No space for love in Bangladesh

Bangladesh is currently suffering from, perhaps not a wave but more of a persistent flood of extremist attacks, manifesting in the form of assassinations of various free-thinking, secular or atheist bloggers, publishers, writers and journalists. While this trail of blood may be linked to a point of origin with the murder of blogger Avijit Roy in February last year, this is something that has existed under the surface of Bangladeshi society for much longer. Conservatism, the quashing of more progressive ideals, rising belief in Islamic homogeneity, and a vicious intolerance for anything that does not fit the Sunni, Bengali Muslim identity. As mysterious men, armed with machetes chip away further and further at all opposing ideologies with violence, the space for liberal and progressive ideals in my country is disappearing. The latest in this bloody spree of “divine” executions came on April 25, when gay rights activists and editor of the country’s first and only LGBT magazine, Xulhaz Mannan, along with his friend, colleague, and fellow activist, Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy were brutally murdered by unknown assailants, linked with larger, global Islamic terrorist outfits.

Xulhaz-Tonoy.jpg

The two murdered activists – Xulhaz Mannan (left) and Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy (right)

(Source: Dhaka Tribune)

Mannan started the magazine, Roopbaan, to promote LGBT rights in Bangladesh. This by itself is an amazing achievement in such a conservative country. In the face of such disapproval and adversity, Roopbaan took off in 2014. Long an advocate in the development sector, especially working with LGBT rights, Mannan’s work went from strength to strength. In fact, on 14 April 2015, when Mannan successfully organized a “rainbow rally”, Bangladesh’s version of a pride parade, during the Bengali New Year celebrations, for a second, Bangladesh’s liberals believed again that the country was moving forward and for the LGBT community, especially the gay and lesbian communities who are legally oppressed, it was a landmark achievement – an announcement that these people not only exist, but are unafraid to stand up and be counted, as people, in Bangladeshi society. For me as well, long having been frustrated by regular news of tragedy, misfortune, oppression and intolerance, reading about the “rainbow rally”, during the New Year celebrations no less, brought me immense pride, and in one of those rare moments, I may have felt something akin to patriotism.

prideparade.jpg

Pride parade in Dhaka, 2015

(Source)

I could swell with pride for how far my country has come, and like the rest of Bangladesh’s liberals, once a proud tradition in its own right, feel hope for the future. Mannan’s murder feels like a nail on the coffin for a dream that I once thought could be reality.

This dream now seems a long way away. This year, the second “rainbow rally” was cancelled due to death threats and intimidation from a section of society that cannot bring themselves to respect (or even tolerate) other human beings. And the worst part is, this seething hate is winning. And we, Bangladesh as a nation, are allowing it to win. A Buddhist monk had his throat slit earlier this week. University professors, a profession held in such high esteem in my society, are being hacked down for no good reason. The violence is more senseless than usual. The government refuses to acknowledge that we have a terrorist crisis on our hands for fear that we start remembering that their role in how we got here. So they tell us that these murders are unrelated. That we should stay quiet. They tell us to be silent and let hate win. But for Xulhaz, for the LGBT community in my country that have now had to flee for their safety, we cannot. The pride parade is a symbol of love triumphing over everything else, and I hope, for our sake, I see it next New Years. Only then will I remember the dream that me, Xulhaz and everyone that looks forward and looked forward in my country once dreamt.

-Bareesh

Cover photo source: Wikipedia Commons

African and Caribbean Identity at Clark [Part 1]

Every year the Caribbean and African Students Association (CASA) hosts their CASA Weekend in which we take a weekend to remember and share our Caribbean and African identities with the Clark Community. This year was slightly different in that the weekend began with a picture campaign in Red Square on the Friday afternoon (15TH April). The campaign – which was the brainchild of CASA Community Chair Blessing Ojini – was one in which we as the Caribbean and Africans aimed to debunk common stereotypes that people have about our respective homes. Important to note here is that the stereotypes we debunked were taken from an anonymous survey carried out on the Clark campus. Hence, what was displayed in Red Square was a representation of what Clarkies think of Africans and Caribbean’s.

ashleigh_casa1

Stereotype Campaign, which kicked off CASA Weekend, Organized by Blessing Ojini.     (Photo credit: Linh Vu)

