how the murders of bangladeshi activists highlight the lgbt community's global struggle

The deaths of Xulhaz Mannan — editor of Bangladesh’s first LBGT magazine — Mahbub Tonoy this week reflect how far gay rights have to go in many developing nations.

by Jake Hall
28 April 2016, 7:14pm

As the vast majority of Twitter spent its Monday morning dissecting and digesting Beyoncé's long-awaited Lemonade, BBC quietly broke the news that two LGBT activists had been hacked to death in their own apartment building in Bangladesh. One of these activists was Xulhaz Mannan, a respected spokesperson for gay rights and the founder of the country's first and only LGBT magazine, Roopbaan.

A chilling Twitter statement released by an Al-Qaeda affiliate claimed responsibility for the machete attacks, justifying its actions by arguing Mannan and fellow victim Mahbub Tonoy were "pioneers of practicing and promoting homosexuality in Bangladesh," where homosexuality is still illegal. The murder is the latest in a string of brutal attacks on freedom which have also claimed the lives of secular blogger Nazimuddin Samad and professor Rezaul Karim Siddique. We may take our freedom for granted, but the fact remains that victims worldwide are being persecuted daily for their sexual orientation and religious beliefs; these aren't random acts of violence, but meticulously-planned slaughters which aim to eradicate the notion of free will.

Although there's little we can do on an individual level to stop these senseless killings, a general lack of media coverage illustrates a widespread desensitization to foreign injustice. It's estimated that homosexuality is still illegal in around 80 countries worldwide, while countries like Russia and the USA continue to quietly usher in regressive legislation which limits the freedom of gay and trans individuals. The difference is that you've probably heard about these laws — after all, Russia is a fellow European citizen and the USA is one of the world's most powerful countries.

Discrimination in these countries is deemed worthy of discussion in the United Kingdom, because their political proximity to our nation makes them a viable threat to our own freedom. Few articles are written about the widespread hate crimes and prohibitive laws of countries such as Jamaica and Uganda, whilst the occasional death sentence tied to homosexuality in Iran and Somalia is rarely explored in any detail by the British media. We may live in a largely accepting country which last year legalized gay marriage, but there are still men and women worldwide being executed for their beliefs; the least we can do is spotlight their struggles and further global discussion.

Incidentally, this widespread community discussion is exactly what Mannan achieved with Roopbaan magazine, named after a Bengali folk character said to represent the power of love. Its publication led to widespread controversy and, despite initially being released anonymously, Mannan soon emerged as a key volunteer and subsequently went into hiding. The impact of Roopbaan transcended its print distribution, resulting in a thriving online safe space for LGBT individuals to discuss relationships, prejudice, and their own personal stories of self-discovery. Roopbaan acted as a clandestine catalyst for awareness and acceptance of homosexuality, offering an outlet for victims of a repressive government.

These hidden communities are often developed in the face of adversity, and Bangladesh isn't the only example. There are the gully queens of Jamaica forced to seek refuge in filthy drains to avoid being raped or murdered by homophobic locals; another flourishing community of LGBT activists in Uganda is fighting for its right to celebrate gay pride without being attacked. These hidden groups exist worldwide in countries desperate to banish them from society. Mannan's brutal murder should be a reminder of the constant danger faced by these communities; a danger which is often encouraged by governments that label them as targets. International awareness of these horrendous circumstances is a small but necessary step towards pressuring these governments and their regressive policies — we may not be able to solve these issues, but we should at least be using large-scale platforms to question them.

It's worth noting that the fight for LGBT rights in the United Kingdom has made considerable progress over the last few years. I am a cis gay male and, aside from the occasional insult on the street, I live a life which is largely free of discrimination. This is undoubtedly not the case for many trans or gender nonconforming individuals, nor is it the case for gay youth that belong to a racial minority. There's still work to be done, and it's important to remind ourselves that we cannot be complacent or argue that gay marriage was the final step towards full equality.

Ironically, gay pride season is almost upon us — a series of nationwide events which was initially intended to unite LGBT communities in celebration of our freedom. However, an eye-opening piece published earlier this month underlines that these same celebrations are becoming more commercially-minded than ever — club promoters are steadily hiking up entrance fees and scrambling to book high-profile performances to stage elaborate events which miss the point of gay pride altogether. Homosexuality was decriminalized in the United Kingdom in 1967, meaning that many of our parents and grandparents grew up in a Great Britain which persecuted and victimized its minorities in the same way that Bangladesh does now.

A new generation is growing up in an increasingly progressive society and facing less stigma than ever before. The activists that came before us have paved the way for us all; their risks and their struggles mean that it's largely acceptable for me to be in a long-term relationship and kiss my boyfriend in public. We have to celebrate our freedom and we have to continue to fight for the rights we are still denied, but it's also important not to become complacent and to recognize how privileged we are to live in a country that won't execute us for our lifestyle choices. Xulhaz Mannan isn't as lucky as we are; he fought for his right to live and love freely and was brutally murdered as a consequence. We can't reverse his death and we may not be able to truly further the fight for equality in less fortunate countries, but the least we can do is celebrate his legacy and let his admirable struggles for acceptance remind us of the unjust struggles that still reek havoc on minority groups worldwide.


Photography Joisey Showaa

Xulhaz Mannan
gay activism
mahbub tonoy