Last Monday, Abul Kalam Azad woke up to nightmarish news. From his apartment in Montreal, he read it online first: Xulhaz Mannan, a friend in Bangladesh he'd known for over ten years, had been murdered. He'd been hacked to death in his apartment along with another man, Tanay Majumder. He was the latest in a series of writers and publishers to die at the hands of Ansar-al-Islam, an Islamic extremist group linked to Al-Qaeda. But it was the first time a high-profile LGBT rights activist had been attacked: Mannan was the editor of Bangladesh's only LGBT magazine, Roopbaan.
Azad, 42, knew Mannan well–he helped establish the magazine, and also opened Bangladesh's first open sex shop. He's now seeking asylum in Canada after fleeing his country four years ago with his wife and two children. The day after hearing of his friend's death, he tweeted that he had also received death threats and that he was worried for his life.
He spoke to me about his life, what's happening to LGBT people in his country, and hearing about his friend's death. This interview has been edited for clarity.
While I was born into a Muslim family, I never went to the mosque. My family tried to force me to go. When I was around ten or twelve years old I told my parents that I was gay. They did not like me, they beat me, they tried to make me go to religious school.
In Bangladesh, you see, there is a law against people being gay, Bangladeshi Penal Code 377. This is an indignity against humanity in our country. There are a lot of restrictions on expression—what we are, who we are, we cannot express ourselves.
A lot of bad things happened in my past life. And then after that one of my family members, a religious girl, married me–they thought if I married a religious girl I would change. I was 24 years old, and that was when I realized I'm bisexual.
I had set up the first sex shop in the nation and I started the first bisexual community club. Because our club and shop was opposite a mosque in Dhaka, the Muslim extremists threatened us and came and destroyed our shop. But not only that, we went for a trade license, and the government would not issue it because of our activism.
It was spread around in the city that I was not Muslim, they were thinking of me as the enemy of Islam. One night they tried to shoot me. They shot at me in my car outside my office. I never even knew who exactly they were.
Finally I left Bangladesh on May 15, 2012. I left Bangladesh to save my life.
They have threatened my family and friends since then, but I did not expect that they would kill Xulhaz.
In the LGBT community in Bangladesh we don't have any power. But Xulhaz was involved in the U.S. embassy and his cousin is the top leader of the Awami League, the ex-prime minister of our country. So we thought he was quite well connected, well established, and secured. But that person being targeted and being attacked, we are surprised and afraid.
Xulhaz was a very good person, and a very gentle person. Before we started Roopbaan magazine and set up the club, our activities in Bangladesh were mostly online. That was a safe environment, we were always chatting on Facebook with our phones.
What is happening in Bangladesh is not new. Since 2004, it started silently, slowly. And each party–right now there are two parties, the Awami League and the BNP—is giving into the extremist Islamic-minded people. That’s why a lot of problems are arising. They think that anyone who is not Islamic-minded is the enemy of Islam. Because of that, some moderate liberal writers and bloggers who don’t follow any religious rules and especially LGBT persons are being targeted.
Right now, whether or not the government acknowledges it, the truth is that things are going wrong in Bangladesh because of Muslim extremists. Sometimes they’re killing bloggers, sometimes they’re killing professors who have different opinions, who aren’t religious minded. Now, they’re targeting people who are LGBT.
We don't know who will be targeted next. It is happening continuously. The government should acknowledge it. And if the government right now declared same sex marriage rights and banned the law against being gay, it would send a message that the government will not support extremists. That Bangladesh is broad-minded. If the government doesn't do anything, the extremists will understand that they can create fear. We cannot be afraid.
To any young LGBT person in Bangladesh now, I would say don't be afraid. Now is the time to stand up against this. I would want to tell any people who are different that the blind Muslim extremists will do stupid things to stir up fear in the government. But we want to tell them that we are not afraid. We may die, but we will not stop expressing ourselves, what we are, who we are.