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Memories of an unforgettable past with Xulhaz

Prominent Bangladesh activist was murdered in 2016

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Xulhaz Mannan, gay news, Washington Blade

Xulhaz Mannan, gay news, Washington Blade

Xulhaz Mannan, a prominent Bangladeshi LGBT activist, was hacked to death in his home on April 25, 2016. (Photo courtesy of Facebook)

“How much will it cost on the rickshaw to go to Shia Mosque?” I clearly remember asking my mother. It had only been a few months since I moved back to Dhaka after living in Kuwait for 13 years. I needed the rickshaw to go and meet Xulhaz.

After almost three months back, I had seen him briefly at a Boys of Bangladesh, which is a self-identified gay group in Bangladesh, event and added him on Facebook. I was away in Savar, an area on the outskirts of Dhaka, for a residential university semester. We would talk over the phone and Facebook. I had asked him to meet me near Shia Mosque when I returned home as that was one of the few nearby landmarks I knew. “Super! You won’t believe (it) but I was thinking of proposing Shia Mosque! I am not much into (the) human species, too complicated, I’m more comfortable with nature. Loving the weather now, don’t u? Spring, no matter how lived, still rocks! Dangerous too, for it derails me from my path,” he replied back.

This was back in February 2010. Little could either of us predict that the end of spring 2016 would derail his journey forever! I was 19 back then and totally mesmerized by him. His voice had warmth but at the same time it had authority in it, something which was both comforting and disarming.

We used to talk about a lot of things, and love and relationships were one of them. Talking about relationships, he once mentioned, “Serious relationship . . . ummm . . . I fell in love with five men in my life, no matter how serious they were for me, the first four were unilateral but the relations in other terms were serious, like a serious friendship. The last one, number five, was bilateral, probably, is my only serious relationship that ended at the end of 2004 because he got married. We took about a two hours break, and now we are friends again.” During that time he would confess to being too individualistic to love and be with someone for 24 hours. I was invited to several gatherings at his place. He would refer them as “adda,” which is a gathering of his close friends filled with fun, sometimes music. Unfortunately, I had a curfew from my mother about staying out late and could never attend most of these. Somehow memories of him from the Boys of Bangladesh event betrayed me. Instead I would draw a picture of him from our conversations and how he must be in real life: A big tall man with a bigger personality. I confess that I was a little disappointed when we met. For a person with such a mature voice, he was petite. However, the disappointment was momentary. Within seconds, we were talking in the tone which we did over Facebook and the phone. The memory that I partly cherish and partly detest of him from this period was his ability to make me feel both loved and unwanted in split seconds.

Just in passing conversation, I once mentioned to him that I wish I were born as a woman so that I could be a homemaker. He got pretty irritated by that comment.

“Can’t believe people still see women’s role as a mere home maker,” he said. “You can still be a home maker. Why do you have to be a woman for that?”

He questioned my childish view of the world. When I read the messages we exchanged during those days, there were moments where he would get irritated on small issues, but he was mostly cheerful and happy. I once commented that he is glowing these days in his profile pictures. He said that he was happy and it reflected in them. He preferred things to be organized and in our conversation it was clearly visible.

I had once written to him, “It has been almost four months since the first time we met. If it has lasted four months.” It was only in 2015 when I messaged him back wishing him a happy birthday, 10/11/2015. The conversation did not go anywhere. However, I reached out to him again the same year. There were a lot of bloggers being killed in Bangladesh and I was worried about him. For the next few minutes, I felt that no time had passed between 2010 and 2015. He said, “This is so coincidental. I was just reading your review of our first Issue.” Among other things, Xulhaz was also the co-founder of Roopbaan, the first and only LGBT magazine of Bangladesh and I had written a critical review of it. We discussed about the violent situation in the country. I told him that because of their visibility, they make very easy targets for the extremist groups. He replied casually, “The last thing I’d want to do is live in fear, for not doing anything wrong. If anything happens as such, I’ll see it as an accident, not a punishment.” That one line made me come back to reality that it was 2015 and Xulhaz’s ideas towards LGBT visibility in Bangladesh to some extent might have taken over the cheerful and at times rude Xulhaz of 2010.

