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Penal Code 377: The bane of Bangladesh’s LGBTQI population

Lawmakers must repeal colonial-era sodomy law

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Penal Code 377 criminalizes consensual same-sex sexual acts in Bangladesh. (Photo courtesy of Riaz Osmani)

Penal Code 377 criminalizes consensual same-sex sexual acts in Bangladesh. (Photo courtesy of Riaz Osmani)

According to surveys, 5 to 10 percent of the world’s population belong to the LGBTQI category (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex.) The first two feel sexual and emotional attraction towards people of the same gender, not the opposite as is the social norm. Bangladesh is no exception to this and there are numerous such people who live clandestine lives, away from the limelight of family, friends and society. Many of them live double lives by entering sham marriages with the opposite gender to save face with family and society. Such marriages do irreparable damage to both parties involved since they are not based on love or intimacy.

After the murder of gay rights activist Xulhaz and gay cultural activist Tonoy by Islamic militants earlier this year, gays in Bangladesh are now in hiding, fearful of their lives. Those who are able to are leaving the country. This is a sorry state of affairs and needs to change soon. First thing to aid this change will be a bit of education. People never choose their sexuality. Homosexuals are born with their sexuality that they discover after puberty in the same way heterosexuals do. Nobody makes this choice. There is no choice here. Moreover, it is never possible for someone to change their sexuality. This means a gay person cannot be turned straight (heterosexual) by any means. Likewise, a heterosexual person cannot be turned gay (homosexual) by any means. Young boys and girls cannot be influenced by other homosexuals to become gay. Nobody becomes gay upon puberty. The sexuality is determined at a much earlier stage.

The American Psychological Association, along with other equivalents in the Western world and in India, have long ago determined that homosexuality is in no way a mental disorder or illness. It is a perfectly normal sexual orientation or expression for a small percentage of the world’s population. Any attempt at changing this through therapy, religious teachings, physical and mental abuse have proven totally ineffective and have often led to depression and suicidal tendencies among those being tried to be converted. The Western world has finally come to terms with these realities and has removed all laws that make criminals out of homosexuals, discriminate against them and prevent them from marrying the person they love.

It is high time that Bangladesh repeal laws in the country that make criminals out of her LGBTQI population. Interestingly enough, the main item of Bangladesh’s penal code that is used to maintain this criminality was not necessarily intended for that purpose. This item is the Victorian-era Penal Code 377 that Bangladesh (along with India, Pakistan and other former British colonies) inherited as independent nations. This code states the following: “Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine.”

Victorians had strange notions about sexual behavior and this code was instituted throughout their empire to prevent any sexual act by any two people (or a person and an animal) that did not result in human procreation. This meant that if a man and woman engaged in various sexual acts other than that which resulted in procreation, they would be deemed as criminals. This also meant that any sexual acts by homosexuals were criminal offenses. But the second one was an unintended consequence. The main purpose was to make sure all sexual activity was for the purpose of procreation.

There is no point in blaming the British for this ridiculous legal intrusion into people’s personal affairs today. We have been independent long enough to take care of our own affairs and the British have long removed their equivalent from their statute books. According to the Bangladesh Constitution, “all citizens are equal before law and are entitled to equal protection of law . . . The state shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth . . .” As has been done in the legal challenge to 377 in India, the clause above needs to include sexual orientation. I am asking for such a legal challenge to Bangladesh’s 377 since it violates the spirit of the country’s constitution. Under no circumstances must gays in Bangladesh be automatically deemed criminals by virtue of 377.

In the current climate where Islamic militants are openly killing homosexuals and have advocated more such killings on the internet, it is not possible for a fearful person to seek police protection if under threat for being a homosexual. The said person is liable to face police arrest and/or harassment and possibly rape. Removal of this ghastly legal absurdity will at least allow room for gays in Bangladesh to seek protection.

This brings me on to my next point and that is the role of religion (Islam in particular) in public life. The gay rights movement in Bangladesh will hit a brick wall (if it hasn’t already) as long as the politicians, civil society members and most importantly the religious community invoke Islam as the main barrier to repealing Penal Code 377 and granting homosexuals equal status in the eyes of the law. While most Muslims and people of other faiths steadfastly maintain that their faith is absolutely against homosexuals and that the latter deserves to be persecuted, most will draw blanks if asked to quote actual references from scriptures that promote this point of view.

The quote often given is that of the story of Lut (Lot) in the Quran and Bible where God supposedly destroyed a town for sodomy (i.e. homosexual acts.) This is the only thing that is attributed to attitudes towards homosexuals. There is however a debate about the meaning of the story. Some researchers of Islam in the west have argued that this story did not have anything to do with consensual sexual acts between two adult homosexuals but was about male rape. I will not venture into this argument because from my point of view, it belongs in religious academia, not in a country’s legal system, especially a system that has been defined by common law.

