In October 2017 Human Rights Watch interviewed six transgender men living in different parts of Bangladesh. All of them spoke of bullying at school, barriers to employment, difficulty accessing health care, as well as harassment and verbal abuse in both public and private spaces. On top of these difficulties, they feared for their safety amid a climate of impunity for attacks on minorities by religious extremists and feared that, if they were targeted, authorities would deny that they were targeted because of their gender identity rather than come forcefully to their defense. Interviewees also highlighted the difficulties that arise because their gender identity does not match the gender listed on diplomas, passports, or other legal documents, including their ability to get jobs and to travel.
Human Rights Watch calls on the Bangladesh government to better protect the human rights of transgender men by developing legal mechanisms that allow transgender individuals to change their official gender on legal documents and by enacting an anti-discrimination law that expressly prohibits discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.
Context: Rising Fears
Transgender (or trans) men have a male gender identity that does not conform to the female sex declared at birth. There is a dearth of information on the experience of such men in Bangladesh. Many of the trans men Human Rights Watch initially reached out to chose not to be interviewed because of security concerns, and those we did interview requested anonymity. Accordingly, we have used pseudonyms and withheld information about their ages and the exact locations of the interviews. Four of the interviews with transgender men were conducted in person and two were over the phone.
While the experiences and fears of the trans men presented here cannot be said to be nationally representative without additional research, there is reason to believe they are widely shared. For one thing, all of the trans men we spoke to said other trans men faced the same threats and vulnerability. For another, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) populations in Bangladesh more generally face a climate of hostility that has been documented previously by others.
In a 2015 report, Bangladeshi LGBT rights groups noted that “[v]isibility…can be life-threatening and isolating due to social stigma, religious beliefs and family values that create a hostile environment for LGBT individuals.” Following a 2015 visit, the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of religious belief said, “Sexual minorities do not find much acceptance in the society and often experience verbal or other abuse.” In a 2009 UN human rights review, the government of Bangladesh received a recommendation to train law enforcement and judicial offers to protect women, children, and LGBT people “and adopt further measures to ensure protection of these persons against violence and abuse.” The government accepted the recommendation with regard to women and children, but said: “The specific recommendation on sexual orientation cannot be accepted.… Indeed, sexual orientation is not an issue in Bangladesh.” While the experience of trans men is in some respects typical of sexual minorities in Bangladesh, they are all the more vulnerable because they visibly transgress societal norms through their gender expression.
In a 2015 manual on sexual and gender minorities, the National Human Rights commission acknowledged that members of the police physically and sexually assault LGBT people, and arbitrarily arrest them based on their appearance. Bangladesh’s notorious Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) raided a gathering in Dhaka on May 19, 2017, arrested 28 men, paraded them in front of the media while saying they were gay, and accused them of drug possession. A RAB official explained that the men were arrested before they could engage in “homosexual acts” which is why they were not charged with violating the colonial-era law criminalizing same-sex sexual behavior.
The current political context in Bangladesh gives additional reasons for fear. Since 2013, assailants have carried out approximately 28 “machete attacks” on bloggers, activists, and religious minorities. At the same time, the government of Bangladesh has carried out a sustained clampdown on freedom of expression, prosecuting scores for their social media content. The murder of two LGBT rights activists, Xulhaz Mannan and Tonoy Mahbub, in April 2016 had a long-term chilling effect. Shortly after the murders, the Bangladeshi home minister noted that one of the victims had “worked to promote gay rights” emphasizing that “[t]his does not fit in our society.” In the aftermath of the murders and weak government response, many LGBT activists went into hiding while others permanently fled Bangladesh.
In an open letter to Mahbub, an LGBT activist described the continued chilling effect one year after the murders: “You went about your daily life without ever concealing your identity on Facebook, the theatre or from your family. But everything has changed since your death. We live in a constant state of fear and anxiety. We are constantly learning new ways to conceal our identities on social media to ensure that we don’t inadvertently leave behind a single trace of ourselves.”
Trans men interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they fear they may be killed if religious hardliners find out that they identify as transgender or are perceived to be gay or lesbian. For example, Nandini, a transgender man told Human Rights Watch: “Many people assume I'm lesbian or gay based on how I carry myself. That assumption threatens my life.” Jamal explained why he had little hope that government authorities would seek to protect trans men from such attacks: “If we were targeted by extremists our government wouldn’t provide any legal or moral support or justice. Since the government hasn’t even recognized the issues of trans men, there is no possibility that they would help us.” Jamal also expressed fears of being prosecuted under section 377 if he were to seek government assistance due a lack of understanding of what it means to be transgender.
