‘We Bangladeshi Queer People Exist’

July 25, 2023
‘We Bangladeshi Queer People Exist’ Queer history and queer lives are under attack. There was never a time when we could let our guard down, but both in the UK and right across the world, an ignorant poison has again begun bubbling under the surface ready to erupt. It may well take lives, if not try its very best to take away already existing rights. The general trend towards hatred and ignorance shows us why we must arm ourselves – building queer communities, reclaiming queer spaces, and learning from our beautiful queer histories. Power comes in channelling that which has always existed in one form or another, under one name or none, and tapping into the active energy dripping from every wall, soaking into each step, seared into the atmosphere around us. On 22nd June 2023, Freedom took part in a walking tour with Dan Glass (author of Queer Footprints – A Guide to Uncovering London’s Fiercest History) and Tashnuva Fardousi from The Rainbow Tree (an organisation focused on aiding and advising queer people in and from Bangladesh) to learn about the vibrant multicultural history that stains the streets of Whitechapel. Both are working to revive radical queer history and build communities to protect each other, especially at a time when states are working against queer people. Just two examples of important radical history are close to Freedom Bookshop. Across the street is Altab Ali Park, renamed after Altab Ali, the 24-year-old British Bangladeshi who was racially targeted and murdered while walking home from work in 1978. At the time, the murder activated the local Bangladeshi youth into action to fight against rising fascist National Front movements. Now, on the anniversary of Ali’s death, the park is home to a still-present Bangladeshi community that gathers to remember and continue their resistance against racism and British colonialism. Directly opposite the park is where you’ll find what is now a NatWest bank, except (unbeknownst to the bank clerks) the walls are dripping with queer history. Dan Glass reminds us that the building was Miss Muff’s Molly House – a notorious space for queer people to meet and explore the wonders of sexualities. ‘Molly’ was a slang term for queer people and sex workers in the 1720s, and in 1729, ‘nine male ladies’ were arrested in full masquerade ball outfits outside this building (Glass, 2023, p160). At a time when to be gay was illegal, this building is a reminder that despite all the attempts to write us out of the protection of the State, queer people remain steadfast and resilient, finding spaces to exist despite the danger. Unfortunately for many, this is still a reality. In Bangladesh, to be openly queer is to be illegal. Queer people live with the potential to be sentenced to prison at any moment. The Rainbow Tree is a volunteer-led organisation based in the UK working to support queer Bangladeshi people in any way they can. One of their current campaigns is to overturn the barbaric 377 Penal Code in Bangladesh – a British colonial law that has not been overturned since Bangladeshi independence, but nevertheless criminalises queer acts and queer existences. The Rainbow Tree has written a letter to the penal code:
“Dear 377 Penal code, How long will you remain silent and make us suffer? You came to this world holding the hand of a British monarch who left you in our countries when they left the Indian subcontinent 1947. The British emperor realised the destructive power of you that’s why they got rid of you from their own country, but they don’t bother to abolish you from the commonwealth countries. Dear 377 penal code, do you know because of you many of us still get the death penalty and life time imprisonment in the commonwealth countries? Can you tell how long will you be there and make us suffer? Dear 377 penal code, do you know due to your existence the religious extremist had the courage to murder Xulhaz and Tonoy. They were brutally slaughtered before their parent and the society because of your silent presence in the Bangladeshi Law. Dear 377 Penal code, can you hear us? Can you tell us how long will you be there? Do you know, just a few months ago my friend Asker’s younger lesbian sister committed suicide because you empowered the country (Bangladesh) and the society with cruelty, brutality and hatred which murdered our sister. Dear penal code 377, do you know I had to live my own beloved country in 24 hours’ notice and you put me in a bullet proof car and kicked out from my own loving country. I haven’t seen my parents from last seven years because of your silence presence in Bangladesh and even I don’t know if I can see the faces of my parents when they die! Can you please tell us how long will you be the and remain silent and make us suffer? Dear 377 penal code, do you know, my grandmother was my world who used to give me money to buy dolls and paly at my childhood, who used to protect me while other used bully me calling half ladies. Do you know, I even couldn’t attend my beloved grandmother funeral because of your presence in Bangladesh. Do you know due to your presence, my friend Memo was kicked away from his own house by his parents, and he was called bustard by his own father. Dear 377 penal code, do you realise due to your presence police brutally beaten me and my best friend in Bangladesh, do you realise due to your presence every year many of us committing suicide! Dear 377 penal code, how long will you be remain silent and make us suffer? How long? Can you please answer? How long would you make us suffer?”
