Monday, August 10, 2009

Gay, straight or MSM? In Bangladesh, how you define your sexuality can depend on class, education and family circumstances

via, by Delwar Hussain

There are many in Bangladesh who inhabit a grey area that is neither public nor private, where things that are illegal or socially and religiously taboo are permissible so long as they are not discussed openly. Drinking alcohol, falling in love and disbelieving in God are areas where people rarely disclose their thoughts or activities except in like-minded circles.

Living in such a way protects them from conservative elements of society and allows them to maintain cordial relationships with family and friends. Suleman, an imam at one of the largest mosques in Dhaka, lives with this kind of contradiction every day. None of his family or colleagues suspect anything about his relationship with his male partner, who is publicly acknowledged as "just a friend". This is not so difficult to comprehend. A few years ago Suleman married a woman. Having fulfilled his social and religious obligations in both public and private matters (they have two children together), he is free to continue his relationship with his "friend".

Suleman is well aware of the consequences if knowledge of his "friend" became public. He could be thrown out of the mosque or physically punished; there are many who think a man loving another man is among the worst sins a person can commit. Suleman himself believes it is very important that gay Muslims be allowed to marry, as a way to avoid promiscuity. Called upon by gay friends to bless their relationships, he performs readings from the Qur'an and prayers at such ceremonies.

In this regard Bangladesh is hardly any different from other conservative societies around the world, but new ideas are cautiously surfacing. The Bandhu ("friend") organisation provides healthcare and support for men who have sex with men. It says that 7%-15% of Bangladeshi men over the age of 15 (that is between 2.5 million and 5.25 million people) have sex with another man at least once a month (most will do so while they are single and stop once they get married).

Saleh Ahmed (pictured), who runs Bandhu, stresses that the people it works with are not "gay" but fall within the looser category of "men who have sex with men" (MSMs). According to Ahmed, there are two main differences between the categories: MSMs have sex just for "fun" or "physical release", without the emotional and identity implications of a gay relationship. The second difference between being gay and MSMs is that of class. MSMs generally have low-paid, menial jobs. Gay men come from a middle and upper class background; they tap into a wider, global gay identity and its trappings.

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