For trans men, this climate of fear is exacerbated by social marginalization and discrimination as well as legal impediments to accessing employment, health care, and education, including the absence of a mechanism for changing one’s gender on legal documents, as noted above. These barriers and the climate of insecurity has left Jamal feeling extremely frustrated:
What's the point of me living here? I can't transition. If I do manage to transition elsewhere no one is going to accept me. The government won't recognize me. Society won't accept me. My parents won't accept me. So I really don't have anything here. I don’t have my identity and eventually they'll probably just kill me anyway and say, “This one is like this, let's kill her.”
The climate of fear fuels emotional distress. Abed, a trans man, said to Human Rights Watch:
How would you feel if 24/7 you thought about the fact that if anyone finds out about you, then they will kill you? It's a terrifying reality. And it's what I live with. There's a lot of religious extremists in my neighborhood. They're dangerous. I avoid leaving my house unless I really need to because I fear who might notice me.
Omar described to Human Rights Watch the consequences of the lack of accountability: “If word spread to others about my gender identity, then anything could happen. If anyone decided they wanted to kill me, they easily could. They wouldn't have to face any punishment for it.” Jamal connected the murders of Mannan and Mahbub to his fears of his stalker, who knows of his gender identity: “If he tells an extremist group that I'm a homosexual then it's obvious what will happen. Or if he spreads this information some other way. Then extremist groups will do what they do - as they did with Xulhaz.”
The widespread fear has made it difficult for trans men to even arrange meetings. “Considering the current climate in Bangladesh, of course we're scared to meet with each other,” Nandini said to Human Rights Watch.
Bullying, Harassment, and Exclusion from Education
Each of the trans men interviewed by Human Rights Watch described experiences of discrimination when they were in school. They said that bullying and harassment in school was exacerbated by strict uniform requirements and pressure from school authorities to dress in a feminine manner. The trans men Human Rights Watch spoke to faced bullying and harassment from fellow students as well as school officials. This contributed to a hostile school environment that made it difficult for students to concentrate on the material or participate in class and, they said, contributed to low grades and frequent absences. Omar, for example, struggled to concentrate in primary school because he was forced to sit with girls and wear a dress as part of the uniform, and as a result he would cry in order to be excused from school. In contrast, in secondary school he was able to sit with the boys and wear a boy’s uniform. He attended school regularly, and received better grades.
Most interviewees described school administrators who would enforce discriminatory school policies that excluded trans men from fully participating in the school environment and made them feel even more isolated. In Bangladesh, it is normal for very young girls to have extremely short hair, but for older girls in late secondary school, it is normal to have long hair. Nandini was verbally harassed in front of the entire school: “A teacher gave me a warning and said I had to grow out my hair and come back and show her two weeks later. She asked me why I keep my hair short and what's wrong with me. She said I'm in class ten, why would I have short hair?” For Adnan, mistreatment began when he attempted to enroll himself in a girl’s secondary school. The only secondary education options available to Adnan were gender segregated. The head teacher told him he would need to grow out his hair and wear a dress and said, “[Looking at you] I had no idea you were a girl, how can you enroll here?"
The trans men said that when school officials verbally harass transgender students in public, it can further embolden fellow students to do the same. Transgender students felt they had no authority figure to turn to for support or to hold other students accountable for their verbal harassment. Abed did not have friends in school and faced constant bullying when teachers left the classroom:
One day a classmate said to me, in front of the entire class, “Why are you like this? Why do you do this? Why are you so ridiculous? You’re crazy. You’re a lesbian.” She would curse at me. This would happen frequently. I never complained to any of the other teachers because I knew none of them would be sympathetic. All of the teachers had issues with me because I wouldn’t dress or act like a girl.
Jamal, a trans man, feared attracting the attention of teachers when other students would call him a homosexual or a lesbian: “I could never say anything to them [other students] because I didn’t want it to escalate. I was scared that the teachers or my parents would find out.”
Harassment and discrimination did not end at secondary school. Trans men recounted similar experiences at the hands of administrators, instructors, and fellow students in higher education settings. Nandini described the first day of class when a professor taking attendance called Nandini’s name and asked: “‘Are you a boy or a girl?’ Then the other students said, ‘Professor, you noticed after all this time, but we’ve been confused since day one. We've been taking classes together for the last two years and we're still confused." Then [the professor] said, ‘You're a girl but you're dressing like a boy?’ I didn't go to his class for the next week.”
