Have Passport, But No Country
Migration Stories of Bangladeshi Queers
By Efadul Huq |
APRIL 14, 2021
I have replayed that segment of my interview with Puja several times now, and each time I hear echoes of other Bangladeshi queer people who shared their experiences of fleeing persecution and violence, religious and gender discrimination, surveillance, mental health crises, criminalization, and family abuse. I write this article based on the first six interviews I have conducted for my Archival Fellows oral history project, with Faisal Misha, Ahadujjaman Atif, Imran Sunny, Rasel Ahmed, Indira Rahman, and Puja.
Four of the interviewees’ migration experiences are shaped directly by the publication of Roopbaan, a Bangladeshi LGBTQ+ magazine, and the subsequent murder of two LGBTQ+ activists associated with Roopbaan in 2016. Experiences of state-backed queerphobia in Bangladesh and the difficulties of migration to and within the U.S. run through all of the interviews.
Contrary to the dominant expectation that migrating to an “inclusive” society like the United States will be a pathway from repression to freedom, my interlocutors have continued to struggle with profound stigmatization related to their immigration status, race, profession, and the availability of healthcare, after arriving stateside. They all have “passports”—or migration-related paperwork—but no country where they feel included and free in substantial ways. Collectively, these oral histories portray the murky negotiations of queer existence between the state machineries of Bangladesh and the United States. Migratory movement in these histories is not about reaching a destination. Migration appears to be an uncertain, ambiguous, and anxious movement from/between one state to another.
The detailed and intimate accounts in the oral histories are personal. But the personal, as Sara Ahmed reminds us, is also structural.1 To more fully appreciate these oral histories, one needs to first situate them within the unfolding political struggles in Bangladesh and evolving U.S.-Bangladesh relations. For instance, the highly politicized International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) has been central to Roopbaan’s organizing, but the history of its politicization is a complex story of its own. In 2009, the Awami League government set up the ICT to prosecute suspects involved in the 1971 U.S.-backed genocide by the Pakistan Army and their local collaborators during Bangladesh Liberation War.2 By 2012, when leaders from Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh’s largest Islamist Party, and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, the main opposition party, were indicted, massive political unrest broke out and lasted the following years in Bangladesh. Supporters of the Islamist party labeled the pro-ICT activists as atheists. The lines had been drawn between an ICT-supporting urbane civil society, whose progressive values included secularism, atheism, and LGBTQ+ rights and a large population—understood as traditional—whose anger about the tribunal could not be directed at the state for fear of reprisal. In the years following, extremist cells have killed many dissenters and freethinkers.
Roopbaan was launched in January 2014 amidst the ongoing unrest, only two weeks after a highly controversial national election boycotted by all major opposition parties. Co-founded by Xulhaz Mannan, Rasel Ahmed, and Faisal Misha, the magazine’s aim was to bring visibility to Bangladesh’s LGBTQ+ population. In 2015, Roopbaan reconstituted itself as an organization that ran cultural and community events. Roopbaan was organizing in a tumultuous time when journalists, atheists, secularists, and queer organizers were at times unexpectedly folded into conflicts not of their choosing. Rasel reflected, “I don’t think we were taking all of this into account… This entire political situation is really significant to understand the backlash we received immediately after the launch.” When Roopbaan’s launch was covered in the media, religious groups organized a press conference condemning the magazine and calling for Rasel’s arrest.
Roy and the Roopbaan organizers were printing with the same publisher, Shuddhashar. Sunny remembered being afraid for his and his friends’ lives.“What if they [extremists] are waiting for us, what if they already know that Roopongti is coming too, what if this is a warning?” Sunny’s fears proved true the following year, in 2016, when his then-boyfriend and general secretary of Roopbaan, Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy, was murdered along with Xulhaz Mannan. They were both queer rights activists.
The Bangladeshi state consistently offers impunity with respect to extremist attacks; it rules by laws such as the Digital Security Act, used to suppress dissenters, and has a record of forced disappearances and extrajudicial killing. “When Xulhaz and Tonoy were murdered,” Rasel told me, “It's not that the Bangladeshi government said that we are going to protect them... The state minister Asaduzzaman Khan said, ‘We know the people working behind the magazine. They are not allowed to do that and we are going to take action.’ This is four days after Xulhaz's murder. How would I go back to a country where the government is directly threatening victims instead of providing protection?” Overall, a calcified state-backed queerphobia had resulted in the persecution of both victims and witnesses.