During this period, we came across each other at few LGBT advocacy events and we would merely exchange pleasantries. I remember visiting his house for a party and when I was leaving he came across to give me a hug. I did not know how to react to it. It was only in March 2016 when I got to spend a significant amount of time with him. He has proposed the idea of a documentary on the subject of the third Roopbaan rainbow rally and I volunteered to assist in directing it. The documentary required my boyfriend who was directing it and me to repeatedly visit Xulhaz’s house for pre-production leading up to the main shoot. Our interaction during this period was bittersweet and completely different compared to when we first met many moons ago. It must have been a combination of security concerns in the country, the pressure upon him to single handedly put up the rally and to a large extent we both had moved on in life. He was all over the place, putting the volunteers together, helping with the shoot, discussing about security risks and making sure his mother and everyone who gathered in his house had eaten lunch. One could clearly see that he was tired but he could manage everything and yet have time to mop his room, which I must say indicated OCD.

I am scared of cats and he had a big, fat one in his house. One time we went for an early morning shoot and we were having breakfast and I was telling his how scared I am of them. With a poker face, he said, “If you are so scared, why are you not reacting since she (his cat) was right behind you?” I screamed and moved to another place. He went to comment that I was overreacting, a comment I still feel was uncalled for considering it was about someone’s phobia. Between running around with cameras and helping to set the lights, there were moments when I could see the Xulhaz of 2010. I was looking for a rare white variety of aporajita (Asian pigeon wings) and I found the plant in his terrace garden. He promised that when the seeds will dry, he will keep some for me. The dream of having a white ajorajita remains unfulfilled.

The last time we ever met was on April 14, 2016. The police had denied permission for the LGBT community to participate in the rally. However, we went to Dhaka University to walk as Bangladeshis at the Pohela Boishakh (Bengali New Year) rally. When I reached, I saw that he was standing and talking to few people from the community. The disappointment of weeks of hard work being cancelled was visible on his face. However, when he saw me, he walked up to me and lightly touched my tummy for one second. That one moment of genuine concern from both of us was beyond any communication we ever had.

Xulhaz and his friend Tonoy were brutally murdered by a group of extremists who broke into their house on April 25, 2016.

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To comply or not to comply is not the question

Implementation of pro-LGBTQI+ rulings in Botswana and Namibia is unsatisfactory

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(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Over the past five years, the highest courts in Namibia and Botswana have made significant decisions in favor of minority groups’ human rights through favorable judgments and court orders. However, the implementation of these orders related to the rights of LGBTQI+ in Botswana and Namibia has not been satisfactory so far. 

In 2016, the Botswana Court of Appeal ordered the Registrar of Societies to register the Lesbians, Gays and Bisexuals of Botswana (LEGABIBO) after they had been denied registration based on the criminalization of same-sex sexual conduct. In 2017, the High Court of Botswana pronounced that denying a transgender man legal gender recognition undermines their dignity and humanity and ordered the Ministry of Home Affairs to change his identity documents from female to male. In 2021, the Court of Appeal in Botswana decriminalized consensual same-sex sexual conduct. In May 2023, the Supreme Court of Namibia ordered the government to recognize same-sex unions concluded outside Namibia, where same-sex marriages are legal in terms of the Immigration Act. While all these cases constitute landmark cases in securing and guaranteeing the rights of LGBTIQ persons, there is a growing trend of non-implementation when it comes to such judgements.

Government officials have partially or selectively implemented or completely disregarded the court decisions. In the LEGABIBO registration case, the Botswana Court of Appeal found that it is unconstitutional to deny registration under the assumption that LGBTQI+ are not recognized in the Bill of Rights and will offend the morality of the nation. The court found that LGBTQI+, like any other citizen or group of people in Botswana, have the right to freedom of association, expression and assembly, and issued an order for LEGABIBO to be registered, an order that was fulfilled promptly. However, seven years later, in March 2024, an LBQ group’s efforts to register are met with sentiments similar to those before the LEGABIBO jurisprudence. Senior public officials resisted the highest court decision to register this new group. Although their reasons are not stated as clearly as LEGABIBO rejection, government officials are still surreptitiously blocking the registration of LGBTQI+ organizations. 

