“In a country where the whole concept of sex and sexuality is a taboo, we are learning to navigate our ways by highlighting ‘love’ as the center of all, as a human right that can't be denied, hoping for better, and may be ‘faster’, acceptance.. some day!”
– Xulhaz Mannan
American voices are some of the most represented in queer discussions; this allows for little diversity in the experiences of queer people from other countries. In countries where queerness is illegal, the most prominent voices come from those who immigrated from those counties or are refugees. Leaving their countries by choice or not, their stories are important. Just as important are the stories of those people who stayed; Xulhaz Mannan is one of those people.
Homosexuality is illegal in Bangladesh, a law with its roots in British colonialism. Born in Bangladesh on 12 October 1976, Xulhaz was able to receive an extensive education. He was out as a gay man to his university friends and was quite open about his sexuality in a time and place when that was neither common nor safe. Most of the queer activity would happen online in Bangledesh and under pseudonyms. One friend described this saying:
“People would make friends there, virtual friendship under pseudo names as no one trusted nobody … insecurity was high in that group, but he shared a series of photographs on Dhanmondi Lake on a winter morning and posted them under his real name Xulhaz Mannan. Xulhaz was the first openly gay person I had known. He was out to his close university and school friends, out to his colleagues, and everybody loved him to bits … he introduced me to a world where straight people did not care what my sexual orientation was.”
Here we come upon the first reason that so many voices are not being heard in the increasingly global dialogue of the queer community: safety. These people are talking, but their names and situations aren’t safe to divulge in public forums, which makes it harder to find the wealth of stories that do exist.
That being said, the stories are interesting, and Xulhaz by all reports had a rich life filled with interactions with other people within the queer community. Being out and public about his sexuality, he became the gateway for people who had otherwise only mostly experienced the queer community online to engage with the physical spaces the queer community in Bangladesh occupied.
Journalist Raad Rahman wrote of his first meeting with Xulhaz:
“When I first met him, Xulhaz invited me to a classical Bengali music concert organized by the gay group Boys of Bangladesh, to celebrate International Day against Homophobia. The room was filled with gay men eating kebabs and drinking chai, at an upscale lounge in Dhaka. I was shocked because, until that moment, I had no idea how vibrant Bangladesh’s gay community was.”
Along with his job with USAID, Xulhaz was well known for his work in helping to found Roopbaan, Bangladesh’s first LGBT magazine. It is with this magazine that we find another reason that these stories are not often seen: they’re intentionally hidden. Global attention can be transformative, a pressure that has changed policy and individual situations alike, but it is also dangerous. As global attention comes, so does other kinds, including attention from religious extremists.
Though Xulhaz was Muslim himself, he was also fully aware of the reality of many Muslims within his country. Journalist Sabrina Toppa wrote about a discussion they had:
“We talked at length about why it was so important for Roopbaan, Bangladesh's first LGBT magazine, to be underground, to be in Bangla, to be low in subscription numbers as long as the people who needed it found it, why no journalist needed to report on the difficulty of creating an LGBT magazine if it meant imperilling the lives of all the members involved. Xulhaz was a pragmatist, but fundamentally open to the world, regardless of its prejudice and hostilities”
The attention that this publication received was, unsurprisingly, not all positive. Xulhaz himself responded to one review writing:
“Seems the reviewer couldn’t take his eyes off the male model in his underwear, and hence, his own eroticism took forefront over journalism.
Otherwise he would have noticed many other ‘decent’ and issue-based write-ups; the interview of a same-sex couple highlighting their relationship, an article on BoB’s participation at recent UN UPR, write up on homosexuality in Hollywood film, another film review, fashion portfolio and tips, write up on Michael Modhushudan’s relationship with his friend, write up on human rights to love, zodiac review, LGBT news, poetry and so on. The few ‘eroticized’ articles by no means makes the whole publication a “wasted opportunity”.
As the first issue was done by amateurs and volunteers, Roopbaan must admit its shortcomings to be high quality or fully inclusive. But then, it’s a magazine, not a book. The “opportunity to address LGBT issues” remains open for future issues to come, not/not ‘missed.’”
Even with the negative attention he received, Xulhaz was still successful both professionally and socially, giving him an option that many people don’t have: the option to leave. Many friends and family of Xulhaz encouraged him to do so, Bangladesh was never a safe place for a queer person, but for someone as out as he was it was especially dangerous. But as his niece wrote:
“He had the option of living anywhere in the world, he was a genius, but he chose to live in dangerous Dhaka, standing up to what he believed in, and gave a voice to the voiceless. A kind, cultured sweet thing”
He was always described as a pragmatic man, and he was aware of the danger that existed and even joked in the weeks before his death about the fact that he was likely to be attacked. But he loved his community and while knowing the risk, chose to stay and do his work.
This is by no means to say that he was in any way responsible for his death; being aware of the danger while remaining in a situation in no way makes anyone but the perpetrators responsible for the result.
