Category Archives: Bangladesh

“Not acceptable”

Back in early June 2016, I posted a memorial blog about the tragic and violent deaths on April 25th of that year of Xulhaz Mannan and Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy, two remarkably brave and courageous Bangladeshi human rights defenders. They had fearlessly asserted through launching Bangladesh’s first LGBTQI magazine, Roopbahn, that the dignity and human rights of all Bangladeshis – not just those who are straight and cisgender – ought to be respected.

For that audacity, they paid a dreadful price.

This past week, I had the privilege of hearing a presentation from an openly gay Bangladeshi man who’d been a friend to these two men. Now Ahmed is here in this country, pursuing two ambitions. First, he’s sharing a remarkable exhibition of photographs (including the one above) to remind the world that justice remains unfulfilled for those who viciously took the lives of Xulhaz and Tonoy. Second, Ahmed wishes to have some hope for his own future – not to forsake his friends and family back home, but to find a safe space from which he can use his art and his voice to open the eyes of the world to the strident and unforgiving intolerance of his native land. He’s seeking asylum from those who would do him – and possibly his family and friends back home – great harm, because in their culture people like him are not acceptable.

“Not acceptable” is a perilous place to find oneself. Most of us who came to his presentation last week have looked that accusation straight in the eye ourselves, repeatedly, although seldom at the risk of violence or death.  For us, being “not acceptable” is even more abrasive when those holding such views are so unshakably self-righteous about their bias, and when they are empowered to bend the institutions of government to inflict harm on those marginalized groups who dare to express their integrity of self. The Bangladeshi government is now on the offensive, and since the brutal murder of Bangladesh’s two LGBTQI leaders, the movement has been forced to adopt a low profile. Not low enough, however; “not acceptable” asserted itself yet again last year when on May 19th an elite security force with the arguably glamorous name of the Rapid Action Battalion arrested 27 young gay men who’d gathered discreetly at a community center in Dhaka.

“Not acceptable” is rough company to keep. In 1995, well before I came out as openly transgender, I was working in Durban, South Africa. Nelson Mandela had recently become president, and the country was in a state of tectonic change and unsettling uncertainty. Many white South Africans felt great fear, as the historically subjugated black population rose up proudly to take their place in building the new Rainbow Nation. It all came into painfully sharp focus for me one evening; I was riding in an elevator filled only with whites (mostly older white South African men) who spontaneously struck up a loud, boorish, and unashamedly racist conversation about President Mandela and his supporters in the African National Congress (ANC). The simple assumption of this crowded elevator’s white passengers was that I was in solidarity with their views, because I too am white. The realization of this presumed fellowship sickened me. I pushed the emergency stop button, and when all eyes turned to me all I could say was “shame!”. I then pushed the button for the next floor, exited the completely silent lift, and left them to stew in their own fear-induced prejudices.

“Not acceptable” isn’t only about race, same-sex orientation, or transgender identity. I’ve also directly experienced “not acceptable” being regularly employed as a judgment by many men here in my own country as they exploited all-male meetings and gatherings (of which there are many) to make frequent sexist (and often wildly misogynist) comments deriding and disparaging women. Unlike my cisgender sisters, I’ve spent much of my life embodied as a man; I haven’t forgotten what I heard and saw. I know all too well the coarse and objectifying ways that so many men routinely feel at liberty to demean women and girls. As troubling as that banter is, what bothers me even more is the relegation of existential, urgent issues such as gender inequality, gender-based violence, and even violence against children as “women’s issues”. To this day, men are barely present among those who labor tirelessly to achieve progress toward gender equality and fairness among all genders. Continue reading “Not acceptable”

Pride Month – a time for international leadership


Xulhaz Mannan

June is Pride Month, and it is now associated with marches and festivals that celebrate the progress made to date around the world in achieving a growing aspiration – to respect the universal dignity of all human beings – regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. I will be proud to march with members of my Quaker community in Washington’s own Pride Parade this Saturday. Yet amid the celebrations, there are also moments when we must take stock of the grievous sacrifices that have characterized this dignity journey so far.

Today was a stocktaking day for me, as I attended the special memorial service for Xulhaz Mannan that was held at the U.S. Agency for International Development’s headquarters in Washington. Xulhaz was a Foreign Service National – a local employee of USAID – who worked at the USAID Mission in his home country of Bangladesh. On April 25th of this year, Xulhaz and his friend Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy were both hacked to death in his apartment by six members of an extremist group.

Xulhaz knew the risks of being openly gay in Bangladesh, but he was a man with a strong moral sense of mission. Besides his important work on democracy, human rights, and good governance programming for USAID in Bangladesh, Xulhaz also served as the editor of Roopbaan, that country’s first and only LGBTI magazine. Xulhaz was a committed LGBTI development activist, and he paid the price for his commitment in a country where diversity is culturally abhorred by many. I did not know Xulhaz personally, but having worked in Bangladesh, the reality of his tragic loss was particularly gripping.

Bangladeshi popular abhorrence notwithstanding, diversity happens.

Xulhaz’s bravery in owning his homosexuality was only part of a picture of a man who was a recognized champion on behalf of Bangladesh’s gay and transgender people. The speeches made at the USAID memorial service were eloquent, sincere, and moving in their praise of his generosity of spirit, his principled commitment to human rights, his remarkable sense of humor amid deeply challenging times in his country, and his many cherished friendships. For me, there were two particularly poignant moments in this memorial service. One was  when Xulhaz’s brother, Minhaz Mannan Emon, made a profoundly personal tribute to his lost brother. The second was when the USAID Administrator, Gayle Smith, fought back her tears to paint a vibrant picture of a man who was beloved and respected – and very, very human.