Both Blessing and CASA President Adwoa Anno shared with me that they were happy with the turnout and the number of people who stopped by Red Square to take time to read the stereotypes and the “debunks.” When I asked Blessing why the picture campaign was so important to her, she noted that Clark is said to be a diverse and accepting campus but the survey and the experiences of fellow Caribbean’s and Africans showed that this may not necessarily be the case. The campaign was in essence CASA making a conscious effort to educate the Clark Community of the places we all call home and that we are proud to represent. The full compilation of the stereotypes debunked will be available on the CASA Facebook page by the end of semester for anyone to go through. (https://www.facebook.com/groups/1101628426531375/ )

The second, more traditional part of CASA Weekend was the CASA Dinner. The turnout for the event was amazing with it reaching capacity two days before the event itself. The theme of the dinner was, “ROOTS: Remembering Our Own Traditions.” CASA President Adwoa noted that the theme for her was important because as Africans and Caribbean’s living in the USA, it is very easy to be caught up in the American culture and forget some of our own traditions. For her and for many CASA members, the dinner was a chance to not only remember our traditions, but also to share them with the non–Caribbean and Africans present at the dinner. It was also important for many of the people at the dinner, because as Africans and Caribbean’s we are naturally very social people and that aspect of our culture gets lost in the day-to-day bustle of the day. Being able to take an evening to socialize was important to us all.

ashleigh_casa3

Fashion Show – Featuring Hanan Ali Mohammed and Abdikarim Mohammed.                  (Photo credit: Linh Vu) 

The dinner included dance performances from a group of girls from the Boys and Girls Club, Clarks own ADDA (African Diaspora Dance Association), as well the traditional fashion show which was a two category event. The first category of the fashion show was traditional wear, and the second was modern wear. Pictures of the dinner and the fashion show will also be available on the CASA Facebook Page. The CASA Caribbean Representative Kaiomi Inniss noted, “CASA weekend/dinner was one of the best events I’ve attended thus far at Clark simply because I felt like I was connected and my culture was represented accurately.”

The entire CASA E-Board would like to thank all that came and we hope to see you at many more CASA Events. Part 2 will cover the Graduate African and Caribbean Identity Night was held on the 22nd of April.

-Ashleigh (CASA E-Board, Cultural Committee)

ashleigh_casa2

CASA e-board 2016. (Photo credit: Linh Vu)

 

When the rainbow filter went global

The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) made history on Friday, June 26th by ruling that same-sex marriage be legal nation-wide. Countless Americans took to the streets while others proudly displayed profile pictures in rainbow hues, celebrating this moment in jubilation. As the story hit international news streams, perhaps billions of people received the news to mixed reactions. It is interesting that 21 other countries – even developing nations like Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay, as well as South Africa – legalized same-sex marriage before the United States, and yet none of them caused the international uproar that the SCOTUS ruling achieved. This is yet another testament to the kind of global influence America wields.

As the SCOTUS ruling made its way around the world, gathering statuses, comments, likes, hashtags, and more rainbow-filtered profile pictures, something more sinister was brewing beneath the surface. In Russia, conservative politicians and Orthodox Church leaders were quick to denounce the development as America’s attempt to “impose its anti-natural and post-human view of marriage on other countries.” In China, Prof. Zeng Yi of Tongji University, who described the U.S. decision to approve same-sex marriage as a “crime against humanity,” stressed that the purpose of marriage was to have children. Most chillingly, ISIS decided to commemorate this historic event by posting footage of an execution of four gay men in a barbaric fashion – throwing them off a roof of a five-story building and sending them plunging to their deaths. This video was accompanied by ISIS’ ironic use of the hashtag #LoveWins.

I myself was eager to see the reactions of other Sri Lankans to the news, and was horrified to see the outpouring of hatred and bigotry on Facebook. Many commented on same-sex unions being unnatural, akin to pedophilia, was immoral, was upsetting the balance of nature etc. It was clear that homophobia, which had long existed in the form of micro-aggressions and less overt forms, was being pushed to the surface by this landmark ruling in America. I shudder to think of the backlash that the members of the LGBTQ+ community must be experiencing in their home countries, from being denied their identity to being denied their life, much like the four innocents who lost their live to ISIS.