Some university policies reinforce stereotypical gender roles and, in an effort to evade such expectations, trans men are unable to partake freely in educational opportunities. Adnan had initially wanted to major in Business Administration but upon learning that students within that major must dress formally for presentations which would mean wearing a sari, he chose a different major. Nandini said his instructors have told him they reduced his grades because he refused to dress in formal, traditionally feminine clothing when conducting presentations.
The harassment Tahmid faced from his fellow students escalated when living in a gender-segregated residential hall: “Another student went to the administrator that would oversee the hostel and said, ‘He acts like a boy. He is a boy. Why does he live in the girls’ hostel? Kick him out.’ The administrator didn't take her very seriously but later had a talk with me and asked, ‘Why are you like this? Do you have your period or not? Why do you dress like this?’” After this incident, Tahmid learned that he must conceal his gender identity from everyone around him.
Barriers to Employment
Due to widespread prejudice, trans men face significant barriers in securing employment when their gender expression does not match the gender listed on their official documentation, including ID documents and diplomas. Formal wear in Bangladesh is gender specific and wearing masculine pants and a shirt can be read as unprofessional for women. Nandini explained the difficulties of dressing in ways that are not traditionally feminine: “In an [employment] interview someone asked if I always look like this or present myself this way. Do I always dress like this? I was asked this in 3-4 interviews.”
Trans men who secured employment described harassment from other colleagues. Tahmid had always dressed in traditional men’s clothing since he began working and had not faced any issues. This situation abruptly changed, however, after Tahmid confided in a colleague that he planned to take hormones to begin the transition process. The colleague informed others and, soon after, Tahmid’s supervisor explained that others had complained about Tahmid’s clothes: “He wanted to know why I dressed like this since it's unprofessional. And if I didn't change, then he'd be forced to take further action. He said that if I wanted to continue working there, I would need to change the way I dressed.”
The difficulty of finding alternative employment leads individuals to endure discrimination and exploitation in the workplace. Despite being unhappy in his current job, and wishing to leave, Omar has heard from other trans men that employment can be difficult if not hostile and dangerous: “I can’t leave because I can’t dress this way in other jobs. I would have to act like a woman in terms of clothes, hair, etc..” Most of the trans men Human Rights Watch spoke to were university students whose futures seemed bleak to them because they anticipated the difficulties of attaining employment. For example, Abed told Human Rights Watch: “I've heard from so many people that because of their clothes and gender expression, they weren't able to get jobs.”
Accessing Transition-Related Health Care
Trans men face significant difficulties in accessing medical care and mental health care. This is all the more alarming considering that all the trans men interviewed by Human Rights Watch had attempted suicide at least once and, in some cases, a few times in their lives. Tahmid described his thought process: “A lot of times, I thought I'd be better off dead. Sometimes the pain was so bad that I couldn't stand it. How many issues can one person endure? At home, at school, at work.” Abed’s thoughts demonstrate the importance of access to mental health care for transgender individuals in Bangladesh: “My main thought was, what's the point of staying alive? I have nothing in my life. Because I don't see anyone else like me. I was extremely depressed because my parents would repeatedly tell me to wear girl's clothes and act like a girl.”
Trans men in Bangladesh struggle to access medical and mental health care from providers who understand what it means to be transgender. Tahmid met with a psychiatrist who was the head of a large, well-established clinic in Dhaka, and explained his gender identity: “He said to me, ‘Is this even possible? This never happens to anyone.’ Then he said, ‘You should have sex with a man, then you’ll be fixed’ I wanted to kick him. He suggested I watch porn and once I’d become aroused from watching porn, then I should have sex with a man so I would be cured.” In contrast, Abed was referred to a psychiatrist by a local NGO that deals with LGBT issues, and said the psychiatrist was supportive and even explained to his parents what it means to be trans.
When Omar was exploring opportunities to begin the medical transition process, he went to a doctor recommended by friends who knew about his identity. The doctor conducted several tests and then said that “everything was normal” and there was no need for Omar to transition. Omar described the encounter: “The doctor had no understanding of my mentality. For the doctor, it was entirely physical. Doctors in our country don't understand what trans men, trans women or hijras are. They don't understand that they're different categories. So how can they help us?”
The government should require that medical schools include formal education about health care for transgender individuals within their curriculum, which should adhere to the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) standards of care. Without any meaningful inclusion of transgender identities that adheres to WPATH standards of care in the curriculum for medical and mental health providers, positive outcomes such as Tahmid’s will not become the norm.