Similarly, we have observed the selective application technique unfolding in legal gender recognition cases. In this case, the government officials have interpreted this as a single order that only applies to the applicants and not “all persons.” According to anecdotal evidence based on the experiences of individuals who sought legal gender recognition, they are instructed to acquire individualized court orders, a complete misinterpretation of the court’s instructions, burdening the courts to issue duplicate orders. This selective interpretation is a covert move by government officials to undermine judicial decisions and transfer the responsibility and burden of implementation to resource-constrained individuals, limiting access to justice. What is also curious is why the court system does not address repeat applications on the same issue. 

With the decriminalization court order, the attorney general acted in contempt of the judgment when he, instead of scrapping Sections 164 (a) and (c), blatantly ignored the court order and put a bill before parliament for debate. The highest court in Botswana had made a carefully considered decision to decriminalize, as indicated by a statement from SALC (Southern Africa Litigation Center) and by many contributors to this issue; there is no need to debate; the court has decided.

In Namibia’s case, compliance with the court order means recognizing foreign partners in same-sex marriages with their Namibian partners as spouses, thereby issuing them an immigration status that allows them to reside and work in Namibia. Despite the commitment by the Ministry of Home Affairs to comply, government Officials still refuse to respect the Supreme Court ruling, as indicated by Mr. Digashu’s experience: 

“In one of my many visits to the immigration offices, the officer informed me that the court order was only meant for the couples directly engaged in the court case, unaware that I was one of those couples. I got the impression that the immigration officials have adopted a dishonest tactic to deter other same-sex couples, letting them believe that the judgement does not protect them.”

One of the most significant contributors to non-compliance is the media. The media reports on the Supreme Court decision on the Digashu/Seiller-lilies matter ran with the sensational headline “Supreme Court gives legal status to same-sex marriages,” misinforming the public and fueling negativity. Misinformation affects not only the litigants and community members but also feeds the already hostile public attitudes towards LGBTQI+ persons. Members of parliament and religious communities put pressure on government officials. Unfortunately, parliament responded with a marriage bill that contradicted the judgment, Instead of clarifying what the ruling means and whom it affects. Public officials reflect legislators’ sentiments, disregarding principles of democracy, the rule of law, and justice for all, which are clearly stated in the constitution, and further undermining the independence of the judiciary. 

These are only a few of the many court orders that government officials have disregarded to the disadvantage and inconvenience of the minority who went to court to seek redress. For example, in the case of Mr. Daniel Digashu, he is given a visitor’s visa every time he leaves the country, which means he is forced to exit the country at its expiration date or face the wrath of the law. The cost of frequent travel and the personal emotional toll on himself and his family is insurmountable. Let alone constant dealings with questions, often followed by ridicule from immigration officials.

The question, therefore, is, what must happen to government officials who disregard court orders? 

The chief justice in Kenya offers a solution to this conundrum. Recently, the chief justice observed that senior government officials are guilty of defying court orders and suggested remedies such as impeachment of individual officers responsible. Botswana and Namibia must take a leaf out of that book.   

Of great concern is also that government officials are not transparent about the limitations of the court orders to enable the litigants and beneficiaries to seek clarification from the courts, nor are they open to engaging with civil society and affected communities to improve compliance. Are the court orders vague and, therefore, challenging to implement? Being transparent about implementation constraints will go a long way in guiding civil society on how they can support the government. Even in their resource-constrained status, CSOs must continue to monitor compliance and return to the courts for enforcement, including publicizing non-compliance in the media for public engagement. 

In conclusion, the rule of law requires that all court decisions be implemented promptly, thoroughly and effectively. The government has no choice whether to execute or not execute the court orders. 