Many wonder as to what the cause of this surge of resentment and bigotry could be. One answer is that the topic of LGBTQ+ rights was never a mainstream issue in these countries, until society perceived the institution of marriage to be threatened by the U.S. ruling. Others claim that such a bold and sweeping move was not expected from a nation as staunchly religious and conservative as the U.S., thus shaking the confidence of the religious right and traditionalists globally. Whatever the cause may be, the U.S. cannot be held to blame. It is not the fault of Americans that bigotry exists in other parts of the world. Each of us must shoulder the weight of what flaws exist in our own countries.

On a more positive note, not all of this is gloomy and dark. In Australia, legislators are confident that the U.S. policy isolates Australia as the only developed, English-speaking nation to refuse to legalize marriages between same-sex couples. Legislator Janet Rice, Greens Party leader, called the U.S. ruling “the loudest call yet for marriage equality in Australia.” Meanwhile, in India, activists believe that this recent development would force legislators to reconsider the 2013 Indian Supreme Court decision to reinstate a colonial-era law making homosexuality a crime. As Chinese LGBTQ+ activist Ah Qiang, director of Guangzhou-based Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) said, “I’ve never seen so much debate in both the traditional media and social media – so many people, and in so much depth. People who opposed homosexuality rarely felt a need to speak out — but they’ve taken this chance to express their feelings.”

This was definitely the case for the many vociferous opponents of marriage equality in Sri Lanka, who flooded my newsfeed with their posts, comments, and homophobic memes. I doubt that many of these people had ever had a full-fledged conversation about LGBTQ+ rights. And yet, the news of the SCOTUS ruling had forced these opinions out on to the surface. No longer were they festering deep in the hearts and minds of people, but being aired out in public and debated by others. This gave me the opportunity to write a blog post that addressed some of the basic arguments against queer identity that I encountered, which got over 1,400 views and was shared by many. I do not say this to brag about myself, but to point out that every word and gesture helps. I know that my voice may have helped someone out there question their prejudice or rekindle hope in the heart of those who are driven deep into the closet. This is the first step to more and more people realizing the justness of the LGBTQ+ cause.

Let me end by saying that for those who believe that the struggle for queer liberation and justice is over, think again. Queer identity is continually besieged both in America and abroad, and no one can rest until all people celebrate the same rights under the same rainbow flag. Yet today, we are closer to achieving that dream. It is the duty of each and every one of us to engage our family, friends, and social media acquaintances in these conversations, and to spread the message of equality that the Supreme Court stood for.

– Themal

Why Pride isn’t enough

It’s Pride season, and everywhere and everything is festooned with rainbow hues. The colors carry symbolic meaning, representing the diversity of the queer community. While watching the Boston Pride 2015 Parade last week, I was struck by the scale of this diversity. The parade featured nearly all identities of the movement – trans* community, white and racial minorities, differently abled. It was heartening to see signs of ‘Black Trans Lives Matter’ being borne right before the delegation from the Union United Methodist Church. It was a moving experience, to feel the sense of community that prevailed in that space, and hear the crowds cheer and support all the different identities of the queer community.

But by now, you should know that I rarely write happy, positive pieces. While it is truly amazing that inclusive spaces such as Pride exist, this is not a daily reality for the queer community. It always saddens me to think that a movement that has experienced the pain of exclusion and stigma would dole out those very things to their own. The queer community has much to do in terms of tackling the sexism, racism, transphobia, and other forms of prejudice that exist within its ranks.

I once wrote an article about gay cis-men and their male privilege. In it, I discussed the privileges that gay cis-men take over women and their bodies, infringing on their bodily integrity by critiquing their fashion, appearance, and diet in a non-consensual manner. It is worrisome that this trend extends to sexual harassment, with gay men groping women at bars and clubs and using their sexuality in order to trivialize their actions. The fact that sexual harassment has little to do with sexual desire and everything to do with power assertion means that gay men contribute to sexism as much as the rest of society. In another article – an interview of faith-based LGBTQ+ advocate Judy Hanlon – I was shocked to report the blatant racism that she and the LGBTQ+ asylum seekers in her care had experienced. To take for granted the legacy of queer communities of color, such as Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, Audre Lord, Angela Davis, and Alice Walker, is to do a disservice to the legacy of the queer community itself.

