The Queerphobic Legacy of Colonial Rule

Understanding the Roots of Surveillance of LGBTQ+ Community in South Asia

Rohan Faiyaz Khan
06 Oct 2021

Introduction #

The intersection of queer studies and surveillance often looks at lives of queer people living in Western liberal countries such as USA, Canada and UK. While authors such as Puar [1] have explored the particular set of experiences by racialized queer people within Western countries, this still leaves much to be explored in places that still criminalize homosexuality. In this essay, I will in particular look at queer surveillance of the Bangladeshi LGBTQ+ community. In order to do so, I will look at surveillance of queer lives in the global context, the colonial hangover of Penal Code 377 that continues to jeopardize lives of queer people today and a Bangladesh-specific surveillance of queer lives through the rise of political Islam. In doing so, I will attempt to show how the surveillance of queer lives is authoritarian in nature. Due to the legacy of queer erasure, it will be impossible to cover the true impact of surveillance of queer lives without further research, but I intend for this article to be the basis of my future research into this topic.

Queer Surveillance #

Surveillance has always antagonized those who are thought to be anomalies. For sexual and gender minorities, this is no exception. As Foucault argued, the state capitalist model that expects maximum work output from the individual sees sex as a frivolity in all but the most necessary of circumstances, which is reproduction [2]. When structures of power classify gender and sex for the intent of maximizing utility to society, a process of normalization takes place. Under surveillance, one’s membership in society hinges on being as close as possible to the most optimum or normative position. Kafer and Grinberg [3] argue in an editorial piece on Queer Surveillance, the intersection of queer studies and surveillance literature reveal that surveillance technologies such as biometrics and face recognition enforce normative assumptions of gender
and sexuality. Surveillance has always been hostile to those who are seen to deviate from these assumptions, seeing them as people who must correct themselves and conform to cis-gendered and hetero-normative standards. Kafer and Grinberg contend that non-normativity under surveillance is not only encompass gender and sexual orientations, but also tie in class, race, citizenship status and other social determinants [3:1].

The intersection between racialized and queer minorities face a different degree of othering. Puar [1:1] writes extensively about homonationalism, which challenges the notion that liberal Western countries have transformed over the last thirty years to become safe havens for gendered and sexual minorities, who are afforded full protection of sovereign rights. Puar refutes that sovereign rights for gendered and sexual minorities are skewed towards some populations who enjoy full legal and citizenship rights over others, specifically "racialized others". Examples of this include immigrant and black transgender people in Canada who typically have lives "demarcated by poverty" and for whom basic social services such as food banks become perilous to access [4]. This bias in the surveillance practices eventually becomes encoded in surveillance technologies such facial recognition technology that encodes both gender and race, seeing non-normative permutations through a coded gaze [5].

It is with the knowledge of this framework that we can see the queerphobic surveillance in previously colonized nations, and among queer people who live in the Western liberal world but as a "racialized other", as a lasting hangover from colonialism.

The Queerphobic Legacy of Colonial Rule #

It is important to note that while homosexuality was not a common practice in many formerly colonized nations, it also was not criminalized. The existence of homosexuality and gender nonconformity can be observed through numerous references in literature in various countries. Examples
include the Mahabharata which has references to androgynous characters such as Shikhandi [6]. Rather the origin of laws criminalizing homosexuality in these countries can instead be traced back to Penal Code 377 of 1860 introduced by British colonial rulers, which criminalized "sexual acts against the order of nature" [7].

Radics [8] notes that the introduction of the Penal Code 377 had little to do with the colonies themselves. Rather they were an extension of the Labouchere Amendment, which banned acts of gross indecency between men. Radics also notes that the motivation for extending the law
to the colonies were entrenched in orientalism and sexualization of Malaya itself, which the British felt "feminized men". There were also unfounded concerns of moral and cultural decay among white European men serving in the colonies.

It is very important to note that orientalism and racism played a key role in the enactment of Penal Code 377 a full 53 years after the Labouchere Amendment. Sholihyn and Chew [9] writes that the one who helped bring the law into fruition was Sir Thomas Shenton, who saw Singapore’s
male brothels as threatening. The particular source of the threat was not the homosexuality of Singaporean men, but rather the fact some prominent European men in his government was copulating with supposedly inferior Asian men at these brothels. This was seen by Shenton as a threat to the colonial empire and the hierarchy of power established by colonialism. While sections of the Labouchere Amendment would be repealed and re-enacted in Britain, its legacy in colonized nations remains long after the end of the British empire. Countries such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, Malaysia, Sri Lanka still criminalize homosexuality under Penal Code 377, and India and Singapore have only recently repealed the law. Uganda’s much noted Anti-
Homosexual Bill in 2014 is also very much a descendant of the colonial era rule, which Kizito [10] writes has led to massive state-led violence against sexual minorities in Uganda. This colonial statute has set an antagonistic relationship between state and the queer "other" in these
nations.

