Social media ‘a precarious place’ for LGBTQ people in Bangladesh, activists say

“The digital space, which had earlier helped the gender-diverse people find their voice, has now turned into a precarious place to be,” Islam said.

In Bangladesh, LGBT people fear extremists, and a British-era law

In a country where same-sex sexual activity is illegal, trans people and hijras – members of a traditional third-gender community – remain marginalised despite being recognised by the state as a third gender in 2013.

They often live in poverty and have no opportunity for a proper education, much less a job, forcing many to beg or engage in sex work to survive.

A government decision last year to roll out new school textbooks featuring a segment on trans people was hailed by LGBTQ campaigners as another sign of growing acceptance.

But the measure caused a furore on social media, including a video that went viral of a part-time university teacher ripping pages out of the book in protest.

The government responded by setting up a committee to review the books, fuelling fears among rights campaigners that anti-trans sentiment online could lead to rollbacks in real life.

Members of the Bangladeshi transgender community perform a dance during a cultural programme in Dhaka on December 9, 2020. Photo: AFP

The backlash has also led trans people to fear for their personal safety, and revived memories of the 2016 murder of Xulhaz Mannan, a transgender rights activist.

Ho Chi Minh Islam, the country’s first transgender nurse and a human-rights activist, left Bangladesh after she said her life was threatened by transphobic campaigns.

Earlier in November last year, she was named to speak at an event at a local university, but then posts were made on social media platforms like Facebook opposing the inclusion of a trans woman – and she ended up excluded from the event.

Since then, she has faced a flurry of hate and doxxing – the malicious posting of personal information – online as well as abuse in real life, and criticised social media platforms for not doing enough to remove harmful content.

She said when she or her peers report hateful posts or videos on Facebook, more often than not, they are told that the content did not violate its community standards.

“Sometimes a few posts would be removed, but the key people who are known to campaign against transgender rights go on using these digital platforms for visibility,” she said.

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A spokesperson for Meta Platforms, which owns Facebook and Instagram, said the company has a dedicated LGBTQ+ Safety Page giving information about its policies and tools to help keep people safe on the platforms and resources on how to handle issues such as hate speech, bullying and harassment.

The spokesperson added that it removes posts that violate hate speech rules, and investigates reports.

“We will continue to take action wherever our policies are violated,” the spokesperson said.

Relatives and friends attend the funeral prayer of murdered transgender activist Xulhaz Mannan in Dhaka on April 26, 2016. Photo: AFP

But critics say more rigorous controls on hate speech are needed.

Seuty Sabur, an anthropologist and researcher on gender issues at Bangladesh’s BRAC University, said existing safeguards are patchy and inadequate.

“When some hate speech is reported, it is possible for the platforms to see the spike and shut it down, but they often haven’t done it,” she said.

Rasha Younes, senior researcher with the LGBT Rights Programme at Human Rights Watch, said social media companies have a responsibility to safeguard users through more consistent enforcement and improvement of safety policies.

A safer digital space would not only make trans Bangladeshis safer, it could also help them fight economic marginalisation, said Avaa Muskan Tithi, a trans entrepreneur who sells handicraft and eco-friendly fashion products online.

“I want to grow my business, and open bricks-and-mortar showrooms where I can employ more people, including those from the trans community – so that they can live with dignity,” she said.

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