In this political context, Section 377, a remnant of colonial law that criminalizes same-sex activities, proved to be life-threatening for Atif after he witnessed the murders of Mannan and Tonoy.4 Mannan had also worked at the USAID in Dhaka. Atif went through the unnerving experience of facing law enforcement agencies including the FBI, Bangladesh Detective Branch, and Bangladesh Police. He had to appear before the judge at the Magistrate Court in Bangladesh. In his encounters with police officers, detectives, and judges, Atif was asked about his sexual orientation, his relationship to Xulhaz, Tonoy, and Roopbaan, and his relation with the LGBTQ+ community, and activism.
Atif’s oral history highlights how Section 377, in a queerphobic social setting, can multiply the risks faced by a gay witness. In the aftermath of the murders, Atif moved to a safe house under the U.S. embassy’s protection in Dhaka’s diplomatic zone. A few days later the U.S. embassy decided to temporarily relocate Atif to Nepal for his safety. Expecting complications with the Bangladeshi government, the U.S. embassy hastily cancelled that plan last minute, after Atif was already in the airport, had checked in, and was waiting for the flight.
In the next few days, two Bangladeshi police officers came to interview Atif at the U.S. embassy. The officers had a photo from Xulhaz’s house and wanted Atif to identify the people in it. The officers intimidated Atif, threatening arrest. They taunted him with aggressive questions: “How exactly do you have sex? It’s prohibited in our religion, in Islam.” Atif did not respond. “You all had money-related problems among yourself. Do you think the murder happened because of the money conflict?” This line of questioning—first about sexuality, then about same sex acts, then about a conflict over money—exemplify how investigations can set into motion associations between queerness, immorality, and criminality, and re-present a witness as a suspect. Although witnessing a murder is not a criminal offense, Section 377 can end up tacitly criminalizing witnessing gay murders. After Atif moved to the U.S., the Bangladeshi police visited his parent’s house. The police officer told Atif’s mother that Atif engaged in sinful sexual activities; he gave her a medical facility card where Atif could be “treated.” This same officer also went to a neighbor’s house and discussed details of Atif’s case. Atif’s oral history testifies to how prevalent stigma, extortion and intimidation practices can intensify under the shadow of Section 377.
The text of Section 377 can generate a sense of displacement in more subtle ways too. In the summer of 2015, Indira was interning at a Bangladeshi law firm when they came across Bangladesh Penal Code Section 377. Indira described the encounter as follows:
I was sitting in the law firm, I could hear the cars outside, the people, the usual sort of noises that you’d expect… I was just sitting alone at my desk and just shocked… there was this sinking feeling in my chest. I was working at this law firm headed by one of the people who was responsible for writing the new constitution, Dr. Kamal Hossain. And I couldn’t exactly go up to him and say, “Hey, why don’t you take this out… this doesn’t seem right.” That summer, encountering Section 377 felt like a confirmation of my worst fears. There is no future in Bangladesh.
Encountering Section 377 produced in Indira a palpable sense of out-of-placeness, a sense of no future. The oral histories also highlight other forms of structural violence. Puja spoke at length about growing up as a Hindu minority woman in Bangladesh. The prevalent marginalization of religious minorities played a decisive role in shaping their aspirations to leave Bangladesh. Puja shared, “My family is Hindu and growing up my parents would always tell us that this country is not for you.” Puja shared stories of communal conflict over land and everyday discriminations that marked their experiences. “Most of my family left for India because they were having a lot of trouble with land. There were people in the village [in Khulna] who would make fake papers. There would be a lot of fights. One of my cousins was murdered.” But that is not all. Puja’s father lost his job because the owner of the firm returned from Hajj and someone told him that his Hajj would be undone if he employed people from other religions, especially Hindus. Job security was as tenuous as housing: “Sometimes they would tell us directly that we don't rent to Hindus.” Puja was nervous during their oral history interview about sharing their experiences of discrimination and violence perpetrated by Bangladeshi Muslims; they fear being labeled an Islamophobic Hindu in the United States.