Most of the trans men interviewed by Human Rights Watch struggled to find any medical doctors to support them in the medical transition process. As a result, they have accepted that they will need to travel outside of Bangladesh in order to undergo this process, which poses problems at border control for those whose physical appearance does not match the gender listed in their passport.
Harassment and Prejudice in Families
Trans men who spoke to Human Rights Watch reported varying levels of openness about their gender identity with their families. Some feared their family’s rejection and completely hid their identity. For example, Jamal leaves his house wearing traditionally feminine clothing, changes into pants and a t-shirt in a public restroom, and then changes back to his original outfit before reentering the house. When explaining how traditional his family is, Jamal said: “If they can't even accept the clothes I want to wear, how could they possibly accept my gender identity or sexual orientation?”
Others were more open with their parents from a young age. When Abed was about 13 years old, before he learned what it means to be trans, he tried explaining how he felt to his mother: “I tried telling my mom, ‘Mom, when you tell me to wear girl's clothes, then it makes me want to kill myself. That's how awful it makes me feel.’ My mom replied, ‘You need to return to Allah’s path and seek forgiveness. You can't say these things, it's a sin.’ I had nothing left to say. She shut me up. That's when I realized that my family will never understand me.” Nevertheless, Abed persisted and when he was about 20 years old, attempted to explain what it means to be transgender to his parents and solicited the help of a sympathetic psychiatrist who also spoke to his parents. Despite his efforts, Abed said his parents struggled to accept him: “They regularly cry and ask ‘Why did Allah do this to you? What's going to happen to you? You have no future.’”
Adnan dresses in masculine clothing with his family’s support as they assume he is a “tomboy”: a girl who engages in behavior traditionally considered masculine. Since he was two or three years old, Adnan wanted to wear his elder brother’s clothing as opposed to his own. Adnan’s father, who found his behavior amusing, bought him boy’s clothes and referred to him as his son when he was young. Adnan’s family, however, do not understand what it means to be transgender and he fears their rejection if he were to broach the topic.
Most interviewees feared what would happen if they were to discuss the topic with their families or what will happen as they grow older and their families expect them to marry. Jamal explained: “If I stay here [in Bangladesh] then my parents will marry me off. Or they'll ban me from the house. I'll become a pariah in society.” An elder in Abed’s family who knew that he identifies as transgender articulated a widespread attitude in Bangladesh: “‘Marry her off quickly. Once she's married and has kids, she'll be fixed.’"
Omar, who has served as a mentor to other trans men and worked closely in an unofficial capacity with an LGBT organization, explained how prevalent such attitudes are: “There are many trans people who face such immense pressure from their families that they get married and start families. Even though they don't want to. And then everyday they are tortured by their lives. This happens to trans men, transwomen and lesbians.” The psychiatrist Abed consulted advised him not to tell his family about his gender identity: “‘If you tell your family, they might force you to get married and torture you in various ways so there’s no need to tell them.’”
For most of the trans men who spoke to Human Rights Watch, stigma and discrimination began in the home and was the source of many problems and concerns about their future. Omar explained the importance of family acceptance: “If our families would accept us then society, and everyone else will accept us as well. If our family doesn’t accept us, then no one else will.”
Harassment in Public Places
All interviewees said they had been harassed or ridiculed when walking down the street because of their gender expression. Constant verbal abuse and harassment sends a message that people in their communities despise them and reinforces concerns about their safety because they fear catching the attention of anyone associated with violent Islamist groups who may assume they are gay.
The trans men Human Rights Watch spoke to would frequently hear people say, “boy or girl?” or question whether they were a hijra, an identity category for people who are assigned male at birth but develop a feminine identity. Being called a hijra can carry a negative connotation since hijras occupy a marginalized position in society and are often perceived as a lower-caste group.
Adnan described feeling dehumanized due to harassment: “The way they stare is the worst. It’s as if I’m a different species and not a human being.” Like Adnan, other trans men have normalized verbal harassment and its emotional toll: “I've heard this [all] so much and so frequently that I'm used to it by now. When I first used to hear these comments, I'd feel terrible. I still feel bad every time I hear it, but not as bad as I felt before. I had to get used to it, because it's not going to change.” Nandini has also come to expect verbal harassment: “I've accepted that wherever I go, people will look at me strangely. And if I want to buy something from a store and there's other people there, then they'll start talking about me.”
