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.
We are in a time when “not acceptable” seems so often to be in ascendancy. In Trump’s America, we’re now seeing internet trolls, Nazis and white supremacists, and a disturbingly long list of homophobic and transphobic politicians, judges, talk show hosts, and – too often – the “folks next door” rise up with vigor and impunity to discriminate and even threaten anyone who doesn’t fit their standards. Transgender youth in our schools are being targeted, and religion is being harnessed to make all this “othering” somehow…well… “just fine”. While intolerance is growing here, it abounds in many nations. From the expulsion of 900,000 Rohingya people from Myanmar, to the diaspora of persecuted Ugandan LGBTQI youth languishing in UNHCR refugee camps in arid northeast Kenya, there is widespread deprivation, suffering, loss of hope, and fear. From the virulent self-righteous homophobia of so many of Africa’s senior politicians and faith leaders to the pervasive, culturally engrained subjugation of women and girls among patriarchal countries everywhere, vulnerable people are at risk. The fragile yet stubbornly resilient notion of universal human dignity is under intense assault.
But then we have people like Ahmed.
Ahmed’s humanity – his warmth, grace, charm, and impressive artistic gifts – are compelling. Perhaps our immigration officials won’t be as moved as I was – I can only wonder (and worry) how the prevailing political climate in my country will respond to his quest for a safe harbor in a global storm of intolerance. Still, I have a very big place in my heart and unflinching solidarity in my commitment to Ahmed and to all who are fleeing persecution and violence directed at them because their culture have deemed them to be “not acceptable”.
We’re in this together.
Ahmed’s presentation included stunningly beautiful photographs of the small Bangladeshi LGBTQI community making their mark, as they happily participated in a street parade in Dhaka several years ago. This was the first flush of organizing, solidarity, and advocacy – and the intoxicating buoyancy of hope. There they were, lined up and attired in the colors of the rainbow flag, but in sensitivity to their nation’s culture they paraded without any posters or slogans. Simply the colors. Most who saw them didn’t associate the colorful, festive street display with people who were asserting their human dignity – in a country that unapologetically refuses to recognize their human rights or equality. They were just people in bright, festive, vibrant colors, celebrating being themselves. It was a start, but it was enough for them in those early days. Ugandan LBGTQI people will think of their early Pride parades at the beach in Entebbe, now banned. Everywhere, we are claiming our space. Everywhere, we are encountering push-back.
Claiming a small bit of the public pavement to celebrate being oneself is a very small thing to ask of society within any country. LGBTQI people have been making that “ask” more and more all around the world. Those of us who identify as being among sexual and gender minorities are asserting our integrity and identity in ways that many people view as incorrigible, immoral, inconvenient – but which we herald as resilient, determined, honest, hopeful, and occasionally exuberant.
It’s called being human. It’s time that was acceptable, everywhere.