Archiving Bangladeshi Queer Migration Stories in the U.S.
By Efadul Huq |
FEBRUARY 1, 2021
“I was displaced for the second time after coming to the USA by a fellow South Asian migrant family... Home is a constant struggle. Home is sometimes a kitchen, sometimes a Zoom call, where for moments I am not an outsider.” —Rasel, a Bangladeshi asylum-seeking queer migrantThere is a long history of migration from the Bengal Delta to the United States, dating as far back as the 1880s. As Vivek Bald recounts in Bengali Harlem, Muslim traders from present-day West Bengal, displaced because of the British colonial domination of the region’s markets, traveled to the United States to sell embroidered cotton and silk, rugs, and perfumes along the East Coast and across the South. Today, Bangladeshi migrants belong to one of the fastest growing immigrant groups in cities and counties across states including New York, New Jersey, Michigan, California, Georgia, Florida, and Texas. And yet, we know little about the individual trajectories of these migrants, least of all the queer longings and decisions of Bangladeshi migrants who experience, as Rasel told me, “displacements within displacements.” What, then, are the many meanings of displacement, of home, to the queer Bangladeshi migrant in the U.S.?
Moving Memories pursues this question by gathering narratives of queer displacement and homemaking and through my co-production of oral histories with Bangladeshi queer migrants residing in the U.S. Acknowledging the complex ways that Bangladeshi migrants remake their lives in the U.S. is particularly important as these narratives are often subsumed under broader South Asian (read: upper-caste Indian) migration narratives. Moreover, in policy and scholarly outlets, the migration stories of generations of South Asians, including those from present-day Bangladesh, are often narrated within frames of heterosexuality and nuclear homemaking. A notable exception is Nayan Shah’s Stranger Intimacy, which documents sexual contact between migrant men including South Asians in 20th century U.S. and Canada. Within the Bangladeshi-American communities, queer Bangladeshi migrants remain predominantly sidelined and invisible.
My project, therefore, embraces all queers with direct and related experiences of migration—documented, undocumented, asylees, and others. I am conducting oral history interviews with two groups. The first includes Bangladeshi queer migrants who moved for various reasons ranging from education, job, and others. This group also includes Bangladeshi diaspora queers and queers who returned to Bangladesh after living in the U.S. The second documents and recovers memories of homemaking and displacement of gay men whose troubled relationship with Bangladesh originates in the 2016 murders of LGBT+ activists by the Al Qaeda of the Indian Subcontinent. The stories of their movement across borders are intertwined with the discontinuation of the LGBT+ magazine Roopbaan, which played a key role in laying bare the heterosexist violence that queer community members and activists daily survive in Bangladesh. Many of them fled the country following targeted extremist violence and lack of state protection. After moving to the U.S., they experienced other forms of exclusion within the U.S. immigration system and South Asian American communities. Whether targeted or moving in search of opportunity, both groups overlap in their patterns of loss, displacement, questioning identities, nostalgia, and making homes out of refuge and temporariness.
Bangladeshi queer migrants look for a community as soon as they arrive in the U.S. But they continue to face various forms of discrimination, from within conservative South Asian American communities as well as from racist and Islamophobic factions of the wider American public. Riaz shared with me how he was informally banned from his local Bangladeshi community in the U.S. because of his effeminate behavior, even though he hadn’t directly come out. Rasel shared their experiences of people stigmatizing their asylum-seeking status. Against these odds, Bangladeshi queer migrants form kinships and invent ways to inhabit unfamiliar neighborhoods, towns, and cities. Misha shared stories of developing supportive and lasting friendships with cooks in a volunteer kitchen where he organized much-loved Bangladeshi dinners. These diverse experiences of joy, suffering, and creativity offer rich insights, especially for South Asian queer migrants who go through loneliness and isolation, and their stories lay the groundwork for new forms of community, while promoting more nuanced narratives of South Asian American migration.
Working with the QABD has taught me a great deal about the work that goes into co-producing oral histories. I am learning, for example, to dwell with the project’s narrators in the space of tension between visibility and refusal. On the one hand, archives of migration stories can make visible the structures and processes that oppress and dominate queer Bangladeshis. On the other hand, queer migrants might refuse to share certain stories, whether because of trauma or fear of surveillance. Sometimes this can mean an abrupt end to an interview session despite meticulous pre-planning to select the questions with the narrators. Sometimes it involves sitting across our Zoom screens, crying and sharing our vulnerabilities as we hold each other across the distance. At other times, this can look like rigorously editing an audio file to rub out sensitive information.
Central to this oral history project are the narrator’s participation and community access. If queer migrants don’t archive and share their own histories, others will tell their stories in their own ways. I hold that queer migrants can best describe their migration experiences. Those of us involved in co-creating and preserving the narratives are the custodians, while the queer community has complete ownership over these narratives. In their final form, the oral histories will be available for sharing in queer Bangladeshi communities through SAADA as well as through the QABD websites. This is particularly significant for me in the current political climate where migrants have been criminalized and put into concentration camps, and racialized communities are facing white supremacist violence in and beyond the U.S. At a time like this, resisting invisibility through uplifting the stories of Bangladeshi queer migrants can point to pathways for building solidarity toward deep and transformative social justice movements.
Note: In some cases, I used pseudonyms to protect the narrator's identity in this article.
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.