After Attacks, Gay Bangladeshis Retreat Into Closet, Flee Abroad

BANGKOK - Seven months after al Qaeda-linked militants hacked Bangladesh's most prominent gay activist to death, the South Asian country's LGBTQ community remains in hiding, while more than a dozen LGBTQ people have fled abroad.

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A gay activist in exile poses for photos after an interview at a hotel in Bangkok, Thailand, November 29, 2016. The activist spoke on condition of anonymity because he fears for his safety. Picture taken November 29, 2016. Athit Perawongmetha / Reuters

"The whole community has been sent back to the closet," a gay activist in exile told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on condition of anonymity because he fears for his safety.

"Any kind of work - whatever we had been doing - it has been completely shut down. There is no movement, no visibility, no work. It is a horrible situation. We have never imagined the situation would be like this."

Bangladesh's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community was already marginalized, with gay sex being illegal, punishable by a maximum of life in prison.

Then there was a coming out of sorts with the 2014 launch of the country's first LGBTQ-themed magazine, Roopbaan, which became a subject of interest in the media and on social media, prompting a backlash and threats.

The community suffered escalating threats and then on April 25, Xulhaz Mannan, the founder and publisher of Roopbaan, and gay actor Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy were hacked to death at Mannan's home in Dhaka.

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The attack, claimed by the regional arm of al Qaeda, was the first of its kind to target the LGBTQ community, although it followed more than 30 killings since early 2015 of academics, bloggers and atheists who published views critical of Islam.

"We had been very visible over past two years. A huge number of young people came up and volunteered for our work. After this one incident... the whole community collapsed," the activist told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on the sidelines of an international LGBTQ conference in Bangkok last week.

"This one incident broke the sense of security. More than 15 people left the country. More than 10 want to leave. People in Bangladesh don't want to talk to us. The whole community is so scattered and scared."

Those who have fled abroad are slowly reconnecting and trying to organize a meeting to assess the situation, but those remaining in Bangladesh still are not ready, he said.

The activist asked to conceal his identity because he fears being killed, yet feels he is has been given a "second life" and wants to speak out because many people around the world know about discrimination LGBTQ people face in Uganda, Indonesia and Malaysia, but few know about Bangladesh.

"People talk about many other countries - but Bangladesh never comes up," he said. "What happened is brutal - they martyred the whole movement. I feel sad, but I also feel furious, more determined. We have to do something to challenge this brutality."

But now, having left the country just days before Mannan was killed, he is just trying to stay alive.

"This is maybe my second life. I have some responsibility. I won't stop. I won't die. I hope one day, I will see the community we created - maybe after five years, maybe after 10 years, but I don't want to die before that."

More than 700 LGBTQ people from around the world convened in Bangkok last week for a conference organized by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA).

Founded in 1978 and based in Geneva, ILGA is a federation of 1,200 member organization from 125 countries campaigning for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex rights.

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