Remembering Writer and LGBT Activist Xulhaz Mannan on the Third Anniversary of his Murder
To mark three years since the murder of Xulhaz Mannan, prominent Bangladeshi LGBT rights activist and founder of Bangladesh’s first LGBT magazine, Roopbaan, PEN America shares this remembrance by his friend, writer and journalist Raad Rahman.
When I moved back to Bangladesh, after having lived abroad for 15 years in 2012, I found little in common with childhood friends. Soon, I reached out to a college friend who worked in the State Department and had lived in Bangladesh for a while, and I pleaded with him to introduce me to Bangladeshis in Dhaka who were doing interesting things. The first person he introduced me to was leading gay activist Xulhaz Mannan.
Xulhaz was a real risk taker, despite day jobs as a distinguished protocol specialist for three U.S. Ambassadors and eventually a position working with USAID. He fostered a powerful vision about how there is nothing un-Bengali about being gay, nothing unnatural about advocating for gay rights. When I first met him, Xulhaz invited me to a classical Bengali music concert organized by the gay group Boys of Bangladesh, to celebrate International Day against Homophobia. The room was filled with gay men eating kebabs and drinking chai, at an upscale lounge in Dhaka. I was shocked, because until that moment, I had no idea how vibrant Bangladesh’s gay community was.
“Admit it, you thought Kapil was setting you up for a date with me, didn’t you?” Xulhaz teased me at the end of the night, as we ate Tex-Mex after viewing a contemporary art exhibit after the classical music concert.
I brushed him off. His friends and I laughed, conversed, and joked for hours. I knew I would see him again. As the months progressed, I found out he was a practicing Muslim with a love of mountains, hiking, and connecting people. In the time I knew him, we met nearly every weekend, for picnics, parties, plays, theater performances, museum hopping, and music. His energy was tireless: Aside from his lucrative day job, he worked on promoting HIV testing and awareness, and a couple of months after we met, he started speaking about publishing what became Bangladesh’s first and only LGBT magazine, Roopbaan. I watched in fascination as the magazine shaped up with stories. He asked me for an article—I wrote a short piece comparing the clampdown on homosexuals as a form of present day fascism—but Xulhaz was unsatisfied. Teasing me about how opaque my English lexical choices sometimes were, he suggested that it would have to wait until Roopbaan launched a bilingual blog.
The blog did not happen in Xulhaz’s lifetime, but Roopbaan published two issues and conducted youth leadership programs. All this was met with death threats toward Xulhaz and the gay community on one hand, and intense enthusiasm from gay Bengalis all around the world on the other. Over margaritas at the American Club one day, I advised him to amplify the international media attention, but Xulhaz refused. He knew the magazine would only survive and serve the community if it did not reach the eyes and ears of religious extremists, or the government.
In 2014, Xulhaz’s organized a rainbow rally in conjunction with the annual Bengali New Year parade on April 14. Men wore solid kurtas in all colors of the rainbow, and created a stunning rainbow flag in silent protest about how there is no recognition of homosexuality by the government. Like many former British colonies that had adopted British laws, Bangladesh criminalizes homosexuality under Article 377 of its constitution, with hefty fines and imprisonment.
Fast forward to 2016, and the security situation for gays in Bangladesh was dire. On the Bengali New Year, police asked Xulhaz not to participate in the annual parade. When some gay community members showed up in costume the next day, four were arrested. Xulhaz stayed with them at the police station for hours, until they received bail, well after midnight. The four men were released after their parents were called up and the sons were outed as gay.
In the 10 days after this incident, the gay community saw an escalation in the number of death threats it received. Yet, when I called him and demanded he go into hiding for his safety, Xulhaz joked about the flowers he wanted at his funeral. Leaders in the gay community met, and decided to keep checking in with each other. By this point in Bangladesh, several intellectuals, religious minorities, and secularists had already been killed by religious extremists, and Xulhaz did not want to be next. He spoke about the harassment he was facing with his colleagues in USAID, and was advised to switch houses and get a car, instead of relying on public transportation, as he usually did.
Ten days later, on April 25, 2016, he came home from work and met with his friend Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy, a member of Roopbaan and a fellow activist and theater personality. Soon after, half a dozen men, dressed in tailor-made courier outfits, barged past the security guard in Xulhaz’s building. In front of Xulhaz’s mother, they delivered a parcel filled with machetes and hacked Xulhaz and Tonoy to death.
When I first heard of the murder, I was sitting at a friend’s house in Brooklyn, telling her about how she needed to visit Bangladesh with me one day. The news reached via a panicked friend asking me about the whereabouts of Roopbaan’s members. I responded glibly, by suggesting that she should know better, as she was in Bangladesh and I wasn’t.
Then she forwarded me an article showing Xulhaz’s lifeless body. I read the news about the murder, and how some Bangladeshis were actually celebrating his death. The space for free expression in Bangladesh had shrunk so much that it was frightening, with a chokehold placed tightly around Xulhaz’s legacy. “We are aware of Bangladeshi nationals working with the international media to create illegal movements,” Bangladesh’s home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal said, after a meeting with U.S. Ambassador Marcia Bernicat. “Writing about homosexuality is a criminal offense under our law. What you are doing is criminal and illegal and will be punished.”
It’s been three years since the fatal attacks, three years during which Bangladesh’s criminal courts have made a handful of arrests, but have simultaneously failed to file their conclusions in court thirty-six times. Nowadays, I try not to linger over the memories too much, for I cannot dwell without bursting into a flood of tears. Nowadays, I linger over the softer memories, and I find myself circling back to an evening at Xulhaz’s house: While dozens of guests milled around for an event, he stepped outside to join me on his balcony, filled with potted plants and night jasmine blooming against the grilled lattice windows. I sat there longer than he could, as he was hosting the event. We watched the rain patter down on the rooftops in front of his apartment, unaware our days together were numbered. “Dhaka’s beautiful in this light, isn’t it?” he said, a rhetorical question for the gloaming brilliance that even overcast sunsets had. I nodded, and he patted my shoulders: “If you sit out here alone for too long, you’re going to catch a cold.”