রূপবান (Roopbaan): How Queer Bangladeshi students at UBC found freedom and acceptance

The article contains mentions of homophobia and violence. All student source names have been changed in this article for their safety.

“[I] have seen firsthand people celebrating when they were slaughtering [Queer] people,” said Poribibi, a 2022 UBC grad.

She was reflecting on her experience witnessing the aftermath of the 2016 killings of Bengali Queer activists Xulxaz Mannan and K Mahbub Rabbi.

The looming fear of meeting a similar fate made her cautious about how she presented herself while growing up in Bangladesh and who to trust with her identity. “The fact that it could have been me is traumatizing,” she said.

Even sitting down for an interview with The Ubyssey was daunting, something she never would consider doing in Bangladesh. “To me, it’s a safety concern,” Poribibi said.

When Poribibi first realized that she was Queer in high school, it was anything but easy. As a practicing Muslim, she struggled to find common ground between her beliefs and her sexuality.

“I felt like I had nowhere to go,” she said. “Is there no place in this huge universe for me to stand?”

“I tried being not Queer. Obviously, that didn’t work,” Poribibi said.
“I tried being not Queer. Obviously, that didn’t work,” Poribibi said. Isabella Falsetti / The Ubyssey

At home, Poribibi struggled with opening up to her friends and family about her sexuality. Most of her friends came from strict Muslim households, where conversations around Queerness were rare and, when they did happen, people were ill-equipped to discuss these issues, oftentimes invalidating her feelings. She found herself at an impasse.

“It was not super easy. It was actually painful. Some people just didn’t get it … No one really knew how to handle [Queerness],” she said. “And I could tell they’re trying their best to be part of it. But they also felt very morally contradicted, conflicted, because they’re like, ‘Oh, you know, as a Muslim person, I can’t in my good conscience just tell you to go ahead and do it.’”

“You can’t just not exist.”

Thus, for a long time, Poribibi found it difficult to come to terms with being Queer.

“I tried being not Queer. Obviously, that didn’t work,” Poribibi said. “You can’t just not exist.”

“It was easier to hate because I just could not accept me,” she said.

A 200-year history

Anti-Queer stigma in Bangladesh goes back centuries.

In 1860, the British added Section 377 to the Indian Penal Code which criminalized any “carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal” and could punish someone with imprisonment for life.

This law, which criminalizes homosexuality, remains in place.

Versions of the law were inherited in the penal codes of numerous former British colonies after their independence. While most of these countries have since removed this law, it continues to be enforced in six countries, including Bangladesh. It’s unlikely to be removed from Bangladesh’s penal code any time soon.

With a majority Muslim population, religious and social stigma also dictates the anti-Queer attitude of Bangladeshi society. Mainstream Islamic debates on 2SLGBTQIA+ rights and issues continue to heavily influence legal as well as social acceptance of Queer people in Bangladesh.

“The Quran has nothing to do with homosexuality."

— Dr. Junaid Jahangir, assistant professor at the University of Alberta and MacEwan University

Islamic teachings and understandings of Queer rights and identity are highly debated.

“The Quran has nothing to do with homosexuality,” Jahangir said. “Context is important.”

Dr. Junaid Jahangir, an assistant professor at the University of Alberta and MacEwan University, said mainstream conservative Muslim clerics and scholars who misconstrue specific verses from the Quran have contributed to the development of anti-Queer sentiments in many Muslim societies around the world.

Jahangir has been vocal about the rights of Queer Muslims and Islam’s acceptance of 2SLGBTQIA+ people, especially among interfaith circles in Edmonton, for the past decade. He wrote numerous articles on this issue across various online platforms and blogs and co-authored a book titled Islamic Law and Muslim Same-Sex Unions.

Jahangir explained that laws in countries like Bangladesh are heavily influenced by religion because there is a majority Muslim presence in the upper echelons of the state and local government. Thus, with anti-Queer misinterpretations of Islam highly present, there is little interest in changing the ‘anti-Queer’ laws.