On April 25, 2016, Xulhaz along with his friend Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy were murdered by religious extremists. The tragedy was followed by public outcry and many people throughout the world were horrified by the situation, which brings us to the stories that are available to the global queer community.
All the reasons laid out above give reasons why we don’t see many stories about queer people discussed; all these reasons are suddenly worthless once someone has died. It is because of this that we come upon the final reason that even the tragedies are sometimes ignored.
The queer community is exhausted. Already bombarded with near-constant discrimination, most of the stories coming out of countries where queerness is illegal are not ones that are easy to read. They are often the only ones we have access to.
No one could be expected to read through each one. Especially considering the media’s tendency to linger on the most horrifying aspects of any story.
This story is not without its horrifying elements: the violence of the incident, the lack of response for three years by the authorities, the people praising what had happened. But Xulhaz’s life was more than an instrument of pain.
His story doesn’t exist to make the more privileged among the community feel guilty, or even to shock people into action. His story is worth something because he was a man who lived, loved, and was loved. The violence of his death cannot eclipse that.
A friend of his, Raad Rahman, wrote of his memory:
“Nowadays, I linger over the softer memories, and I find myself circling back to an evening at Xulhaz’s house: While dozens of guests milled around for an event, he stepped outside to join me on his balcony, filled with potted plants and night jasmine blooming against the grilled lattice windows. I sat there longer than he could, as he was hosting the event. We watched the rain patter down on the rooftops in front of his apartment, unaware our days together were numbered. ‘Dhaka’s beautiful in this light, isn’t it?’ he said, a rhetorical question for the gloaming brilliance that even overcast sunsets had. I nodded, and he patted my shoulders: ‘If you sit out here alone for too long, you’re going to catch a cold.’”
[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material]
Bangladesh LGBT editor hacked to death. (2016, April. 25). BBC News. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-36128729
Eight formally charged over murders of Bangladesh LGBT rights activist Xulhaz, Tonoy. (2019, July 28). Bdnews24. Retrieved from https://bdnews24.com/bangladesh/2019/07/28/eight-formally-charged-over-murders-of-bangladesh-lgbt-rights-activist-xulhaz-tonoy
Farrell, P. (2016, April 29). Xulhaz Mannan: 5 Fast Facts You Need to Know. Heavy. Retrieved from https://heavy.com/news/2016/04/xulhaz-mannan-roopbaan-lgbt-magazine-editor-us-embassy-worker-killed-dead-funeral-isis-suspect/
Hammadi, S., & Gani, A. (2016, April 25). Founder of Bangladesh’s first and only LGBT magazine killed. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/apr/25/editor-bangladesh-first-lgbt-magazine-killed-reports-say-roopbaan
Heroes. Roopbaan. Retrieved from https://roopbaan.org/heroes/#acceptLicense
Hussain, H. (2016, April 26). Xulhaz Mannan: A Friend, An Ally, A Fellow Rainbow Conspirator. Gaylaxy. Retrieved from http://www.gaylaxymag.com/exclusive/xulhaz-mannan-a-friend-an-ally-a-fellow-rainbow-conspirator/#gs.eb8yt9
Rahman, R. (2019, April 25). Remembering Writer and LGBT Activist Xulhaz Mannan on the Third Anniversary of His Murder. Pen America. Retrieved from https://pen.org/remembering-xulhaz-mannan/
McCleskey, C. M. (2018, April 25). Statement by Spokesperson Clayton M. McCleskey on the Second Anniversary of the Murder of Xulhaz Mannan [Press release]. Retrieved from https://www.usaid.gov/news-information/press-releases/apr-25-2018-statement-spokesperson-clayton-mccleskey-second-anniversary-murder-xulhaz-mannan
Reilly, N. (2016, April 25). Islamic militants hack LGBT magazine editor Xulhaz Mannan to death. Metro. Retrieved from https://metro.co.uk/2016/04/25/editor-of-bangladeshs-first-lgbt-magazine-hacked-to-death-by-militants-5840213/
Rezwan. (2016, April 27). Xulhaz Mannan, an LGBT Activist in Bangladesh, Is the Latest Victim in a String Of Brutal Killings. Global Voices. Retrieved from https://advox.globalvoices.org/2016/04/27/xulhaz-mannan-an-lgbt-activist-in-bangladesh-is-the-latest-victim-in-a-string-of-brutal-killings/
Ta*. (2017, April 25). One year after the murder of Xulhaz Mannan and Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy. Amnesty International. Retrieved from https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2017/04/one-year-after-the-murders-of-xulhaz-mannan-and-mahbub-rabbi-tonoy/
Xulhaz Mannan. (2016, April 27). Front Line Defenders. Retrieved from https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/en/profile/xulhaz-mannan
Xulhaz-Tonoy Murder: Another ABT man arrested. (2019, January 17). The Daily Star. Retrieved from https://www.thedailystar.net/city/xulhaz-mannan-and-tonoy-murder-1-key-accused-held-dhaka-tongi-1688317