This year in the month of April, the city of Dhaka held its second LGBTQ Pride march. Team Gaysi Family caught up Xulhaz Mannan, who volunteers at Roopbaan, a non-political LGBT platform and also the group responsible for organizing the pride march. [Photo credit : Shams Suhaib]
Spearheading the LGBT movement : Xulhaz Mannan
Q. Tell us a bit about yourself & your association with Roopbaan.
Roopbaan is a Bangladeshi non-profit, non-political, volunteer-based platform for LGBT individuals and their allies. It works to raise awareness about Bangladeshis who represent sexual and gender diversity, and advocate for their human right to love. The name ‘Roopbaan’ is derived from a popular Bengali folk character that also means a beautiful and fabulous person.
Roopbaan, as it was conceptualized initially, is the first Bangladeshi magazine on the topic of gender and sexual diversity; freedom to love in other words. It started its journey as a magazine in January 2013, but long before the first issue came out, Roopbaan gained its popularity among the LGBT community by organizing community events to raise awareness, and to create a safe space.
Q. Dhaka saw its 2nd LGBTQ Pride march this year. How different was the experience from last year in terms of acquiring official permissions?
We never claim or announce this as LGBTQ Pride march. April 14 is the first day of Bangla Year and is a reason, itself, to celebrate all that there is about being a Bengali and Bangladeshi. The hotspot of the day is the Dhaka University campus where the students of Fine Arts’ bring out a huge, colorful procession to mark the day. In 2014, Roopbaan thought of adding a splash of rainbow to that. The message was plain and simple, ‘celebrating friendship and diversity on Pohela Boishakh’ but the rainbow rally took away all the attention of media, and when we posted a photo on our Facebook page, they did their calculations and tagged this as the gay pride rally. The news went viral with brutal reactions from public.
This year, thus, the LGBTQ community feared that the rally would be under fire, and rumor was that the extremists would target the participants especially ‘leaders’. However, on the day of the event, the rally saw almost similar number of participants as the last, fewer old faces, and more new and spirited ones!
We didn’t require no official permission, as it is a free rally day, and we simply follow the route of the Mongol Shobhajatra, the rally brought out by DU students.
One interesting experience was the participation of hijra members. We believe, that hijra, as the newly recognized gender, have equal right to take part in this celebration on Bangaliana just like men and women, and thus invited all our hijra friends. However, police stating they would cause public nuisance stopped most of them at the entry gates. And those who still made in caused some eye-sore to some of the participants, fearing people will now think all LGBT are actually hijras, and rainbow rally will now be a hijra rally. This brought out the issue of transphobia badly, and also the classist issue, that we’ve deal with in this Queer movement regularly.
Q. What was the turnout at the march? And the feedback received from those who attended it, and bystanders.
It was about 110, almost same as 2014. Participants, even organizers, were initially skeptic about the rally, but like 2014, the rainbow 2015 stole the show with the flamboyance and energy, and left participants and bystanders mesmerized. People wanted to take photos, and selfies, with us. Some bystanders did yell curse words knowing what those colors meant, but overall, the hatred or phobia was lost in the joyous ambiance of the day.
Q. Do you see any change in the public opinion of the Queer community in the last couple of years?
The issue of same sex love, relationship, or homosexuality is only beginning to come into the public sphere recently. As of now, the general public reaction is pretty brutal but contained in the online sphere. 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.
After the news of marriage equality, and more so, after Facebook encouraging people to use rainbow filter, an unprecedented debate over the issue emerged, both in online and print media, bringing this issue out like never before. Almost everyone now knows the modern connotation of rainbow, and so we wonder, how the rainbow rally will be received by public like next year.
Q. How supportive has the local media been in advocating LGBTQ rights & sensibilities?
Most media still portrays this from a criminal, if not only heteronormative, angle. A very few would address the issue regularly, and give space to talking about rights and equality for all people. And with the recent rise in killing of the free thinkers, bloggers, even the most progressive media thinks twice before publishing something in support of the cause. Most activists would agree that media needs immediate upgrading of their conceptual frame on gender and sexuality, and has a massively influential role in changing public opinion on this.