The authors are consultants at the Southern Africa Litigation Center (SALC). SALC promotes and advances human rights and the rule of law in Southern Africa, primarily through strategic litigation and capacity-strengthening support to lawyers and grassroots organizations.

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Celebrating 15th anniversary of Harvey Milk Day

A powerful reminder that one person can make a difference

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The Harvey Milk Forever Stamp was unveiled at a ceremony in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on May 22, 2014. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Harvey Milk’s birthday, May 22, is officially a Day of Special Significance in California. Other states also honor Milk.

Milk was the first openly gay man elected to public office in U.S. history. In 1977, he was elected to a seat on the Board of Supervisors in San Francisco. His term began in January 1978 and ended in November when disgruntled former Supervisor Dan White assassinated Milk and Mayor George Moscone at City Hall.

In his 1982 book “Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk,” Randy Shilts wrote a moving account of San Francisco’s 1978 memorial for Milk. A “massive crowd stretched the entire distance from City Hall to Castro Street, some 40,000 strong utterly silent,” Shilts wrote. The crowd “ostensibly memorialized both George Moscone and Harvey, but few speakers quarreled that the crowd had amassed chiefly to remember the gangly ward politician [Milk] who had once called himself the mayor of Castro Street.”

Shilts quoted Board of Supervisors President Dianne Feinstein, at the time acting mayor, telling the mourners that Milk “was a leader who represented your voices.” Another speaker said Milk “was to us what Dr. King was to his people. Harvey was a prophet [who] lived by a vision.” Equality was Milk’s vision.

Shilts presciently titled the last section in his book “The Legend Begins.” In 1979, after a jury gave assassin White a light seven-year sentence, LGBT rioters rocked San Francisco in what is called “The White Night Riots.” During the riots, Shilts wrote that “a lesbian university professor yelled into a feeble bullhorn: ‘Harvey Milk lives.’” Since 1978, Harvey Milk’s courageous leadership has been celebrated globally.

Over four years, 2006-2010, San Francisco reminded the country that Milk was a gay man worthy of great honors. The 2008 movie “Milk,” filmed partly in San Francisco, with Sean Penn as Milk, ignited greater public interest in the legendary gay activist. Gay screenwriter Dustin Lance Black and Penn won Academy Awards in 2009.

The film led Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to sign legislation making Milk’s birthday a Day of Special Significance. Also, President Barack Obama awarded Milk with a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom. On Milk’s 84th birthday, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative Forever stamp in his honor.

California’s Harvey Milk Day recognizes Milk for his contributions to the state. It also encourages public schools to conduct “suitable commemorative exercises” to honor Milk.

“To me, [Milk] was a man who was a capitalist, and an entrepreneur who happened to be gay,” said Republican Sen. Abel Maldonado, the only Republican to vote for the bill to create Harvey Milk Day.

The newer scholarship about Milk provided additional insight into his activism. “An Archive of Hope: Harvey Milk’s Speeches and Writings” edited by James Edward Black, Charles Morris, and Frank Robinson, published in 2013 by the Univ. of California Press, is an excellent example.

The book’s title is drawn from Milk’s 1978 speech called “The Hope Speech.” He spoke about people [gays, seniors, Black Americans, disabled, Latinos, Asians] “who’ve lost hope.” He proceeds to talk about inspiring hope in others who are struggling when the “pressures at home are too great.” It is a passionate speech, based largely on Milk’s conversations with people in the Castro. In a review of the book for The Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, I wrote it is: “An important contribution to the corpus of work on Harvey Milk as a writer and orator.”

Milk believed that it was important for members of the LGBTQIA+ community to come out. If more people were aware of their LGBTQIA+ associates who were their friends, family, and loved ones, then discrimination would end. To Milk, coming out would lead to ensuring LGBTQIA+ civil rights.

