept me. My parents won’t accept me. So I really don’t have anything here. I don’t have my identity and eventually they’ll probably just kill me anyway and say, “This one is like this, let’s kill her.”

The climate of fear fuels emotional distress. Abed, a trans man, said to Human Rights Watch:

How would you feel if 24/7 you thought about the fact that if anyone finds out about you, then they will kill you? It’s a terrifying reality. And it’s what I live with. There is a lot of religious extremists in my neighborhood. They’re dangerous. I avoid leaving my house unless I really need to because I fear who might notice me.

Omar described to Human Rights Watch the consequences of the lack of accountability: “If word spread to others about my gender identity, then anything could happen. If anyone decided they wanted to kill me, they easily could. They wouldn’t have to face any punishment for it.” Jamal connected the murders of Mannan and Mahbub to his fears of his stalker, who knows of his gender identity: “If he tells an extremist group that I’m a homosexual then it’s obvious what will happen. Or if he spreads this information some other way. Then extremist groups will do what they do – as they did with Xulhaz.”

The widespread fear has made it difficult for transger men to even arrange meetings. “Considering the current climate in Bangladesh, of course we’re scared to meet with each other,” Nandini said to Human Rights Watch.

Transgender men face significant difficulties in accessing medical care and mental health care. This is all the more alarming considering that all the transgender men interviewed by Human Rights Watch had attempted suicide at least once and, in some cases, a few times in their lives.

There is a lack of accurate data on the transgender people in the country. According to the Department of Social Services, there are about 10,000 transgender people across the country. However, there is no data on transgender children. According to the Directorate General of Health Services, around 0.7 percent of the transgender population has HIV-prevalence, while less than 0.1 percent are HIV-positive, as of 2015.

The ICDDRB conducted a research on transgender people in Dhaka in 2015. During the research, they spoke with 570 transgender people, of whom 67.2 percent were found to be involved in sex trade.

Why Transgender are known as hijra:

The word hijra comes from Semitic Arabic root through Urdu-Hindustani word means ‘leaving one’s tribe’ and has been borrowed into Hindi. This Indian usage of the term ‘hijra’ has been translated into English as ‘eunuch’ or ‘hermaphrodite’ which mainly means irregularity of male genitalia. Basically they are born with male psychology; some of them are born with male intersex variations. A generic description of hijras might read something like this: they are socio-biological males who present women-like within a shifting constellation of meaning.

Hijras or transgender comprise of the most marginalized and most vulnerable groups within societies in the Asia-Pacific region and the issues that affect them can be vastly different from other sexual identity groups. Sexuality is seen as more fluid in many Asian and Pacific-Island cultures than in the West, there is a paucity of laws and policies in the region which protect and promote the rights hijras as citizen with rights, their access to services, although they may find social acceptance within the communities they live in. Within the 12 countries in the Asia-Pacific there is a range of attitude and perception about transgender and how they are treated within countries. In some countries they are more easily accepted than others. Thailand is the most progressive country with regards to the transgender and has had a history of recognizing three gender rights. Even the sex reassignment surgeries are comparatively easier in Thailand.

Recognition in Bangladesh:

On November 11, 2013, transgender received the recognition of third-gender in Bangladesh. According to various statistics, the size of transgender population in this country of 170 million is something in between ten thousand to half-a-million. Since then, members of this community are increasingly participating in the mainstream.

Status of LGBT in Bangladesh:

Despite recognition of the transgender as third-gender, Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights are heavily suppressed in Bangladesh. Due to the traditional mentality of the predominantly conservative Bangladeshi society, negative attitudes towards those in the LGBT community are high. Homosexuality is illegal under Bangladeshi law; a law which is inherited from the British Indian Government’s Section 377 of 1860. According to the law the punishment for homosexuals is up to life imprisonment, though this law is not always enforced, it is still dangerous for those who identify as homosexuals to openly come out in society because of social rejection, hate, assault, or even murder.

Section 377 of the Penal Code forbids anal or oral sex, regardless of the gender and sexual orientation of the participants. According to this section, whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine.

Explanation: Penetration is sufficient to constitute the carnal intercourse necessary to the offense described in this section.

The ambit of Section 377 extends to any sexual union involving penile insertion. Thus, even consensual heterosexual acts such as fellatio and anal penetration may be punishable under this law. In 2009 and 2013, the Bangladeshi Parliament refused to overturn Section 377.

The society doesn’t recognize same-sex relationship, consensual romantic relationship and marriage between two opposite genders is supported though social conservatism is an impediment in this context also (society is less supportive) as culturally society is based on ‘marriage arranged by guardian’ system.