These misinterpreted passages, combined with social conditioning, breeds discrimination against 2SLGBTQIA+ people in the Muslim community. Often, this can lead to internalized homophobia for Queer people in Bangladesh as well.

“Bangladesh has a long way to go and it’s very hard to have a conversation about these things,” said Moyurakkhi.
“Bangladesh has a long way to go and it’s very hard to have a conversation about these things,” said Moyurakkhi. Isabella Falsetti / The Ubyssey

This was certainly the case for fourth-year UBC student Riha. “Being anything but straight was not in my head to even talk about it and obviously, that speaks a lot to our culture,” she said.

She said she feels she has yet to come to terms with her sexuality, finding it difficult to date other women. She questioned whether that was due to social conditioning and the prevailing anti-Queer sentiments in Bangladeshi society.

“Is it my internalized homophobia that I grew up with … [or] that my culture is not very accepting of it?”

Riha didn’t grow up in a strict Muslim household. However, conversations about Queer issues were still rare at home, which she felt was more due to her family’s lack of social awareness. It was only after coming to Canada that she was able to talk more freely about her sexuality.

“People are more open [about] these topics here than in Bangladesh,” said Riha.

Battling silence and homophobia

On January 18, 2014, Mannan and Rabbi published Bangladesh’s first and only Queer magazine, Roopbaan. ‘Roopbaan’ is the Bengali word for ‘beautiful and fabulous person.’

As ardent Queer activists, Mannan and Rabbi worked tirelessly to establish a safe space to have open conversations about Queer issues, even organizing rallies, programs and campaigns in support of the Queer community.

On April 25, 2016 — just two years after the first issue of Roopbaan was published and shortly after Mannan publically came out as gay — Mannan and Rabbi were killed by extremists.

“Why should it be such a struggle for us to exist?”

Jahangir said Bangladesh, like many other South Asian countries, does not have the conditions to become a society where Queer people are accepted and welcome. He credited this to the lack of strong democratic institutions, a lack of individualism and the persistence of conservative and anti-West dogma.

“Bangladesh has a long way to go and it’s very hard to have a conversation about these things,” said Moyurakkhi, a UBC grad student. “I have nothing against Bangladesh. I love our culture and there [are] so many things I love about it but … right now [with] how I express myself, it is very unsafe for me.”

Moyurakkhi said he finds it difficult to talk about Queer issues with his friends and family. As he came to terms with his own identity and sexuality, he realized that he had a responsibility to educate his family on these issues.

“They are still not completely understanding of the whole situation … But I think [now] they know more … and they try to accept more,” Moyurakkhi said, “instead of like three years ago when this wasn’t even a topic of conversation.”

It was by coming to North America that he was able to be more open and expressive about his sexuality.

“Canada and the US provided me with a safer space … it is safer than Bangladesh.”

However, even in Canada, some find themselves unsure of how to discuss their Queerness with other Bangladeshi students.

“Is it my internalized homophobia that I grew up with … [or] that my culture is not very accepting of it?”  Said Riha.
“Is it my internalized homophobia that I grew up with … [or] that my culture is not very accepting of it?” Said Riha. Isabella Falsetti / The Ubyssey

“I was hesitant to [come out to] the Bangladeshis here just because they were connected to my life back home,” said Moyurakkhi. “I [felt] I was hiding not just my sexuality, but a part of my personality.”

Jahangir said this is normal, as Muslim communities — especially those dispersed among Western societies — tend to be more conservative in nature. He said being so far away from home often makes them “more protective of their origins.”

“Muslim societies have become more conservative over time,” Jahangir said. “Even here, thousands of miles away from their home countries, [Queer people] have to be careful, because [their] communities here are even more orthodox compared to the communities back [home].”

But, attitudes towards Queerness in Bangladesh are not a monolith. Fear of having one’s safety at risk is not always a burden they carry alone. Bangladeshi allies, family and friends oftentimes live in fear of something awful happening to those they love most.

“I asked my mother, ‘What would you do… if I or my brother were gay? … She was like, ‘I will be completely fine [but] the only thing that I will struggle with [is] knowing how much you would struggle in Bangladesh,’” said Brishti, a third-year UBC student.

