I remember Xulhas Mannan, murdered in Bangladesh

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The mass shootings and murders at a gay nightclub in Orlando had a depressing, even depleting, echo for me. It was the second time in a month I was confronted with the ugly reality of murder based on sexual orientation.

In the first instance, it was someone I had met briefly. In late April, Bangladeshi LGBT activist Xulhas Mannan (spelled Julhaz in some news accounts) and his friend, Mahbub Tonoy, were hacked to death in Mannan's apartment in Dhaka, Bangladesh's capital. Six men entered the apartment with machetes and committed the murders.

Two men were arrested in the case in May; an Al-Qaeda affiliate claimed responsibility for the killings, though for the record, the Bangladesh government claims that this and other similar incidents are the work of people within the country seeking to stir up political trouble. (The most recent targets have been Hindu holy men.)

I did not hear about the April 25 murders of Mannan and Tonoy right away. But when I did -- last month -- I was stunned. I had been in the same apartment with another foreign journalist in October, interviewing Mannan and some of his friends (not Tonoy) about the realities of gay life in Bangladesh; earlier, I had met Mannan in a café for the first part of the interview.

I was in Bangladesh on assignment for National Catholic Reporter's Global Sisters Report, reporting on what Catholic sisters and the affiliated humanitarian Catholic networks are doing in the face of the many social challenges facing Bangladesh, a predominately Muslim country.

Part of the overarching story in Bangladesh right now is an atmosphere of fear and intimidation against those "outside the mainstream."

It was a worry I heard often while in Bangladesh -- and an interesting point of common experience among gays, Hindus, feminist women and Catholics. Their worry? That the influence of conservative Islamist ideology is eroding a cherished tradition of secularism in Bangladesh. That tradition has provided a measure of safety and freedom for minorities, particularly non-Muslims.

A key part of that tradition has been the ability of Catholic religious congregations, particularly women, of contributing to the greater good of Bangladeshi society in areas such as education and health care.

But this secular tradition has been threatened in recent years. In the last two years, atheists, free-thinking bloggers, writers and non-Muslims, as well as LGBT activists, have all been targets. (For some reason, slashings have been the most popular methods of murder.)

In its report of the killings, The New York Times quoted Sara Hossain, a friend of Mannan's, as saying the Mannan's murder appeared to be the first time that extremists targeted "someone for his sexual identity."

Hossain also told the Times that Mannan had received "very vicious, murderous threats" for organizing a "Rainbow Rally" for gay, lesbian and transgender youths coinciding with the Bengali New Year, earlier in April. "The last few days were very frightening," she said.

It is always a shock to think about someone you have met being murdered -- a first for me. But in some ways, I shouldn't be fully surprised. Though Mannan was publicly known for his activism, he requested that I not use his name in any story I did, and I honored his request. Mannan seemed to know that he might have a target on his back.

A kind, gentle man, with a knowing and dry sense of humor, Mannan, 39, was called the "godfather" of the LGBT community -- editing a magazine called Roopbaan, for example, as well as organizing events like the Rainbow Parade.

What jumped out from our interview was Mannan's confidence that, long-term, increased freedom in Bangladesh would win out -- though that depended on more people being open with friends and families about their sexual orientation. That would not be easy in an increasingly conservative society, he told me.

In short, the immediate future did not look good. "It may get worse before it gets better," he said.

Mannan placed the struggles of the LGBT community within a wider context, saying that the situation was becoming more trying for anyone in Bangladesh who did not share a conservative religious viewpoint.

He was not alone. When I interviewed her last fall, Rokeya Kabir the founder and executive director of Bangladesh Nari Progati Sangha, an advocacy group founded in 1986 to change national policies and push for legal reforms to assist women, said the threats people face are real -- and life-threatening.

When I asked her last week about Mannan's death, Kabir said she and others she knows and works with are very worried about the current climate both in the wider world and in Bangladesh.

"We all are very much concerned about what is going on globally, like the recent attack in the Florida club, and also particularly about the situation here in Bangladesh," Kabir told me via email. "As such, society here is conservative related to women's equal rights, and particularly sexuality and LGBT concerns.

"With the wider situation in the world -- Afghanistan, followed by Iraq, Libya and Syria -- and here in Bangladesh for some time, there has been a situation where, in the name of religion, extremism is being groomed and fueled. In this environment, all liberal and progressive elements are in a harder situation to raise their voices. But of course, there are organized efforts, some small, to fight this."

Mannan himself was an observant Muslim, though he seemed sympathetic to the growing tradition of "spiritual but not religious." He knew that cosmopolitan outlooks like his were not popular in some corners.

"In the Bangladeshi context, there is still a large segment that is tolerant [about religious issues]," Mannan told me, noting that more and more and more people were using arguments about sexual orientation on belief systems that God condemns homosexuality. "It is being used as an excuse," he said.

One reason Mannan was especially careful publicly about his situation was that his "day job" was working for the United States Agency for International Development. (He had previously worked for the U.S. Embassy in Dhaka.) He knew that an oft-made argument about homosexuality in an Asian context, hardly true, is that it is somehow "imported" from the West.

In the apartment where Mannan would die, two of Mannan's gay Bangladeshi friends spoke of the frustrations of maintaining a relationship as a couple in Bangladesh -- not an easy thing. They said they occasionally contemplated trying to emigrate.

But for his part, Mannan seemed determined to stay in Bangladesh, and working for change within his country.

Secretary of State John Kerry and Gayle Smith, administrator for United States Agency for International Development, hinted of that in their tributes to Mannan. "Xulhaz's colleagues regarded him with special affection," Smith said April 25.

"From an early age, Xulhaz demonstrated a passion for helping others -- a passion that would grow throughout his life. He was the kind of person willing to fight for what he believed in, someone ready to stand up for his own rights and the rights of others," she said. "A dedicated and courageous advocate for human rights, Xulhaz sought to shape a society that was more diverse and inclusive. He believed in the people of Bangladesh, and he strove to make the world a better place for everyone."

"Xulhaz," Kerry said in an April 25 statement, "was a trusted colleague, a beloved friend, and advocate for human rights and dignity in Bangladesh. In many ways, he embodied the spirit of the people of Bangladesh and the pride with which they guard their traditions of tolerance, peace, and diversity."

I spent maybe 90 minutes with Xulhaz Mannan -- barely a blip of time on this Earth. But Kerry's and Smith's words of tribute captured something of the LGBT activist I had the honor and pleasure of interviewing.

In a broken world, of tragedies in Dhaka and Orlando and many other places, Kerry and Smith got it right. Traditions of "tolerance, peace, and diversity" are embodied in the lives of brave souls like Xulhaz Mannan. Let us honor and remember them.

[Chris Herlinger is international correspondent for Global Sisters Report.]

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