Despite this, Mazhural Islam, co-founder of The Rainbow Tree, is proudly optimistic about the future of queer Bangladeshi power: “We are the only one Bangladeshi community in the entire world who has been able to build an LGBTQIA+ community abroad after leaving their home country […] I believe we will be seen as an example and many more people will be inspired to build Bangladeshi LGBTQIA+ communities like us around the world”. When I asked about his key dreams for The Rainbow Tree moving forward, Maz said:
“Well, we are a volunteer-led non-registered organisation so the dream would be one day The Rainbow Tree would be one of the largest registered Bangladeshi LGBTQIA+ organisations which would be supporting all the British Bangladeshi and Bangladeshi queer people around the world. We dream to make this organisation into a registered charity organisation in 10 years time. We will have our own website and a YouTube channel where we will be promoting Bangladeshi LGBTQIA+ lifestyle and will be doing different events like sex education, talk shows, untold stories etc.”
The Rainbow Tree needs all the support it can get in its early stages – if there’s one thing Maz wants people to know, especially Bangladeshi communities and the government, it’s that “WE BANGLADESHI QUEER PEOPLE EXIST […] and you must accept us no matter what”. Dan has been proud to be a champion alongside them: “Maz and myself have been long-term comrades soon after he fled from Bangladesh to the UK. We have organised many demonstrations together with ‘Aids Coalition to Unleash Power’ (ACT UP) London chapter for healthcare rights and access to HIV/AIDS medication and against rising hate-crime attacks”. When homophobes attacked Maz, it “catalysed me to organise ‘Queer Night Pride’ to defend our community which led to the birth of the community empowerment boxing and Muay Thai movement ‘Bender Defenders’”. This is why it was so important for them to be included in his book Queer Footprints. When Dan co-founded ‘Queer Tours of London – A Mince Through Time’ against the closure of queer spaces, he ‘co-organised radical education programmes to build strategies and solidarity for international LGBTQIA+ struggles as well as promoting the vigils for their murdered comrades Xulhaz Mannan and Mahbub Tonoy outside the Bangladesh High Commission”. The book is a result of the queer tours, and every tour for him is a pleasure, educating new people and sharing interesting stories – Whitechapel was no exception! When I asked what he hoped people took away from the tour, Dan shared this from the introduction to Queer Footprints:
“London is changing so fast. The world is changing so fast. It is incumbent on us as curious people to keep telling our stories, to keep creating change and to keep expanding our horizons. There are lonely people out there who needn’t be, trust me. Glorious and glittering collective action can create beauty against all odds. These stories are a recognition of our interconnection – how the person opposite you on the tube is somehow intimately intertwined in the salvation of our city for all people, against profit and greed. Reach out to them. Queer Footprints is only an appetiser, a gateway book for you to continue our lineage, by documenting queerstory. We are that story. Whatever the choppy future seas have in store for us, knowing we can drop anchor, reconnect with those who’ve come before us and all the wisdom and inspiration they hold, will mean we can venture more boldly into the eye of the storm and help others find their way.”
Retelling the struggles from tens if not hundreds of years ago reminds us of not only the struggles we inherit, but the power passed down to us by such incredibly inspirational queer people throughout London’s history. Reminding ourselves of the struggles of queer people across the world and in the UK reminds us that until all are free, no one is. We will always be interconnected, always moving, creating fluid and flowing connections both spatially and temporally, standing in solidarity with every queer person that faces oppression. As Dan reminds us, “With the latest Conservative government attack on our Trans community, the ‘Police Crime and Sentencing’ Act, the ‘Immigration and Borders Bill’, all cracking down on our fundamental right to exist, protest and to resist – remembering the strength and vitality of our community has never been more important.”

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