Comfortable in the virtual closet
11 July 2013
The internet has allowed for an important kinship to spring up within the Bangladeshi gay community.
Homosexual men in Dhaka who openly identify themselves as such are mostly from the middle and upper income groups. In large part, they have come to understand their identity mainly from information obtained from the internet, which those who know English are able to access from a computer at home or a cyber café. Men in Dhaka have had access to information and images related to gay issues since as early as 1996, but over the past decade there has been a mushrooming of cyber cafes all over the city, with the competition leading to affordable rates.
It was in late 2002 that the first online gay group for Bangladeshis – a Yahoo group called BOB, for Boys Only Bangladesh – was started by a handful of educated men. Tired of looking for other gay men in public places such as the Ramna Park hangout, they were hoping to build friendship ties online so as to begin talking about their sexuality comfortably. Since BOB is the biggest congregation of gay-identified men in Bangladesh, it has since come to be seen as something of a barometer of the gay community in the country. As such, BOB helps to gauge the political aspirations of this group – and, more recently, has provided a window into how the past year of emergency rule has affected the gay community of Bangladesh.
BOB’s homepage contains just one reference to gay rights, perhaps offering an immediate insight into the lack of overt political aspirations. The homepage largely concerns itself with ‘friendship’, devoid of political edge. Indeed, the first attempt in BOB’s (and the Dhaka gay community’s) history to assert itself politically came as late as May 2005, when the BOB moderators published a letter to the Daily Star newspaper, regarding the first International Day Against Homophobia. The letter read:
[The World Health Organisation] has removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders. Bangladesh, despite being a part of international community, seems blissfully unaware of it. Because of the ignorance, people like me who are gays are being discriminated against. The end product of such discrimination is immense mental suffering and physical harassment. The situation gets even worse when I can’t express myself to my family or friends. Homosexuals in Bangladesh are shackled to a life of secrecy, lies and even internalised homophobia.
People quickly took notice of the letter. Within days, the paper published a rabidly homophobic response from an expatriate Bangladeshi. More importantly, a wave of ‘anti-political’ mail began pouring into the BOB message boards, nearly all from the site’s members. Some of these argued against the decision to publish such a letter in the first place. Two of the oppositional letters are quoted below (misspellings have been corrected to avoid confusion):
[N]ow we are living in the society without any fear and suspect. We can hang around guys anywhere we want. No one bothers to ask. But please don’t make any situation that hampers our facilities as we would lose our all freedom by all the RED EYES of the society. We all should think about that side of our life … because we are living in Dhaka not Europe or North America that society won’t bother. Our society would bother for gays very very much as it’s a Muslim country. So, BOB do your job and please think about our safety also.
… Every time a letter appears, some commotion rises and the antigay sentiment is crystallized. Bangladesh is a very conservative society and people have no sympathy for homosexuals although a lot of them practice sodomy … Fortunately people in general are not yet sensitized about the emerging gay culture and do not mind if two men hang around or share a hotel room. Making an issue is easy, but that will make our clandestine life difficult. Renting of hotel rooms will be suspected. Especially effeminate gays will face serious problem. In my judgment trying to put homosexuality on the public agenda will be self defeating in the short run. I don’t think Bangladesh will decriminalize sodomy in next 100 years! What’s the point in raising hue and cry, then?
The emotions here speak for themselves. Most of the members of the BOB website disapproved of the original letter. There was also a strong negative sentiment generated outside the online communities, where it was also thought that BOB had gone too far in sending a letter about homosexuality to the most widely circulated English-language daily in the country. These reactions surprised and disappointed the BOB moderators, who, several days later, said that they felt the members had misunderstood their intention, in presuming that BOB was trying to become ‘rebellious’. On the contrary, the moderators said, they were only attempting to launch a more public discussion.
Indeed, the beginnings of that discussion did emerge, when a response to the homophobic letter in the Daily Star was published in the newspaper. But BOB’s continued stance as an apolitical group was then made clear to the group’s members, with a mass mailing that warned that no further discussion on the issue would be allowed on the message boards. As such, BOB definitively abandoned political activism – banning further discussion on the publicity incident and instead, according to the wishes of its members, started planning for a disco party. Since that time, BOB has remained an online gay group that caters solely to the entertainment and friendship needs of its members, without any reference to political issues whatsoever.
Real vs virtual
In this manner, some have begun to see the internet as merely a larger ‘virtual closet’ for gay men in Dhaka. The internet, after all, offers a forum in which people can comfortably express themselves without risking their ‘real space’ existence. While clearly advantageous on a certain level, the question eventually needs to be raised as to whether such a situation can be considered sustainable. Can the gay community in Dhaka deny the broader local political implications of claiming a universal gay identity? In the long run, if homophobia were to grow in Bangladeshi society, perhaps stoked by extreme conservative groups, how would gay men with few real-space political associations be able to react?
If homophobia were to grow in Bangladesh, perhaps stoked by extreme conservative groups, how would gay men with few real-space political associations be able to react?
Many gays began to feel the effects of this ‘virtual closeting’ following the imposition of emergency rule in Bangladesh on 11 January 2007, by a caretaker government ostensibly fearful of post-election violence. (Those polls were subsequently put off until late 2008.) Together with a massive anti-corruption drive, law-enforcement agencies also made a point of implementing each and every mundane law of the land. This netted many political leaders, including the two reigning queens of the country. But this process of intense policing also led the gay community to shrink even further into itself. December 2006 had seen the largest gay party ever to take place in Bangladesh, in addition to regularly scheduled shows and informal gatherings. In stark contrast, 2007 was notably uneventful for the gay community – no discos, no film shows, hardly even a get-together.
Were the law-enforcement agencies really such a threat? In retrospect, the answer appears to be ‘no’. In fact, the primary reason for the slowdown on the part of the gay community’s real-world activities was the fact that hotels began refusing to rent venues to gay groups, while the theatres that had previously been used for film shows were closed down, primarily because one of those theatres was owned by a Bangladesh Nationalist Party political personality. (It should be noted that, for a few months of the emergency, disco parties organised by straight groups were also halted.) But then a flurry of rumours began about supposed police raids being planned on gay hangouts, as well as supposed attempts to entrap gays through the internet. The effect of this fearful gossip reduced the once-active gay community, which had been in the process of slowly attempting to carve out a public space for itself, into little more than a bunch of online, faceless gay men.
Much of the rumours did prove to be false. Over the past year, not a single gay or transsexual man has been prosecuted under Bangladesh’s PC 377 statute, which is exactly the same as the archaic, widely criticised Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. Nor, for that matter, have any of the rumoured police raids actually gone forward, though infrequent attacks on gay men have continued as before. Moreover, NGOs working with transsexuals and hijras (among others) have continued to operate smoothly, with the hijra community even recently staging a theatrical presentation about their lives. In the end, it seems that it was the gay-identified men who felt the largest impact of the emergency even if nothing significantly overt was done against them – and perhaps understandably since, compared to other sexual minorities, they are the least organised outside of the virtual world.
One way or another, the emergency has added to the already volatile psychological state of the gay men of Dhaka, pushing them even further into what they perceive as a safe cyber space. This cannot go on indefinitely. Eventually, Bangladeshi gay men will have to realise that, until they start questioning the role of the internet in their lives, and think of ways to utilise it beyond mere networking, nothing of substance will be attained beyond occasional dates. The community will first need to come out of the virtual closet before it can even begin to think about peeking out of the real closet.
~First published Himal Southasian, March 2008, then republished in June 2013.
~Tanveer Reza Rouf has worked as a lecturer at the Economics and Social Science departments of BRAC University, Dhaka.