Moreover, since Bangladesh is a secular country (although in name only) where people of different faiths enjoy equal status (except for the anomaly of Islam still being the state religion,) there must be room for people of no faith or homosexuals who may or may not subscribe any faith. As long as Bangladesh is not an Islamic republic, religious beliefs cannot be used to criminalise, marginalise and persecute homosexuals. While social acceptance may come at a much later date, the country’s politicians and lawyers must have the foresight and courage to change the laws ahead of such social acceptance. Sodomy laws in the West were repealed much earlier than their societies were willing to accept homosexuals as equals.

Bangladesh will not be the first Muslim majority country to remove laws that criminalize homosexuals. Other such countries are Turkey, Mali, Albania, Bahrain, Jordan, Iraq, Palestine (the West Bank only) and Indonesia (minus Aceh.) It is noteworthy that none of these countries were directly colonized by the British and hence did not inherit the Victorian penal code. But as I have already mentioned, our own countries are our own affairs and it is about time we correct this inhuman state regarding the status of the LGBTQI population. The civil society must also be on full guard not to allow Bangladesh to be turned into an Islamic republic.

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Turkey Pride crackdowns only strengthen LGBTQ resistance

Hundreds arrested in Istanbul on Sunday

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Police crackdown on the Istanbul Pride march on June 26, 2022. (Photo courtesy of Hayri Tunç)

The waving colors of the thousand shades inside of a rainbow,

The sparkling joy from the pride and honor of self-declaration, 

The echoing sounds of the steps for solidarity in the cobblestone streets of İstanbul, 

To unite for equality, for justice, for solely our right to be. 

This was our goal, our expectation and our hope for Pride Turkey 2022. It has, however, been overshadowed by the government’s vicious attempts to repress the colors of the LGBTQI+ community. 

First, it started with the ban of Pride speeches and panels that many district governors and other local authorities across Turkey announced. Local police officers raided the many event venues as if “illegal” activities were being conducted. 

As in the last couple of years, it was already expected the government would ban the Pride marches in many cities. It was, however, the first time the government officially tried to prevent even face-to-face community gatherings of LGBTQI+ organizations. It was a type of intervention reflecting the level of fear and intolerance of the government regarding the growing connection, solidarity and public visibility of LGBTQI+ community.

Nevertheless, oppression often brings out the most creative means. As such, Pride committees have carried all the activities on digital platforms. Many activists and civil society representatives have shown support by participating in live broadcasts from event venues, and the voice of LGBTQI+ solidarity still reached a wide audience. 

Subsequently, the most drastic pressure by the government has manifested itself during the Pride marches. The police violently intervened and used unproportionate force against marchers in many cities, which resulted in a radical number of unwarranted detentions. 

While 530 LGBTQI+ activists were taken into custody over the last 37 days across Turkey, 373 of them were arrested during the Istanbul Pride march on June 26. This constitutes a first, since the Istanbul Pride arrests constituted the largest number of people taken into custody during a street march since the Gezi protests.

Will these enormous efforts to pressure win the day? The answer is “definitely no.” On the contrary, it sparked a backlash by triggering strong solidarity among Turkey’s queer community. The outstanding resistance of LGBTQI+ marchers gained public recognition on social media, while persistent legal support of LGBTQI+ initiatives canceled all the detentions. In the end, the exhaustive pressures of the government could not manage to fade the multicolor of LGBTQI+ identity. In fact, it helped our rainbow flag to shine even more glamorous and visible.  

We, as members of the LGBTQI+ community, have once again proved through this entire experience that solidarity, togetherness and collective resistance are the most powerful facilitators in our fight to exist equally.   

In honor of the unbreakable resistance of Turkey Pride 2022 supporters, 

Thanks to you, the cobblestones of Istanbul and every street in Turkey echoed with the steps of LGBTQI+ solidarity.

Dilek İçten is a journalist, researcher and civil society expert with a demonstrated history of working in interdisciplinary and investigative research projects examining the socio-cultural dynamics of media, gender and migration. The focus of her work varies from freedom of expression, media censorship and journalistic independence to gender based-discrimination and hate speech against disadvantaged groups and minorities.

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As Israel readies for new elections, the LGBTQ community is at risk

U.S.-based groups attacking transgender Israelis

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Elisha Alexander in April 2022 (Photo courtesy of Ethan Felson)

Israel’s government has collapsed — and the county is headed to new elections for the fifth time in three years. In this renewed period of uncertainty, Israel’s LGBTQ community has cause for particular concern. Any new coalition would likely welcome parties that oppose LGBTQ inclusion back into government, posing a clear and imminent threat to their human rights.