The Consequences of Verbal Abuse
Verbal abuse and harassment that people face due to their gender expression can create or enhance negative self-image, shape public opinion, instill fear and shame in people, and inhibit their ability to access public spaces and seek redress or justice. For most interviewees, verbal harassment reinforced feelings of inferiority and isolation. Strangers would sometimes ask Tahmid if he was a boy or girl: “I became used to it, but even then it felt awful to hear. I used to wish I could become invisible.”
In addition to stares and verbal harassment, Abed has also been ridiculed:
I was walking down the street one day and there were some boys passing by me and then one of them said loudly, “look there goes a hijra” and pointed at me. They were staring at me, laughing amongst themselves and trying to get my attention by calling me a hijra. I didn't look at them. I just kept my head down and came home. This has happened several times. With different groups of people.
For Tahmid, common forms of verbal abuse compounded with widespread discrimination and rejection from family members led to suicidal thoughts: “First of all, when I would go outside and I was in that environment with other people, I felt like an alien. I felt so different from everyone around me. I felt like I didn't exist in the world. [I would wonder] how long could I continue fighting it? Then I used to think: I can't do this anymore.”
Nandini explained how the verbal harassment he experiences increases his sense of vulnerability due to security risks:
If I stay in one apartment for a long period of time, it becomes clear that people around me are keeping track of my movements. They start to recognize me, I become a topic of discussion and they realize that I'm like this. Or sometimes I'm walking down the street and there's a large group of young men and one of them says, “look they're coming,” that means they were talking about me. I feel scared when that happens because what if something comes of the fact that they're keeping tabs on me? That's why I change apartments frequently. I don't stay in one apartment for longer than 6 months. I've accepted that this is my burden.
The Need for Legal Reform
Transgender men in Bangladesh are currently unable to change their gender on any legal documents due to the government’s failure to establish a mechanism for legal gender recognition.
While the government has taken steps to legally recognize hijras as a third gender category, an important positive development, it has so far done nothing to extend protections to transgender individuals who are not hijras. In January 2014 the Bangladesh cabinet announced in its gazette a policy decision “recogniz[ing] the Hijra community of Bangladesh as a Hijra sex.” The circular marked a significant step toward securing a range of human rights for hijras in Bangladesh, though implementation of the decision has been plagued by lack of clarity about who qualifies as hijra and abuses in implementation of the policy.
The perception of hijras and trans men within Bangladeshi society is vastly different. Hijra is an identity category that predates colonialism and carries a unique socio-cultural significance. As a result, hijras constitute an identity category that is completely separate from that of trans men. Legal protections afforded to hijras do not apply to trans men, who do not have any legal protections.
In the absence of any mechanism for legal gender recognition, transgender men in Bangladesh are currently unable to change their gender on any legal documents. The lack of any legal recognition mechanism compounds the isolation and insecurity trans men feel.
Omar said: “I believe that if the law is changed, then thousands of trans men will come forward. Even those who don't have the courage to express themselves right now.” For Jamal, a change in the law would be extremely meaningful: “The government should at least recognize us and pass laws to send the message: ‘Ok, you can change your identity, you can change your degrees, we will accept you.’ If we could get assurance that after transitioning, we could change our gender on our diplomas, that you will be accepted as you are, if we could achieve that, then I wouldn't have to worry about leaving the country.”
Same-sex sexual behavior, dubbed “carnal intercourse against the order of nature,” is criminalized in Bangladesh under section 377 of the country’s colonial-era penal code. This law affects transgender men who are attracted to women, and whose male gender is not recognized by the state.
The Constitution of Bangladesh protects the right to equality and non-discrimination and expressly protects against discrimination only on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth. It also allows the State to make special provision for the ‘advancement of any backward section of citizens’. Currently, allegations of discrimination can only be enforced against the State, which precludes private actors.
The government should ensure that transgender individuals are not discriminated against on the basis of their gender identity by ensuring the passage of the Anti Discrimination Law, with the inclusion of gender identity and sexual orientation as a basis for non-discrimination. The law was drafted in 2014 with the input of various NGOs and submitted to the Ministry of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs. The Ministry has yet to move the proposed legislation forward to begin the process of enacting the law.
Abed explained the importance of legislation protecting against discrimination: “We should be allowed to dress how we want. Gender expression should not be a barrier to employment. For us, expressing our gender through our clothes is as necessary as drinking water.”
Background: The Machete Attacks, Shrinking Civil Society, Police Distrust
Freedom of expression is under assault in Bangladesh today. Militant Islamists and other private actors have targeted those seen as promoting secular values and the government continues its crackdown on the political opposition and other critical voices. Authorities have arrested and imprisoned bloggers and satirists, arrested human rights defenders, closed critical media houses, jailed editors, and charged journalists with contempt of court for reporting unfavorably on government actions.