Bangladesh and many other countries afflicted by perverse intolerance for the inescapable (and wonderful) reality of human diversity constitute some of the most challenging battle lines in the struggle for human dignity. That awareness filled my heart as I went directly from the memorial service to a (previously arranged) USAID Pride Month event upstairs in the same building, where I joined former Congressman Barney Frank; the International Program Director of the Williams Institute at UCLA, Andrew Park; and USAID’s Senior Human Rights, LGBTI, and Social Inclusion Advisor Ajit Joshi as the fourth speaker to USAID staff gathered in the Nelson Mandela Room. Our topic: how international development efforts might best address the plight of LGBTI persons around the world – and what USAID’s optimal role should be in this context. Continue reading Pride Month – a time for international leadership

The folly – and necessity – of human dignity

dignity free and equal

Our world is beset by callousness and brutality.

The death toll grows each day from the cruel violence of Boko Haram, Daesh/ISIS, Al Qaeda and its offshoots, Quds Force, Haqqani Network, and other terrorist groups, all of whom frequently target even defenseless women and children. President Assad and his Russian allies indiscriminately attack areas thickly populated by Syrian civilians, and the fighting roils on in Iraq, Yemen, the Lake Chad Basin, South Sudan, Burundi, and Afghanistan. We’ve become numb to the incessant news reports of yet more civilians suffering grievous harm, adversity, or death, and there’s no reasoning with those who place scant value on destroying human lives except as instrumental statements on their unyielding ideological trajectories.

In this context, what are we to make of the opening line of the first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”? After all, there are no qualifying clauses to cover the significance of human dignity in the eventuality of death by violent extremism. For far too many “free and equal” members of humanity, threats of violence, brutality, exclusion, subjugation, and death itself appear to have rendered our global moment of idealism when that Declaration was signed back in December of 1948 as, at best, a curious historical anomaly.

Is the notion of universal human dignity not sheer folly in 2016?

It’s worth noting from the outset that “human dignity” has several meanings. My first assignment for the students of my new graduate-level course on Human Dignity was to read a short opinion piece – “In Search of Dignity” – that conservative cultural commentator David Brooks had written in the New York Times back in July of 2009. Brooks described a “dignity code” as a set of rules and civic virtues, and it was his contention that this dignity code was exemplified by George Washington. According to Brooks, Washington subordinated his personal interests to national interests and duty. Brooks’ message however was not sanguine, as he concluded that “…the dignity code itself has been completely obliterated. The rules that guided Washington and generations of people after him are simply gone”. And while Brooks did allow that “Americans still admire dignity”, he asserts that there is no longer any popular consensus on, or practice of, the ethical standards that constitute such dignified convictions and behavior in the United States.

The concept of human dignity however is much more ambitious than seeking widespread consensus on rules of conduct, or on matters of deportment. Yes, for someone to sacrifice perceived self-interests for the greater good is refreshing, and we all know of examples of that taking place (starting with parenting). And human dignity is certainly more than just a reflection of social status or bearing, although that more limited definition of dignity still has its place in certain contexts. So while I applaud David Brooks for his pondering on one dimension of human dignity, I am arguing that in the context of the exceptionally violent world of 2016 we ought to refocus our sights on that most ambitious interpretation of the human dignity concept: that “being human” means that we are each unique and valuable, and that we are each as valuable as any other person on the planet.

That’s a very large statement, and it certainly isn’t borne out by the way in which humanity conducts itself on this planet. Or, as stated most poignantly by Princeton University’s emeritus professor of politics, George Kateb: “The pathetic fact is that the only enemies of human dignity are human beings.” What is it that drives so many who are in positions of economic, military, political, social, or governance power to erode the shared basis that all of us – each and every human being on this planet – depend upon as the moral and ethical foundation for all human rights, all laws, and any sense of justice: human dignity? Continue reading The folly – and necessity – of human dignity

Conform, or die.

Ananta Bijoy Das
Ananta Bijoy Das

It’s not just how you look, dress, or behave. It’s not even a question of “provocative” issues like non-conforming gender identity, non-conforming sexual orientation, or taking a “radical” stand in asserting that women are entitled to full human dignity also. Nor is it even a question of your minority or “opposition” political views, which are well demonstrated to be an incitement to violence among despots and their supporters. What most us here in established democracies aren’t aware of is that 76% of people in this world cannot freely practice the religion of their choice or leading, or hold secular or atheist views. In many such countries, such persons may well be killed for who they pray to, or for their choice not to pray at all.

On May 12th, a mob in Dhaka, Bangladesh enforced their brand of conformity. Ananta Bijoy Das, a highly respected young banker, blogger, and editor of a science magazine called Jukti (which provocatively means “logic”) met his demise at the hands of machete-wielding religious extremists. His widow, Rafida Bonya Ahmed, also suffered grievous injuries in this attack. Now back in the United States, she has been courageously calling the world’s attention to this outrage. I cannot begin to imagine how brutally agonizing it must be to be hacked to death as was his fate or to sustain such extreme injuries as she did, and I deeply share in her outrage. Continue reading Conform, or die.