The Abdication of Voicelessness: LGBT Activism As Necessity
Alan Jude Ryland
Xulhaz Mannan knew he would die. Perhaps he pushed the thought aside. Humans are dodgy on the subject of their own mortality; we mustn’t blame him. But he knew he would die for abdicating voicelessness, for daring to be visible. This is a crime older than loving the wrong person, or the right person, as it were. He would meet his end by machete, age 35. A group of five or six young men posing as couriers attacked a security guard in the lobby of his apartment building before making their way up to his apartment on the second floor. His friend, Tanay Mojumdar, died with him.
Mannan was the founding editor of Roopbaan, Bangladesh’s first and only LGBT magazine. He launched the magazine in 2014 to promote greater acceptance of his community. This choice rang his death knell. He lived atop landmines of social unrest. Ansar al-Islam, a Bangladeshi division of al-Qaeda, took responsibility for the murders, which are the latest in a long, sobering series of killings of bloggers and academics in the country. In a statement made via social media, the organization condemns Mannan and Mojumdar as “pioneers of practising and promoting homosexuality in Bangladesh” who “were working day and night to promote homosexuality among the people of this land since 1998 with the help of their masters, the US crusaders and its Indian allies.”
The war on secular writers and bloggers goes beyond Bangladesh’s borders. The release of a purported hit list from Islamic extremist group Ansarullah Bangla Team threatening people in the United States and Europe made headlines in September. A statement accompanying the list asks that Bangladesh “revoke the citizenship of these enemies of Islam.” The list contains the names of eight people in the United Kingdom, eight in Germany––even two from the United States; that Bangladesh’s government lacks the authority to revoke the citizenship of foreign nationals did not even cross their minds.
Mannan recently helped organize a Rainbow Rally in the capital of Dhaka. The rally, designed as a safe space for LGBT youth, drew threats of violence. Police cancelled the event in response, saying it offended religious sentiments. Additionally, Roopbaan regularly fielded death threats from various Islamic pages on Facebook. "They knew that basically, there was a danger,” said a British photographer who did not want his name released.
That’s putting it rather mildly. The murders of Mannan and Mojumdar came just days after the killing of English professor Rezaul Karim Siddique, who was slain at a bus stop in the city of Rajshahi. ISIS claimed responsibility for Siddique’s murder. The group said it targeted Siddique for calling “attention to atheism.” There have been four attacks this month alone, with six bloggers killed in the last 12 months, including Avijit Roy, who called the Charlie Hebdo massacre in France “a tragic atrocity committed by soldiers of the so-called religion of peace” in one of his final articles.
Writers, thinkers, bloggers, LGBT activists: all of these and more are fighting to preserve their freedom of self-expression and are willing to pay a steep price for their views. LGBT activists forced into exile claim that Bangladeshi authorities are not responsive to their complaints. The police warned these people they could face arrest for “unnatural offenses.”
Stoning, hangings, beheadings, hackings. Consequences we discuss over coffee, around the water-cooler at work. But they can never happen here; these aberrations cannot cross our shores. These are but stories we tell. It is my right to write this down, I tell myself, but these rights afforded to me in my relatively cushy corner of the world are the cheapest bargaining chip available to the men, women, and children who know what defines an unnatural offense depends heavily on the whims of the state.
Vagueness and generality are legality’s most biting foes. In their hands, any yardstick with which to measure the quality of human life disappears. In a country where the death of a blogger is becoming almost as regular as the sunrise, that’s a dangerous thing. These people dared to be open. They knew there was a danger. They knew they might die. Mortality is a dodgy subject, but activists do not value their lives over the sanctity, security and liberty of the lives of others.
Recently, we’ve started taking lawmakers across the southern United States to task for the passage of laws designed to limit the rights and curtail the progress of the LGBT community. It is the fashion of the educated and the elite to be respectful of any difference in culture, belief or opinion. North Carolina passed a measure that requires transgender individuals use the restroom that corresponds to the gender assigned to them at birth. The House called a special session to pass the measure; said session cost taxpayers approximately $42,000. Politicians in Tennessee seek to deny mental health services to LGBT youth by allowing therapists and counselors to cite a “sincerely held and religious belief” when denying services to anyone. Hate is hate. Nothing more, nothing less.
I was ten years old when, in the middle of a geography lesson, I asked my teacher why anyone would be afraid of visiting the Middle East. It was closer to the equator than New York, well, much of it, I reasoned. What was there not to like?
“They don’t respect women over there,” my teacher replied. “They hate all kinds of people who are not like them. Gay people, black people, anyone who’s not Muslim. You don’t ever want to go there.”
I shrugged, but her response seared itself into my mind. We can condemn the actions of extremists abroad, but we must never turn our eyes from the war at home. We are not equal. Far from it. How can we decry the actions of despots in countries not our own with such loud, impassioned fervor, yet look the other way regarding our own?
We look across the ocean, across thousands of miles of desert, beyond a sea of trees, into villages, towns, cities teeming with life, uncivilized lives. We look at these places, Dhaka, Rajshahi, pityingly. We say, Well, in contrast to what they have going on over there, we have it pretty good.
But Xulhaz Mannan did not see it that way. He looked around and chose to be out, then busied himself with the betterment of lives very much like his own. And I reckon he looked beyond his city and the scattered towns and villages, the sea of trees, the miles of desert and all the way across the ocean before saying, But it’s not good enough, before getting back to work. He was not a hero, but an activist, a man capable of extraordinary things. His life had value because he knew he was necessary.
Alan Jude Ryland is an editor who lives in New York City. His articles have been published in Elite Daily, Second Nexus, and The Daily Buzz, among others. This is his second feature for Chelsea Station.