Dhaka, Bangladesh - In Geneva this week, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a wide ranging resolution supporting LGBT rights. The United States helped to lead an 85 countries into supporting the resolution, which including a statement on the decriminalization of LGBT conduct in countries where engaging same sex relations are illegal.
Here in Bangladesh, the government has not quite gotten the message. Same sex sex is illegal here, and punishable by months in prison.
The law, however, is only very rarely enforced. It is more common that unscrupulous policemen shake down men who have sex with men for bribes. And it apparently not uncommon for these unscrupulous police to demand fellatio from the men they have arrested.
I learned this in a meeting with about 30 men who have sex with men, otherwise known as MSM, at a Drop in Center that caters to their health and welfare. At the center, which is located near a popular cruising site, the men can receive STD screening, pick up condoms, and have safe space in which they participate in group counseling.
It is funded through the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria, which means it was part of a grant application the government submitted to the Global Fund. So while gay sex here is still illegal, the government tolerates this efforts to prevent the spread of HIV among gay populations. There are 65 of these centers throughout urban centers in Bangladesh.
As opposed to the Sex Workers Drop in Center and the Injecting Drug Users drop in center, I did not receive consent to take photographs of the men at the facility. That tells me something about the level of stigma–and even danger–that these men face on a daily basis. One man told me that back in December he and a few friends were picked up by police, thrown into jail and repeatedly beaten. One of them managed to call the drop in center, who secured their release at two in the morning.
It will be a longtime before the stigma’s associated with MSM are erased here in Bangladesh — heck, back in the United States we have similar issues. But these kind of drop in centers do have the potential to help these men, who might otherwise have no where else to turn.
From a public health perspective, the main goal is to keep Bangladesh’s HIV prevalence rate as low as possible. That means engaging in this high-risk population.
*The term “Gay” is not really used in public health circles, in part for the fact that men sometimes don’t identify themselves as “gay” even though they have sex with other men. “MSM” is the clinical term, as it were.