In 2007, during Pride in San Francisco I worked at a nonprofit’s booth in Civic Center Plaza. A man stopped to talk. I mostly listened. He was a veterinarian from a small town in Arkansas. He was gay and closeted. He regularly visited San Francisco for Pride. Afterward, he regularly returned to his closeted life in Arkansas. I felt sorry for him. Though I was a stranger to him, he needed to come out to me. I was reminded of Milk’s wisdom about the freedom of coming out.    

Harvey Milk Day is for all people who need hope. Milk’s life is a lesson that one person can make a difference. A strong, united community inspired by Milk and others has changed and continues to change the world.  

Milk’s short political career led to long-term LGBTQIA+ political leadership from the Bay Area to Washington, D.C. to Miami to Seattle. To paraphrase a Woody Guthrie song: This LGBTQIA+ Land is Our Land. Happy Milk Day 2024!

James Patterson is a lifetime member of the American Foreign Service Association.

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Commentary

BookMen DC: Still going strong at 25

Celebrating the longest-running LGBTQ literary group in the area

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On May 11, 1999, what was originally known as the Potomac Gay Men’s Book Group convened for its first meeting. A lot has changed over the ensuing quarter-century, starting with our name. But our identity remains true to the description on our blog: “an informal group of men who are interested in gay literature (both fiction and non-fiction).”

Our founder, Bill Malone, worked at the Whitman-Walker Clinic and started the group using donations of remainder books from a wholesaler in New York. Soon after that, members decided to get their own books, and began purchasing them through Lambda Rising, which offered a discount for such orders until it closed in 2010. The group later renamed itself BoysnBooks, and then became BookMen DC in 2007, which is also when we started our blog

Following Bill’s tenure, Tom Wischer, Greg Farber and Tim Walton (who set up our blog) have served as our facilitators. I succeeded Tim in that role in 2009, and am grateful to him and all my predecessors for laying such a solid foundation for our group. 

Twenty-five years after our founding, we are the longest-running LGBTQ literary group in the DMV. So far, we have discussed nearly 400 books, ranging from classics like Plato’s Symposium to graphic novels, gay history and memoirs, and novels by James Baldwin, Michael Cunningham, E.M. Forster and Edmund White—to name just a few of the many authors and genres we’ve explored.

Currently, we have more than 120 names on our mailing list, of whom about a quarter attend meetings at least occasionally. (Average attendance at our meetings is about 10.) Our members variously consider themselves gay, queer, bisexual, or transgender, and those varying perspectives enhance our discussions. I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that, like many LGBTQ organizations, we are not nearly as diverse as I wish we were. Although we do have young members and people of color within our ranks, we are predominantly white and middle-aged or older. We have tried various forms of outreach to further diversify our membership, and will keep working on that.

How has BookMen DC not just survived, but thrived, when so many other book clubs and LGBTQ groups have foundered? I would identify several factors.

First and foremost, we are welcoming. We have no minimum attendance requirements and charge no dues. And we expressly encourage members to join us at meetings even if they haven’t finished the selection we’re discussing.

We are also collaborative. Each fall, members nominate titles for the next year’s reading list; I then compile those suggestions into a list for members to weigh in on, and the results of that vote determine what we will read. 

Finally, we are flexible and adaptable. Over the years, we have met in locations all over the District. Currently, we meet on the first Wednesday of each month at the Cleveland Park Library (3310 Connecticut Ave. NW) from 6:30-7:30 p.m. to discuss entire books; afterward, those interested go to dinner at a neighborhood restaurant.

When the pandemic struck four years ago, we took a break for a couple of months before moving operations online. (Thank God for Zoom!) Even after the venues where we’d been meeting reopened, we have continued to meet virtually on the third Wednesday of each month, from 7-8 p.m. During those Zoom sessions, we discuss sections of anthologies of poetry and short stories, as well as short standalone works (e.g.,  plays and novellas).

If you enjoy LGBTQ literature and would like to try us out, visit our blog: https://bookmendc.blogspot.com/ and click the link to email me. We’d love to meet you!

Steven Alan Honley, a semi-retired musician, editor, and writer, has been a member of BookMen DC since 2000 and its facilitator since 2009.

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