Another dimension in which this insularity occurs is in the trans* exclusion that prevails in certain sects of the queer community. The Human Rights Campaign recently came under fire when one of their staffers asked an attendee at the Proposition 8 Supreme Court hearings to remove a Trans Pride flag, on the grounds that marriage equality is not a trans* issue. As the key group supporting marriage equality initiatives across the country, the organization’s trans* exclusionist policies has led to a stifling of trans* perspectives in this issue. As of 2013, the organization did not have any trans* individuals in their staff and they did not include the letter ‘T’ in their use of the LGB acronym until 2004. Most troublingly, they have supported transphobic policies, such as in 2007 when they supported a version of the Employment Non Discimination Act (ENDA) in Congress that did not extend the same protections for discrimination on the basis of gender identity as sexual orientation. It seems that there are those within the community who have forgotten the ‘T’ in our label, and don’t find as much meaning in the diverse colors of the pride flag as they should.

One of the major problems with the mainstream queer culture is that it has become assimilationist, adopting a white, middle class, cis agenda at the expense of identities that don’t fit into this mold. Consider how the hallmark LGBTQ+ issue of the modern day – the one that is debated by hopeful politicos and the Supreme Court – is marriage equality. Violence against LGBTQ+ identity still exists, as is demonstrated by the statistic that queer youth are twice as likely as their peers to experience violence. 73% of youth are more comfortable being honest about their sexuality online than in the real world.

Employment discrimination on the basis of sexual identity is yet to be criminalized in 29 states. And yet marriage equality has become the seminal topic of queer rights. What is most disturbing of all is that marriage equality is commonly referred to as gay marriage – which fails to be inclusive of many queer identities – representing how its poster child would be a gay, white, cis-male couple. It is signs like this that point to the insularity of mainstream queer culture, and the many ‘isms’ that exist within its midst.

It is important for the queer community and its allies to force these conversations, discuss these issues, and attempt to rectify the mistakes that we’ve made. For if not, Pride would cease to be any kind of meaningful symbol to the queer community and the world at large.

Themal

Sources: http://mic.com/articles/40629/as-marriage-equality-marches-forward-don-t-forget-the-trans-people-left-behind ; http://www.hrc.org/youth/view-statistics/#.VX4STPlVikp

#Pride

The LGBT Pride month and festivities are a 40-year-long tradition in the United States. Many of us don’t know that it started as a commemoration of the Stonewall riots that took place in 1969. Stonewall, back then, was a very popular gay bar situated in Greenwich Village in Manhattan.

ElyanaThe riots themselves were a series of rebellious and violent demonstrations against the NY police for raiding the Stonewall Inn on June 1969. This single event is currently considered the biggest tipping point for the LGBT civil rights movement. Since then every year, the LGBT community and supporters get together and celebrate the diversity of the LGBT community and the impact they have had all over the world.

Pride has evolved from just marches to week and month long activities filled with picnics, shows, huge parades, workshops, symposia, concerts etc. The month of June was also declared as ‘Pride Month’ by President Obama this year.Obama

I attended my first Pride parade in Boston this past weekend. And I cannot do justice to the experience I had, by putting it into words. It was simply exhilarating. Seeing so many people come together to support a movement that not just promotes the LGBT community but sends out an even bigger message – ‘it’s okay to be whoever you desire to be’ – was simply inspiring.

Banks, churches, schools, politicians (WE SAW ELIZABETH WARREN, no biggie :D) and so many non-profits came together to stand up for what they believed in and made the parade a huge success. My favorite moment was when I saw a South-Asian woman carrying a sign saying ‘I support my queer desi daughter’. Of course that hit me very close to home since I am Bangladeshi, but even if I wasn’t that was definitely the proof of how far so many people have come in terms of accepting those that are different from themselves.

- Pride parade captured by Suaida Firoze, Boston, MA.

– Pride parade captured by Suaida Firoze, Boston, MA.

The LGBT community has come a very long way since the Stonewall riots in 1969. The global community has also come a long way to accept those that may not fit the ‘norm’ according to their ideologies. And there is a very prevalent hope that it can only get better from here on out.

After attending Pride this year, the rainbow flag made a lot of sense to me. The flag means a lot of different things to many.  Well for me, it just meant ‘happy to be unique’. Everyone there who could express themselves freely seemed so happy. The entire parade just radiated happiness.

It always feels great to be comfortable in your own skin and embrace who you are. And it just feels ecstatic when thousands around you tag along. Mankind has come so far to accept all the diversity this world has to offer. There’s plenty more milestones to reach till every day feels like Pride for the LGBT community. But till then, let’s appreciate all that we have, and of course- Happy Pride y’all!

– Suaida Firoze