Although public display of affection between friends of the same sex in Bangladesh is commonly approved and does not raise any controversies, there appears to be a strong objection towards homosexuality as such. This hostile attitude results from religious tradition of the country, with Islam being professed by approximately 90 percent of the population, and mentality of Bangladeshi society. There appears to be an intense social pressure to marry someone of the opposite sex, grounded in patriarchal model of the society. Non-family members, including police and religious fundamentalist groups, have been known to blackmail, harass and even physically attack LGBT people. These “morality minders” are not sanctioned by the government, but they take advantage of the absence of civil rights and hate crime laws for sexual and gender minorities.

In 2003, Dr. Gary Dowsett, an Australian professor, published a report titled A Review of Knowledge About the Sexual Networks and Behaviours of Men Who Have Sex with Men in Asia as part of a study on how the AIDS pandemic is impacting the nation. The bulk of the report focused on male prostitution, but it did generate some public discussion about LGBT issues, with Indian movies and water poisoning through arsenic being blamed for making homosexuality more common. In reply, some people criticized these negative viewpoints as being unsound scientifically and based on prejudice.

In 2011, a research-based engagement with a school of public health at a university in Bangladesh had aimed to raise public debate on sexuality and rights in a very sensitive political context. By bringing together stakeholders, including members of sexual minorities, academics, service providers, media, policy makers and advocacy organizations, the research engagement worked to bring visibility to hidden and stigmatized sexuality and rights issues. Critical steps towards visibility for sexual minorities include creating safe spaces for meeting, developing learning materials for university students and engaging with legal rights groups.

The first attempt to create an LGBT organisation in Bangladesh came in 1999, when a man called Rengyu, described as a “middle-aged foreign-educated guy from an indigenous tribe”, opened the first online group for Bangladeshi gay people, called Gay Bangladesh. It drew over 1,000 members; however, after Rengyu’s death, its activity slowed down and the group itself became neglected. In 2002, two other online groups appeared on the Yahoo! portal: Teen Gay Bangladesh, moderated by Prakash and Abrar, and Boys Only Bangladesh, created by Quazi Haque. Both groups were deleted by Yahoo! authorities in December 2002, and after several restarts and name changes, the only surviving group remains Boys Only Bangladesh, now called Boys of Bangladesh (BoB). The group, whose current moderator is Tanvir Alim, is the largest network for Bangladeshi gay men, organizing numerous LGBT rights-related events in Dhaka since 2009. Boys of Bangladesh aims at building a gay community in the country and repealing Section 377.

According to Koranic verses, homosexuality and lesbianism is described as sin of highest order, which invites “wrath of Allah’ and ‘destruction’ of the societies. It narrates the story of Prophet Lot or Lut.

Though Lot was not born among the people he’d been sent to preach to, the people of Sodom are still regarded as his “brethren” in the Koran. Like the Biblical narrative, the Koran states that Lot’s messages were ignored by the inhabitants of the cities, and Sodom and Gomorrah were subsequently  destroyed. The destruction of the cities is traditionally presented as a warning against lesbianism and homosexual acts.

While the Quran does not elaborate upon Lot’s later life, Islam holds that all prophets were examples of moral and spiritual righteousness, so the Biblical narrative of Lot’s drunkenness and incest after the ‘destruction of Sodom is false’.

It’s time to change the orthodoxy of mind:

In this modern age, societies, social system and laws should not be dictated by religious orthodoxy, especially when a large number of nations are clearly proclaiming to be secularist and even denouncing religious extremism and orthodoxy. Like every other citizen of any country, members of the LGBT community too have equal rights and must not be made victims of social injustice and draconian laws.

Members of the transgender community should be made victims of repression or persecution in any society. In Bangladesh, they should be allocated a portion of the seats reserved for the women in the Jatiya Sangshad [National Parliament]. In fact, government in Bangladesh also may set an example by appointing a transgender in the cabinet to show the world – we are no more a country dictated by radical Islam and social orthodoxy. Economically Bangladesh is changing fast towards tremendous prosperity. With this progress, we also need to reshuffle lots of existing laws in order to gradually liberate the country from the clutches of radical Islam.

Let’s liberate Bangladesh from radical Islam:

One of the basic principles of the foundation of Bangladesh is secularism. Under any circumstance, there is no room for radical Islam to emerge as the driving force of this country, which is inhabited by people of many faiths. Although a secularist India is gradually witnessing the signs of the emergence of radical Hinduism especially because of tremendous influence of Rashtriya Sawamsevak Sangh (RSS), which is the parent organization of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP); or Pakistan, which already has gone rogue due to extreme influence of radical Islam, Bangladesh should definitely distant itself from being labeled as a country or religious orthodoxy. Instead, secular spirit should be made the guiding force of the country. Laws which had been formulated on the basis of radical Islam, such as ban on distribution and consumption of alcohol or alcoholic beverages [except those holding special permit issued by the authorities] should be immediately trashed.

Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury is the editor of Blitz


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