For Brishti, talking to her friends and family about Queer issues has always been difficult.

“I have talked to my uncles and aunts and they were like, ‘I’m okay with it but I don’t think our culture is a place for that,’” she said.

She found herself alienated from her own understanding and beliefs, oftentimes pretending to agree with her friends’ and family’s views and opinions on the matter. Thus, coming to Canada was an escape. It allowed her a safe space to be free and open about her identity.

“The only thing that I know is I’m going to stay in Canada [because] I can be so open about everything here.”

Navigating intersectionality

For many Queer Bangladeshis, Queerness and otherness are synonymous — especially when navigating being Muslim, Bangladeshi and Queer. Finding common ground in their intersectionality is understandably difficult, often leading some to feel like they need to make a choice: their religion or their sexuality.

“I didn’t think enough about what [it] meant, being bisexual and brown,” said Riha. “It was already uncomfortable trying to make my space as a woman, much less a bisexual woman.”

Having to choose between one’s different identities is an impossible task. For many, it is a choice between being true to yourself and pretending to be someone that fits into societal norms.

“The path of truth is not easy,” Jahangir said. “Because [if] you’re true to yourself, you’re true to your family [and] you’re true to everything … you [tend to] face more challenges.”

For Moyurakkhi, spirituality and sexuality are two important parts of his identity, and he felt his battle between choosing one over the other was in the past.

“I never thought of choosing Queerness over my religion because it was so deeply rooted in myself,” said Moyurakkhi. “I do believe in God. I do fast … I used to pray a lot as well. So it was hard for me to be in that conflict.”

“I fought that battle a long time ago,” he said. “I [found] the balance between both of those things a long time ago and right now it’s different.”

“I never thought of choosing Queerness over my religion because it was so deeply rooted in myself,” said Moyurakkhi.
“I never thought of choosing Queerness over my religion because it was so deeply rooted in myself,” said Moyurakkhi. Isabella Falsetti / The Ubyssey

For Poribibi, it’s a struggle to find that balance between her identities.

“I am a practicing Muslim. So how do I coexist within that?” she said. “Even letting one of these [identities] go, I lose a core essence of me.”

For the longest time, she said she invalidated her own feelings, unable to accept herself and her identity as Queer, Muslim and Bangladeshi. She found herself pretending to accept the prevailing anti-Queer views and opinions of her friends and family to avoid facing the truth.

“You are trying to protect yourself from the experience that you know you will go through if you’re out,” said Poribibi.

Even coming to Canada, there were times when she felt she had to mask parts of her identity to protect herself.

“It does make you choose,” she said. “If you take the Bangladeshi out of me, there’s no cultural context to my existence. If you take my sexuality out of me, there’s no context for my reasons to love someone. And if you take the Muslim out of me, I have no spiritual context. These three are very fundamental to my existence. But who gets to see all three of them at one time?”

It was coming to Canada that helped her understand her sexuality better. She felt that Canada gave her the space and freedom to have conversations about being Queer. Moyurakkhi said the same.

“I think one of the reasons I left Bangladesh was because of my identity,” said Moyurakkhi. “Coming here to the US and to Canada really helped me come out to my friends and express myself fully.”

Poribibi is preparing to go to the Vancouver Pride Parade on July 31. She is incredibly excited to go and has been chatting to her friends about what outfits she plans to wear — something she couldn’t even imagine doing back in Bangladesh.

“That brings a lot of freedom, that I can still keep my identity as hidden or as public as I want. It’s up to me,” said Poribibi.

She said she can finally be who she wants to be, without fearing any backlash or judgment.

After years of struggling to find that common ground, Poribibi is happy with how far she has come. She is happy that she was able to make space for herself to keep all of her core values and identities whole. With a strong connection with her spirituality, Poribibi hopes to make a safe space for others who are going through the same struggles that she had to endure.

“Why should it be such a struggle for us to exist?” Poribibi said. I refuse to believe that I can’t exist. No one can tell me that. The only person who can tell me that is my god and I have to believe that he is kinder than that.”