The “machete attacks” from 2013 to 2016 initially targeted bloggers writing publicly about atheist principles and activists who organized rallies against the leaders of hardline Islamist political parties, but later the list of victims expanded to include religious minorities, professors, publishers, and LGBT rights activists.
The government’s initial reaction involved both condemning the killings but also urging those targeted to censor their writing or curtail their activities. In 2013, the authorities prosecuted four bloggers for “offending religious sentiments.” Shortly after the murder of two LGBT rights activists, Xulhaz Mannan and Tonoy Mahbub, in April 2016, the Bangladeshi home minister told reporters: “As far as we know, Xulhaz was the editor of a magazine named Rupban. And he worked to promote gay rights. This does not fit in our society.” The government’s failure to defend freedom of expression of minority groups has only exacerbated a climate of fear that trans men told Human Rights Watch made them feel they could be next.
Religious minority groups were also targeted during the spate of killings. Attackers planted bombs during religious gatherings and individuals, and the secretary general of an interfaith platform of religious minorities and two pastors were targeted in late 2015. In October 2016, Hindu shrines, temples, and homes were attacked during the Hindu festival of Diwali. The government responded by arresting several hundred suspects, but some sporadic attacks against the Hindu community continued.
Nandini explained to Human Rights Watch the particular risks he faces as a Hindu trans man: “When Hindu minority communities are attacked, I face a dangerous security situation. And because I’m LGBT, when that community faces problems, I’ll also face issues.” Nandini explained the climate of fear facing religious minorities after the July 1, 2016 Dhaka attack at an upscale restaurant where 21 hostages were killed: “Even when I would ride buses after this incident, I noticed I wouldn't see any Hindus wearing anything that could easily identify them as Hindu. When new incidents occurred, and terrorists were arrested, as these incidents increased, so did our fear.”
This climate of impunity has reaffirmed skepticism of the efficacy of police. When speaking to Human Rights Watch, Jamal described his reluctance to report a stalker to the police, even though the stalker knew Jamal’s gender identity and knew that he had a girlfriend: “If this were a different country, I could go to the police and get a restraining order, but here, I can't go to the police. Because if I file a complaint that he's following me, the police might investigate further and find out about my relationship or my gender identity and what if that information then falls into the hands of an extremist group? We don't even have the option to seek legal recourse.”
NGOs are also facing increased scrutiny and restrictions. A 2016 law formalized restrictions on receiving foreign funds without the approval of the NGO Affairs Bureau. Human rights groups face constant obstacles, including escalating harassment and surveillance by police. Omar, who has worked closely with an LGBT organization for several years in an unofficial capacity, explained to Human Rights Watch the barriers the group faces in advocating for legal reform: “They're working on it, but slowly. Because they also have to worry about their safety. They're scared to push too hard.”
Prior to the murder of the two LGBT activists, LGBT people in Bangladesh had been targeted with extremist rhetoric. For example, in November 2015, when activists began publishing a cartoon series featuring a lesbian character, religious groups issued anti-LGBT statements, calling on the government to prosecute LGBT people under section 377 and Sharia (Islamic Law).
On June 29, 2017, a television special featuring a gay character aired on a major TV channel. The TV special was titled Rainbow and featured a gay character whose brother challenges the homophobic opinions expressed by another character. The special received intense backlash. Critics targeted the TV channel and the corporate sponsor, Grameen phone, expressing their discontent on their respective Facebook pages; others complained through Grameen phone’s customer service hotline.
In response, RTV removed the special from its YouTube channel and Grameen phone issued a statement explaining that it had no prior knowledge of the show’s content. The general secretary of Hefazat-e Islam, Maulana Islamabadi, demanded that those involved in the production of Rainbow issue a formal apology and called for mass protests and a cancellation of RTV’s TV license if they failed to do so. The call for protests carried important implications—in April 2017, when Hefazat led protests against the presence of a statue of Lady Justice outside the Supreme Court, the statue was removed and then relocated. For many, these incidents reflect the growing power of Hefazat and other hardline Islamist political parties.
In this climate, trans men who spoke to Human Rights Watch not surprisingly spoke of their fear of Islamist hardliners. For example, Abed said: “Religious leaders need to understand that Allah made us this way. If they don't understand this, then we'll face a lot of harm. They might do something to us otherwise. We don't have security.”