But amidst this trepidation, there is still much to celebrate: 30 LGBTQ leaders from the U.S. met with their counterparts in Israel this month. The backdrop was Tel Aviv Pride, one of the largest in the world. The leaders were there for more than celebrations. They came to learn. As with past A Wider Bridge trips, North Americans travelling to Israel and Israelis travelling to North America shared strategies for building LGBTQ inclusion, fighting conversion therapy, protecting young people needing shelter, and building vibrant pride centers. Pride celebrations got their start in the U.S. and will take place in more than 60 Israeli cities this month. Over the years, both of our countries have imported many successful approaches from one another. But one American import to Israel is less than welcome: Political transphobia. Let’s not let it become something that unites our nations.

As leaders of groups in Israel and the U.S., we’ve watched with sadness as trans kids in America have been put in harm’s way through legislation making their medical care less available and prohibiting their teachers and school counselors from providing the lifesaving support they need. And it turns out that the same retrograde forces fighting trans inclusion in the U.S. are backing similar efforts in Israel. There have always been opposition to LGBTQ rights, including trans inclusion in both countries and around the globe. What’s new is a vastly well-funded campaign — with plenty of American backing — directed at attacking the Israeli trans community. While the fight for LGBTQ equality in Israel hasn’t been easy, historically the community hasn’t been used as a political cudgel. That’s changing, and we’re ringing the alarm bell.

Groups like the Kohelet Forum, which is largely American-funded, are trying to take their American brand of anti-trans hate to Israel. While think tanks and policy shops aren’t a new phenomenon in Israel, Kohelet has adopted the broader American model of political change-making. They’ve launched a constellation of organizations working informally together to usher in transformational policy change. With the support of Kohelet and others, the anti-trans movement has exploded in Israel.

Their orchestrated effort comes at a very unfortunate moment. Ma’avarim, Israel’s most prominent trans organization, and the entire Israeli trans community have worked tirelessly for years, building careful relationships, educating important allies — and is making tremendous advances due to an Israeli government that was willing to embrace many key goals. There are historic opportunities to implement new life-saving policies including access to healthcare, legal recognition of gender identity, and diversity in the education system. All of this is now in jeopardy. Just as these successes are coming to fruition, the anti-trans movement is using social media and other tactics to spread disinformation and false accusations such as “men in dresses raping women in bathrooms.” These fabrications are felt by many in the trans community to be like anti-Semitic blood libels — made-up stories that lead to fear, hatred, and even violence. They help fuel anti-trans advocacy and lobbying to advance exclusionary policies and legislation to deny Israeli transgender persons their dignity and rights.

The new anti-trans movement has several distinctive features that require new responses. Firstly, unlike the traditional opposition for LGBTQ rights that springs from religious and social conservatives, anti-trans advocacy is now often fronted by self-styled “progressive” women. They bring with them established connections within liberal circles. Secondly, the central arena of the “progressive” anti-trans campaign is both traditional and social media — drawing on existing networks with hundreds of thousands of followers, while trans community organizations have minimal presence in social media beyond the trans community. Thirdly, the funding being poured into anti-trans campaigns eclipses the budgets of LGBTQ organizations. In Israel alone, the groups waging battle against the trans community have budgets in the tens of millions with hundreds of paid staff, many of whom work on anti-trans campaigns. 

None of us should sit idly by while these attacks on the trans community take place. As in other countries, this anti-trans hate movement poses an immediate threat to the safety and wellbeing of transgender and gender non-conforming persons. We cannot allow them to have their very existence denied.

But it doesn’t stop there. While transgender persons are the immediate targets of hate and violence, anti-trans campaigns have far-reaching political aims: dividing the liberal bloc of women’s, LGBTQ and minority rights, instilling hate, and turning liberal democratic societies against a newly created enemy from within. Anti-trans propaganda has proved instrumental in spreading disinformation and conspiracy theories that further undermine democratic values in society.

The eyes of the world often look to Israel on LGBTQ rights. Dana International, a trans woman from Tel Aviv, won the Eurovision music contest, became an international hero, and played a role in ushering greater acceptance of the trans community.

The world will be watching after Israel’s new elections: Will they continue to make progress in affording rights and protections to LGBTQ people? Or will they turn back the clock? Now more than ever, fighting the anti-trans movement must be a top priority not only for the transgender community but for LGBTQ people, feminists, and the wider progressive community in Israel- and in the United States.

Ethan Felson is the executive director of A Wider Bridge, an organization that fights for LGBTQ inclusion, counters anti-Semitism, and strengthens relationships between the LGBTQ community in Israel and North America. Elisha Alexander is the founding director of Ma’avarim, Israel’s leading NGO advocating for the transgender community.

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To Biden: No Pride in detention of transgender, queer communities

Jennicet Gutiérrez declines to attend White House Pride event

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LGBTQ immigrant rights activists participate in the Queens Pride parade in Jackson Heights, N.Y., on June 5, 2022. (Photo courtesy of Emilio Vicente)

Editor’s note: This is the letter that Jennicet Gutiérrez sent to the White House in response to the invitation she received to attend its Pride Month celebration.

