Why gay men flee Bangladesh

Sydney Star Observer
April 16, 2003

POISONED WATER AND BOLLYWOOD MOVIES ARE KEY CAUSES OF HOMOSEXUALITY IN BANGLADESH, OR SO SAY THE EXPERTS.

ADAM CARR (bnews) TAKES A LOOK AT A COUNTRY WHERE BEING GAY CAN RESULT IN TORTURE, ELECTROSHOCK TREATMENT AND FORCED MARRIAGE.

By Adam Carr (BNews)

Bangladesh, with a population of 133 million, is the ninth-largest country in the world, and the second-largest Moslem country in the world after Indonesia.

Bangladesh is also a democracy, with a British-style parliamentary system.

One of the less pleasant legacies of British rule is Section 377 of the Penal Code, which provides: "Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished with imprisonment for life."

Bangladesh lawyers, however, say this law is a dead letter. "The instances of prosecution under this section are extremely rare," writes one lawyer. "In my 20 years of practice, I have not known or heard of a case where a person has been prosecuted for homosexuality under the aforesaid section."

Quite a lot is known about homosexual practice in Bangladesh, thanks to the work of an Australian gay man, Professor Gary Dowsett, who wrote a research paper, Men Who Have Sex With Men In Bangladesh, as part of an HIV-related research project.

Dowsett describes a complex pattern of sexual activity teenage male prostitution in Dhaka parks, a custom of sex between male cousins and brothers-in-law, a tradition of transvestism.

All this, he notes, has nothing to do with western "gay identity", although this is now also starting to appear.
Until recently homosexuality was almost never spoken about in public.

This is beginning to change, but the results are sometimes a little strange.

A recent article in the Dhaka Daily Star noted, "We have a much higher percentage of gays and lesbians in our society than we had five years ago."

Dr Safiul Azam, associate professor of Sociology at Dhaka University, went on to say homosexuality was increasing at the rate of 3.5 percent a year.

Dr Azam's explanation for this was arsenic contamination of the drinking water supply.

"With a steady injection of arsenic in their blood stream over a week, 94 percent of African mice invariably lost the ability to distinguish between cheese on mouse traps and those on plain white paper."

The connection between cheese discernment in mice and homosexuality was apparently too obvious to explain.

Another Daily Star writer took the view that homosexuality resulted from the pernicious effects of Indian movies.

"Girls these days are watching Hrithik Roshan movies and naturally that makes them want guys to be all six feet tall and good dancers," the writer claimed.

"Their expectations are just way too high for the average Bangladeshi.

"Many of us have reluctantly resorted to this 'alternative' lifestyle with similarly frustrated male friends because of their hard luck in getting a decent date."

This would all be amusing enough were it not for the fact that militant Islamic fundamentalism is gaining ground in Bangladesh as it is elsewhere in the Moslem world.

Islamist groups funded from Saudi Arabia are campaigning for the introduction of shari'a law, which has historically been unknown on the Indian subcontinent.

Gay men will be obvious victims of this trend, which is being resisted only fitfully by Bangladeshi politicians fearful of offending Islamic sentiment.

Recently the United States granted political asylum to a Bangladeshi gay man who was, he said, threatened with stoning by Islamic fundamentalists.

The man also reported being raped by police, forced into electroshock treatment and ordered by his family to enter into an arranged marriage.

There is a real danger that Bangladesh may follow Pakistan down the road of fundamentalist intolerance, in which case there will be many more Bangladeshi gay men seeking asylum in other countries, including Australia.