• People attend the funeral prayer of Bangladeshi activist Xulhaz Mannan on April 26, 2016 in Dhaka, Bangladesh. (Getty Images)
Since the brutal murder of the "Harvey Milk of Bangladesh", many gay activists have gone into hiding. We spoke to some of them.
By
Amy Fallon

17 May 2016 - 8:42 AM  UPDATED 17 May 2016 - 8:42 AM

Sitting in a Dhaka café, surrounded by other young people enjoying coffee, Amar says nonchalantly, “I am gay and I am Muslim. I say my prayers, I fast. I mix with people who are straight”.

The activist, who requested his real name not be used, was speaking in late April, nearly two weeks after four people, including a friend, were arrested for attempting to stage a “rainbow rally” in the capital of Bangladesh, where homosexual acts are illegal.

Despite the incident, the 25-year-old was optimistic about his future, saying he was looking forward to celebrating his one-year anniversary with his boyfriend in August. He hoped to eventually tell his mother, who wanted him to marry a woman, about his sexuality.

Today, Amar's living in a “safe zone”, fearing for his life following the slayings of Xulhaz Mannan, 35, who had co-founded and edited the country’s first and only LGBTQI magazine, and fellow activist Tonoy Mahbub, 25. The pair, involved in organising the rally, were murdered by a group of men armed with machetes and guns in Mannan’s Dhaka apartment, just a few days after Amar originally spoke to me.

“We are utterly shocked and still in disbelief as to what has happened,” said another activist. 

“We knew that our lives were at risk for the kind of work we do, but we never imagined we would have to lose friends like this.

“The heinous murder of Mannan and Tonoy has sent the [LGBTQI] community even more underground.”

Police say home-grown militant groups, not Islamic State and al-Qaida, are behind the recent violence. They arrested an alleged member of the banned Islamic group Ansarullah Bangla Team at the weekend.

Since early 2013 a string of people – including secular and atheist bloggers, writers, academics and publishers, minority religious leaders and foreign aid workers – have been killed in the attacks. An elderly Buddhist monk is the latest victim.

In the south Asian country, where about 90 per cent of the population is Muslim, same-sex behavior is punishable with a maximum life in prison sentence. But prosecutions rarely occur.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) say campaigners however are “often soft targets" for attacks since they are easily identified and located.

A number of activists have now left Dhaka if they have support outside, or are hoping for support from various embassies in wake of Mannan and Mahbub's murders, according to HRW South Asia director Meenakshi Ganguly.

“A number of diplomats have said that they are receiving an increased number of visa/asylum requests,” she told SBS via email.

The Bangladesh LGBTQI magazine team had received threats from different Islamist Facebook groups for some time, Amar said. "Others were saying homosexuality is a mental disease and should be cured."

He said the rainbow rally arrests during Bengali New Year, in which police reportedly outed activists to their parents, came after a Facebook page began to campaign against the LGBTQI community.

HRW reports that LGBTQI people in Bangladesh faced violent threats especially after public homophobic comments by Islamic leaders.

As far as the government is concerned, homosexuality is “unnatural sex”, according to a quote published earlier this month from the country’s home minister. The prime minister meanwhile has said bloggers wouldn’t be allowed to “hurt” the religious views of others.

Dr Asaduzzaman Ripon, international affairs secretary of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), said that Bangladeshis were shocked at the deaths of Mannan and Mahbub, given the country's people were "peace loving", but that "probably very few may prefer this idea [of homosexuality]”.

According to the US Agency for International Development (USAID), who Mannan also worked for, the openly gay man was a dedicated and courageous advocate for human rights. One report said he had been dubbed the "Harvey Milk of Bangladesh”.

“The Bangladeshi authorities must do much more to protect those who are at risk of violent attacks, not add to their fears and sense of persecution."

Olof Blomqvist, South Asia researcher on Bangladesh and Maldives for Amnesty International, said many LGBTQI activists who were threatened were reluctant to go to the police, since they feared they would end up harassed or even charged because of their sexuality or gender identity.

“The Bangladeshi authorities must do much more to protect those who are at risk of violent attacks, not add to their fears and sense of persecution,” he said.

Following the murders, HRW have met with government officials to seek improved protection for LGBTQI people.

“While the authorities say there is not enough capacity to provide individual security, we are particularly concerned that senior officials have sometimes blamed the community for offending religious sentiment,” Ganguly said.

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Speaking before the murders of his fellow activists, Amar said it was “really tough” for many LGBTQI people, as there weren’t any public gay-friendly spaces in Bangladesh, and there was family pressure for people to have traditional marriages.

“Most [have] said ‘we can’t ignore our family’, so we have set up a support line to help people,” Amar said, adding that it had received many calls.

But Amar said his boyfriend’s father, mother and sister knew about his relationship with his partner “and they don’t care”.

He had also come out to his cousins, and to two straight friends, who had in the past been “laughing” about his sexuality.

“Now they realise it’s your life, if you love yourself, if you’re happy, then it’s really good for us,” he said.