The feelings about migration are messy in these oral histories. Reflecting on his experiences in the U.S., Misha told me that he couldn’t at times fathom why he is in the U.S. Unlike in Bangladesh where Misha felt like somebody among his social circle, he feels, “I am no one here.” Such questioning of self and identity runs through each interview. Moving to the U.S. does not resolve troubles in a clear-cut way. In fact, the expectation that migration will bring about freedom sits uncomfortably beside the new troubles that migration generates. After moving to the U.S., my interviewees have gone through various experiences of stigma and visa anxieties. They live under persistent temporariness. The immigration process endlessly surveils and documents, and in doing so debilitates their mental health more than it provides relief.
For Rasel, migration produces a “tricky identity.” Either people don’t talk about migration or migrants’ life stories are couched within a humanitarian narrative. Those stories too easily lend themselves to the myth that America “protects” refugees and asylum seekers while keeping intact, as Lionel Cantú argues in the case of queer migrations across U.S.-Mexico, the heteronormative discriminations of U.S. immigration laws and policies.5 When Rasel applied for asylum he had to go through a 6-9 month period of forced unemployment. During this time, his landlord gave him a 30-day notice to leave because she assumed Rasel wouldn’t be able to pay the rent. The eviction notice was illegal per state law. Rasel was houseless for a certain period of time.
Puja, like the others, talked about the narrow pool of jobs for which they are eligible and the series of rejections that demotivated them and put them in “survival mode.” The longest plan Puja could imagine in the last seven years spanned a maximum of three months. Unlike their brother, who is open to having a life in Bangladesh, Puja talked about carrying the burden to perform as a “model minority” to make it possible for them to remain outside Bangladesh. The weight of temporariness can open one up to further vulnerabilities. In their frightened, anxious, and lonely state, Puja was scammed out of $2,000 when they applied for the EAD card. Details of the incident aside, Puja summed up the incident with: “When you are a freaked out international student waiting for the EAD card you are in the most unstable position ever and you are scared of everything around you.”
Perceived hierarchies of citizenship and migration can enter territories of intimate life. On multiple occasions, men Misha was seeing have threatened to out him to the Bangladeshi consulate. Misha didn’t take their threats seriously. He recollected, “They had that tendency that we are weaker people here, and they are stronger because they are citizens.”
Unable to imagine a life back in Bangladesh, Atif, Rasel, and Indira are in different stages of applying for asylum despite the difficulties it poses. Indira, who has recently decided to apply for asylum, said, “I am very apprehensive because the process itself is just long, it’s foreign, it’s difficult. Having worked in asylum cases and learning asylum law, I know what I am getting into.”
The six queer migrants continue to overcome the difficulties they face in various ways. For instance, to cope with temporariness, Puja had a collection of postcards that they put up in the corner of their room each time they moved to a new apartment to create a sense of familiarity and continuity. Rasel and Indira spend copious hours studying immigration law and advocating for themselves.
Note: In some cases, the article uses pseudonyms to maintain interviewee's anonymity.
1. Ahmed, S. (2016). Living a feminist life. Duke University Press.
2. Bass, G. J. (2013). The Blood Telegram. Random House India.
3. Roy, Avijit. (2010). Somokamita: Ekti Boigganik Ebong Shomaj Monostattik Onushandhan সমকামিতা : একটি বৈজ্ঞানিক এবং সমাজ-মনস্তাত্বিক অনুসন্ধান [Homosexuality: A Scientific and socio-psychological investigation]. Mukto-Mona.com (in Bengali). Dhaka.
4. More details about the incident can be found in Roopbaan’s submission to Universal Periodic Review in 2017. Link: https://uprdoc.ohchr.org/uprweb/downloadfile.aspx?filename=5167&file=Eng...
5. Cantú, L. (2009). The sexuality of migration: Border crossings and Mexican immigrant men (Vol. 5). NYU Press.
Efadul Huq is a poet and urban scholar dedicated to preserving queer community stories, and is the co-founder of Queer Archives of the Bengal Delta, which preserves memories of queer social and political lives connected to the region. The Archival Creators Fellowship Program is made possible with a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.