Do Pride Month Celebrations Help Bangladeshi Queer People?

July 2023 | BANGLADESH

Trigger Warning: This article contains mentions of violence, queerphobia, and homophobia. Reader discretion is advised.

“The pattern of your punishment should be like this: cutting off your parents’ hands or five fingers in front of you and then shaving their heads. Then hot glass will be poured into your eyes, hot water will be run on your genitals, and finally, you will be slaughtered. … It would be foolish to file a police complaint against us because we are criminals in this country as much as you are criminals.”

As the month-long merriment of Pride ended, I was reminded of this email shared with me by a renowned queer organisation in Bangladesh. Pride Month is meant to be a celebration for gender and sexuality-diverse populations worldwide, offering a space and platform to the queer community to share their stories and the challenges they face. In 1969, the main goal of the Stonewall Inn movement was to achieve equal rights for LGBT+ or queer persons, to make their presence known, and above all, the liberation of the queer community. 

However, Pride is not celebrated equally everywhere. This is particularly true for Bangladesh, where the queer community and its allies cannot publicly come together to celebrate due to the risks associated with being openly queer. 

The Lived Reality of Queer People in Bangladesh

The discussion about queer rights in Bangladesh is limited to repealing Section 377 (Unnatural Offences)  of the Bangladesh Penal Code, 1860. However, persecution of the queer community is not limited to this legislation

Several sections of The Digital Security Act, 2018, Pornography Control Act, 2012, Narcotics Control Act, 2018, and The Dhaka Metropolitan Police Ordinance, 1976, criminalise the queer community in Bangladesh. The Bangladesh Penal Code, 1860 outlaws sex-reassignment surgery, criminalising not only the queer person but also the doctor involved. 

While many laws of the colonial period are being repealed in favour of new ones, variants of the British-era laws continue to be in effect. For example, the Digital Security Act 2018, and Section 24  (Identity Fraud or Being in Disguise) & Section 74 (Penalty for soliciting for purposes of prostitution), Section 75 (Penalty for indecent behaviour in public) of the Dhaka Metropolitan Police Ordinance reflect the influence of Section 26 (Penalty on eunuch appearing in female clothes, or dance in public, or for hire) of the Criminal Tribes Act 1871, which was repealed in 1949. 

It is necessary to talk about these laws because members of the queer community are regularly charged under them; it results from ambiguous wording of the statutes and mala fide intention of the law enforcing agencies.  In many cases, people are charged under the Narcotics Act or the Pornography Act etc., after being arrested on the charges of homosexuality. 

From September 2019 to February 2023, I worked for a Bangladeshi organisation that provided cost-free legal services to the LGBT+ community. During this period, I  encountered around 700 complaints, of which approximately 270 were legal court cases. Among them, only one was filed under Section 377.

Delays in judicial reforms and impunity granted to those harassing queer people have inconvenienced the community for far too long. Their primary struggles regarding the safety of their lives, housing, education, medical treatment, food, and clothing and the incessant discrimination they face on a daily basis result in a significant number of queer people dying by suicide every year. 

Performative activism of corporates becomes evident as we look closely at the months following Pride celebrations. In Bangladesh, Pathao Food, a food home-delivery initiative, hired 50 transwomen and non-binary people in 2021. What eventually happened was blatant discrimination of these marginalised employees by customers, who refused to accept service, and there were reported incidents of misbehaviour and sexual assault. The employer organisation had no policy on these discriminations, and workers, with no redress, were forced to leave the job. 

Such incidents discourage queer people from exploring the usual job opportunities, compelling them to take up low-paying jobs, with salary ceilings lower than that of cis persons, despite being qualified. 

The misconduct against the queer community even dampens Pride Month celebrations, as queer organisations and organisers in Bangladesh are harassed with threatening emails and warning calls from Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime (CTTC). The panic in the month of June is unavoidable, and this has only increased over the years, with the commercialisation of Pride month that inevitably increases the visibility of the Bangladeshi queer youth. 

For instance, on 23 June 2023, Shamim Mahfuz, the founder of the militant group Jama’atul Ansar Fil Hindal Sharqiya and a former teacher at Bangladesh Open University, was arrested. During interrogation, he told the CTTC that “they have drawn up a list of LGBT+ activists, transgender people, police, judges, atheist writers, liberal bloggers, newsreaders, media, theatre workers for targeted killing.”

The Commercialisation of Pride and Its Effects

Every June, Netflix creates a flagship category of queer-themed movies, various online shops offer heavy discounts, and several world-famous brands even change the colour of their logos. Every year, the struggles and lack of societal support to the queer community become an opportunity for foreign entities to capitalise on. But today, a discussion about whether the idea of liberation has been reduced to a mere show is inevitable. 

The capitalisation of rights-based movements has been proven to be a two-edged sword, and this is true for Pride month as well. Some may ask, what’s the harm in capitalising on Pride month? I would like to share a personal anecdote to show the lack of genuine support for the queer community.

 ‘Shongshoptok,’ a Bangladesh-based queer mobilising organisation, provides a peer-based counselling service called ‘Mutual Counselling’ to queer individuals since 2019. The unfunded organisation does not get paid for this initiative. The volunteers pay for the venue, sessions, and all the other arrangements out of their own pockets. The shared experiences of all and empathy towards the challenges faced help the community members in counselling each other by following the re-evaluation co-counselling model. However, severe cases require the support of professional clinical psychologists, the lack of which is due to the absence of queer-affirmative training in Bangladesh. 

In 2022, during Pride month, Shongshoptok received a request from an organisation asking it to provide detailed training on gender and sexual diversity to the clinical psychologists at their professional counselling service. Their interest seemed genuine, and Shongshoptok was happy to provide assistance that would benefit the community. Two volunteers conducted the training free of cost. However, when people from the community reached out to this organisation for assistance, the professional counsellors quoted BDT 2,000 per hour for their service, which is very expensive for most queer individuals in Bangladesh. This experience, wherein the queer community’s genuine efforts were utilised to benefit a capitalist project with no actual returns to the members of the community, furthered my apprehension towards the attention the queer movement receives during Pride month. 

So, How Should We Be Celebrating Pride?

The idea of fundamental civil and political rights for queer people seems far-fetched in Bangladesh. NGOs working for the rights of queer people are also mired in tokenism. As a result, the same work has been done for years, but the community’s fate has remained unchanged. Because of tokenism, we see the same faces year after year; fewer people have been coming forward as the face of the queer movement in the country over the last few years. Although there are various types of funding for the queer community in Bangladesh, people who want to work based on queer politics are quickly sidelined.

I am not against celebrating Pride month, but would like to say that this movement started by Black and Brown people has become enmeshed in capitalism. It is moving further away from the motto of queer liberation, getting engulfed in mere celebrations and commercialisation. Culture to me is like a flowing river, it flows easily from one country to another, and that’s natural. But of course, we need to reclaim the original call of Pride Month. There can be meaningful marketing centred around it, but the extent to which these initiatives address the struggles of queer people must be taken into consideration.

Authored by Jubdatul Jabed, Program Manager, iProbono Bangladesh
Edited for language by Shivani Shinde, Program Assistant, South Asia


Join Us
Civil Society Organisations

If you are in need of pro bono legal assistance

Register with us
Legal Community

If you are interested in providing pro bono legal services

Join our network