A week ago, news broke that Bangladeshi writer and LGBTQ activist Xulhaz Mannan was brutally murdered at 35. The news was jarring for a few reasons, particularly in the specifics of his death at the hands of an Al-Qaeda affiliated group. His death seems to be emblematic of an attempted killing of progressive queer Western ways. Thus, Mannan’s death feels very personal.
The story leaves you bruised as it is such a vicious act of hate, leaving you as an LGBTQ person at a loss—especially if you had no idea that these problems were so great. I had never heard of Mannan but was deeply affected by this story, how he and Tanay Mojumdar were both killed for being gay. Mannan was the editor of a magazine called Roobbaan, Bangladesh’s first and only LGBTQ publication. He was fighting the good fight of equality in an unlikely place and, yet, he become a martyr for the cause at the hands of vicious hate.
In watching reports on his death like the above, I wanted to know more about him. I wanted to remember him even though I didn’t know him and, in digging, there are many things about him, this queer everyman on the other side of the world who lived a life like the rest of us but under closer watch, in a setting where taboos of sex and gender are deeper than bigots blocking bathrooms. The bigots where he lived were literally terrorists reflective of a country where homosexuality is illegal. You can get an idea of what happened with the news report above.
Mannan’s Roopbaan had been active for a few years and, from the outside, seems to have positioned him as a voice of a generation for Bangladeshi queers. In perusing the publication’s Twitter (and Instagram and Facebook, which were less active), you see something that seemed so common, so relatable to a Frontiers or Attitude but clearly with a more activist based beat. You could have found this magazine anywhere. Published since 2014, Roopbaan was a place to promote “human right and freedom to love in Bangladesh”—but was more than that: it was more of a volunteer based non-profit platform, a position. It wasn’t just a magazine. It wasn’t just a side-hustle to get some writing out.
Outside of the magazine, you see a joyful, hopeful life with Mannan as an individual. Particularly from his Facebook, you can see Mannan as who he sought to be, on his own terms, as he alternated between Bengali and English to share a seemingly normal everyday. He worked at the US Embassy in Dhaka, specifically on their Mission Dhaka and USAID projects, acting as a liaison between the US government and the Bangladeshi people. He even got a little honor for his work! In light of his death, multiple US Embassy ambassadors have released statements on his work.
To give you an idea of his personal life, you can watch his Facebook Moments video from 2014, which seemed so trivial when they were popping up on our feeds years ago but stands now as a moving tribute in the case of Mannan.
Getting into his LGBTQ community work in Bangladesh (and, effectively, the LGBTQ international community), he wrote and attempted to incite change in his country in many ways. Most notably, Mannan suggested his LGBTQ peers live in the “comfortable closet,” to be safely out.
A country where the predominant religions identify a same sex lover as a sinner, the law of the land as a criminal; social norms as a pervert; culture as “imported”-how should life be for LGBTs in Bangladesh? For me, it’s like living in a ‘comfortable closet’. Comfortable because it is actually ‘easy’ when it comes to ‘doing it’; the culture and social norms are so focused on preventing heterosexual acts between unmarried couples: man-to-man or woman-to-woman sexual acts go almost unnoticed. Even in some more conservative regions homosexual acts between teenage boys is seen as the ‘safer’ way of exploring sexuality; so as long as they get married in their adulthood, no one cares much. However, it’s a closet!
The piece specifically speaks to working against BPC 377, a law that criminalizes homosexuality. He refers to it as, “a sleeping monster no one dares to wake.” It’s a great read if you have not heard about these issues abroad.
Similarly, Mannan was interviewed last year about the second LGBTQ Pride March in Dhaka. Mannan speaks about what it was like to start a Pride March in an unlikely territory and, despite there being “no issues” with what they were doing, there were surely issues.
Because of almost no visibility of LGBTQ people, the Bangladeshi perception of the issue is limited to that of hijras, and thus very limited/sporadic incidences of harassments or legal cases. It was more or less after the news of launching of Roopbaan magazine, this became a ‘public’ debate, and prior it was limited to scholarly or online debates. For most, no matter how many times you’d refer to WHO’s proclamation of homosexuality as natural and normal, or decriminalization of homosexuality in many countries, or equality of Queer people, they’ll shut you up with the stories of Lot and Gomorrah, and how homosexuality is the sin of all sins.
This too is an important read and shines light on something related to the now: Bengali Year, that April is the month of a new year, which is when we can assume the Pride marches happened. As the story noted from last August, “the month of April, the city of Dhaka held its second LGBTQ Pride march.” No word on if the third march happened this past month but threats loomed since last year’s march.
Xulhaz Mannan was a remarkable man and his story is highlights an issue that has gone largely unnoticed on this side of the world. For more on Mannan’s story and LGBTQ people in Bangladesh, I recommend this Guardian story on the subject. Moreover, Fusion spoke with a friend of his on the day-to-day of living out in the area.
To leave you on a light note, you can find some recent footage of him with friends doing the Canyon Swing at The Last Resort in Nepal. Rest in peace, Xulhaz.