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Nowhere to turn for Bangladesh's LGBT

Interview: Arafatul IslamMay 17, 2016

Activist Riamoni Chisty speaks about the country he fled, where a gay person can be brutally attacked and then called the aggressor. The government treats homosexuality as a crime, and society largely sees it as a sin.

Bangladesch Blogger Xulhaz Mannan Dhaka Leichnam SW bearbeitet
The body of slain activist Xulhaz MannanImage: Getty Images/AFP/str

Last month, unknown assailants hacked two gay activists to death in an apartment in Bangladesh's capital, Dhaka. One of the victims, Xulhaz Mannan, edited the first magazine for the country's gay and lesbian community; the other, Mahbub Tonoy, was a gay rights activist. While an Islamist group claimed responsibility for the killings, Bangladesh's interior minister laid the blame on the victims themselves - homosexuality is a criminal offense in the country.

In an interview with DW, Riamoni Chisty, a 22-year-old gay activist who recently fled Bangladesh for Germany after repeated attacks, speaks about the contempt the lesbian, gay, biseuxual and transexual (LGBT) community endures in the South Asian country.

DW: What was it like to grow up gay in Bangladesh?

Riamoni Chisty: When I was a child, I used to beg to wear jewelry. I was interested in putting on make-up and always preferred to play with girls. I considered myself one of them. When I was in the fifth grade, my Bengali teacher told me that my behavior indicated that I am gay, like many other people in the world. The teacher was very friendly to me, and helped me learn more about homosexuality. But other teachers made fun of me. My classmates used to tease me, using derogatory terms like "half-lady" and "two-in-one."

How did your family react after finding out that you are gay?

They reacted violently. My father is an Islamist thinker and considers homosexuality to be the most severe crime in the world. He told me that God had destroyed Sodom because of homosexuality.

After finding out that I was gay, he took me to a doctor who prescribed me a lot of medicine. Those pills caused severe side effects, including headaches and fevers. I even vomited blood a couple of times. Despite the side effects, my father forced me to take the medicine for 11 months. But that didn't help at all. Later he took me to India for hormone replacement therapy. That was very painful. I temporarily lost my hair due to the treatment. But I didn't notice any psychological change in me. At some point, my father gave up and moved to Saudi Arabia with my mother, leaving me behind.

Bangladesh Homosexuell Aktivist Riamoni Chisty
Bangladeshi activist Riamoni ChistyImage: DW/A. Islam

What is the attitude towards the LGBT community in your country?

I used to live in the eastern city of Comilla, where a very conservative attitude towards the LGBT community prevails. Some friends and I formed a cultural group for homosexuals there in 2008, which some members and supporters of the LGBT community from nearby cities joined. We used to meet once a week in a secret place. When we first organized a "rainbow rally" in the city in 2009, not many people paid any interest. Still, supporters of the ruling party and its leader attacked the rally and injured some of my fellow activists.

Afterwards, locals flagged me as a gay activist. A group of Islamists attacked me and tried to cut my fingers to stop me from writing about religious fundamentalism and gay rights. I was abducted in 2010 and raped by my captors. Police rescued me after a few days but didn't file any case. Rather, they suggested that I leave my country. My college stripped me of my right to study there, citing my activism. So my maternal grandmother sent me to Malaysia so I could continue studying.

Are you aware of any movement to combat homophobia in your country?

Slain activist Xulhaz Mannan tried to reduce homophobia through a number of initiatives. He published "Roopbaan" in 2014, a magazine that sought to tell people that homosexuality is not a crime, but a natural practice, proven by science.

I eventually came into close contact with him. Together we tried to raise awareness using blogs and social media websites. But after the murder of Mannan and Tonoy, most gay activists went into hiding.

Bangladesch Aktivist getötet
Bengledshi police try to calm onlookers after the murder of gay rights activists in DhakaImage: picture alliance/AP Photo/A.M.Ahad

What measures, if any, is the government putting in place to prevent attacks against the LGBT community?

Same-sex relationship is a punishable crime with 10 years of imprisonment and/or financial penalty, according to the country's constitution. So the government is not taking any steps towards support homosexuals in the country; rather, many cases have been filed against them for their sexual orientation. The government is totally against the LGBT community.

Why did you decide to flee Bangladesh?

I have been sued 25 times in the past few years for being gay. Aside from Islamists, even some of parents of my close friends went to the court against me, saying I was teaching their children homosexuality. I was attacked in 2014 after my return from Malaysia, leaving me with severe damage in my right ear. Islamists have hung posters around Comilla that call me an ‘‘anti-Islamic campaigner.'' Their protests led to my imprisonment on a couple of occasions. Altogether, the situation was far beyond my control, which ultimately led me to leave the country.

What are you planning to do in Germany? Do you hope to continue your support for the LGBT community in Bangladesh?

I want to finish my studies first. Apart from that, I'm planning to film a drama series about homosexuality, in Bengali. I will upload the videos on YouTube to help Bengali speakers realize that same-sex relationships are normal, and it's not wise to abuse someone because of sexual orientation. I think many people in my motherland need that education. They have a lot of misperceptions about the LGBT community.

The interview was conducted by Arafatul Islam.