June 13, 2022

Dear President Biden and Dr. Biden,

I received your invitation to the White House Pride Celebration on June 15, 2022, and with a clear conscience I am letting you know that I will not be attending this event. There should be no White House celebration when trans and queer communities are suffering and being detained by your administration. There is no pride in detention. 

At the start of your administration you pledged to protect LGBTQ+ people worldwide, but it’s a commitment that you have failed to uphold at home. 

Almost a year ago, while you were holding a Pride reception, trans and queer immigrant leaders from across the nation marched to the White House, demanding the release of trans people, people living with HIV, and any medical condition, from detention centers across the country. We are still seeking justice for Victoria Arellano, Roxsana Hernández, and Johana Medina, trans women who died because of the negligence of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). 

Our members across the country are marching and protesting this Pride Month with the same demand of ending the violence and killings of trans people. There have been over two million deportations since you took office, setting you up to be the next deporter-in-chief. Your administration has used Title 42 as an excuse to deport immigrants seeking a better future, most of them Black and brown people and including trans and queer immigrants, even as your administration is relaxing requirements for people traveling to the United States. More than 32 states have drafted bills that would criminalize trans youth and their families for providing life affirming healthcare. Transgender people and children are under attack by the same white supremacist forces that are plaguing our nation and we haven’t seen your administration’s response be enough in the face of these attacks.

The reality is that as this celebration is taking place, trans people currently in ICE custody will be in unsafe conditions. You could easily stop their suffering by instructing the Department of Homeland Security to implement a policy of liberating trans people, people living with HIV and other medical conditions, as well as other vulnerable people.

Ending trans detention and using your executive powers to protect LGBTQ people would have a greater impact on our community and would save many lives rather than hosting an event to deliver a well-crafted speech with broken promises.

Respectfully,

Jennicet Eva Gutiérrez

13 de julio del 2022

Estimados presidente Biden y Dr. Biden, 

Recibí su invitación a la Celebración del Orgullo de la Casa Blanca el 15 de junio de 2022 y con la conciencia clara les hago saber que no asistiré a este evento. No debería haber celebración de Orgullo en la Casa Blanca cuando las comunidades trans y queer están sufriendo y siendo detenidas por su misma administración. No hay orgullo en la detención. 

Al comienzo de su administración, se comprometió a proteger a las personas LGBTQ + en todo el mundo, pero es un compromiso que no ha podido mantener en casa. 

Hace casi un año, mientras celebraban una recepción de Orgullo, líderes inmigrantes trans y queer de todo el país marcharon a la Casa Blanca, exigiendo la liberación de las personas trans, las personas que viven con el VIH y cualquier condición médica, de los centros de detención de todo el país. Todavía estamos buscando justicia para Victoria Arellano, Roxsana Hernández y Johana Medina, mujeres trans que murieron debido a la negligencia del Servicio de Inmigración y Control de Aduanas (ICE).

Nuestros miembros en todo el país están marchando y protestando este mes del orgullo con la misma demanda de poner fin a la violencia y los asesinatos de personas trans. Ha habido más de dos millones de deportaciones desde que asumió el cargo, lo que lo prepara para ser el próximo jefe-de-deportaciones. Su administración ha utilizado el Título 42 como una excusa para deportar a los inmigrantes que buscan un futuro mejor, la mayoría de ellxs personas Negras y personas de color, e incluyendo a inmigrantes trans y queer, mientras su administración está relajando los requisitos para las personas que viajan a los Estados Unidos. Además, más de treinta y dos estados han redactado proyectos de ley que criminalizan a los jóvenes trans y sus familias por proporcionarles atención médica que afirma su género y salvan sus vidas. Las personas transgénero y los niños están siendo atacados por las mismas fuerzas supremacistas blancas que están plagando nuestra nación y no hemos visto que la respuesta de su administración es suficiente frente a estos ataques.

La realidad es que a medida que se lleva a cabo esta celebración, personas trans actualmente bajo custodia de ICE estarán en condiciones inseguras y peligrosas. Usted podría parar fácilmente su sufrimiento instruyendo al Departamento de Seguridad Nacional para que implemente una política de liberación de personas trans, personas que viven con VIH y otras condiciones médicas, así como otras personas vulnerables. 

Poner fin a la detención trans y usar sus poderes ejecutivos para proteger a las personas LGBTQ tendría un mayor impacto en nuestra comunidad y salvaría muchas vidas en lugar de organizar una celebración de Orgullo para pronunciar un discurso bien elaborado con promesas incumplidas.

Respetuosamente, 

Jennicet Eva Gutiérrez

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