Queerness Under Authoritarian Gaze in Bangladesh #

Thanks in large part to the legacy of Penal Code 377, the lives of sexual minorities in Bangladesh is one of illegitimacy in the eyes of the government. This illegitimacy deprives them of not only legal protections, but also makes it impossible for queer organizations to offer support against the increasing conservative Muslim majority. A large shift in the post-9/11 era of Bangladesh saw the insecurities stemming from discrimination against Muslims and defensiveness regarding the Western antagonism towards Islam leading to the rise of conservative Islam in politics. This era also saw the rise of Hefazat-e-Islam, currently the largest conservative-Islamic political party in Bangladesh and massive investment by Saudi Arabia into Bangladeshi mosques and madrasahs. The political side of conservative Islam particularly rejects western influences which it sees as
morally corrupt. Homosexuality is considered to be one of the worst offenders in the list of Western imports. This is especially ironic because as we have discussed the true Western import was not homosexuality, but homophobia.

Because actual surveillance of homosexuality is largely impossible, what is actually surveilled by society is visible indicators of queerness. Queer people are constantly expected to behave as cisgender and hetero-normative as possible as that is the only parameters under which their existence
is tolerated. This coupled with the lack of legal protection render queer existence as invisible. Visibility comes with a considerable cost as individuals who cannot or do not comply under their surveillance can become victims of public shaming at best or violence and murder at worst.
One of the most significant setbacks to the LGBTQ+ community in Bangladesh has been the double murder of queer activists Xulhaz Mannan and Mahbub Tonoy who were hacked to death in their apartment by extremist Islamic militants [11]. This was a major moment because Xulhaz and Tonoy at the forefront of the queer rights movement at the time and actively working with many international organizations. The mode of surveillance used against them was not physical surveillance, but social media. This was a major indicator to queer people that even online they would have to remain anonymous and invisible.

Following Xulhaz and Tonoy’s murders, many queer people with the privilege to do so took to escaping to Western countries either seeking political asylum or as immigrants. While this has worsened the oppression of queer people remaining in Bangladesh, those that have left are not
entirely free of oppression under queer surveillance. Racialized queer immigrants find it difficult to seek protections assigned for citizens of Western liberal countries. At the same time, Bangladeshi diasphoras are often more conservative than the society these people escaped from, requiring them to continue to surveill themselve under the queerphobic authotarian gaze.

Conclusion #

The surveillance of queer lives in Bangladesh have long ties to colonialism and queerphobia under state surveillance. However, Bangladeshi queer subjects come under another intense mode of societal and online surveillance. The illegitimate stateperson relationship and constant erasure and surveillance by society pushes sexual and gendered minorities under an authoritarian form of surveillance. The sustained erasure of queer narratives
make it difficult to research into the systemic oppression that sexual and gender minorities face, but forms of resistance under this oppression such as the existence of hidden queer communities and archives of queer literature bring into light a form of queer resistance that unknown to many
Western queer studies and surveillance studies scholars.


  1. Puar, J. (2013). Rethinking Homonationalism. International Journal of Middle East Studies, 45(2):336–339. ↩︎ ↩︎

  2. Foucault, M. (1978). The History of Sexuality, vol. 1: An Introduction. Pantheon Books, New York, NY. ↩︎

  3. Kafer, G. and Grinberg, D. (2019). Editorial: Queer Surveillance. Surveillance & Society, 17(5):592–601. ↩︎ ↩︎

  4. Maynard, R. (2017). Policing Black lives: state violence in Canada from slavery to the present. Fernwood Publishing. ↩︎

  5. Buolamwini, J. and Gebru, T. (2018). Gender Shades: Intersectional Accuracy Disparities in Commercial Gender Classification. In Conference on Fairness, Accountability and Transparency, pages 77–91. PMLR. ISSN: 2640-3498. ↩︎

  6. Epstein, B. and Chapman, E. L., editors (2021). International LGBTQ Literature for Children and Young Adults. Anthem Press. ↩︎

  7. Government of People’s Republic of Bangladesh (1860). The penal code of 1860. http://bdlaws.minlaw.gov.bd/act-11/section-3233.html. [Accessed: 2021-10-05]. ↩︎

  8. Radics, G. B. (2013). DECOLONIZING SINGAPORE’S SEX LAWS: TRACING SECTION 377A OF SINGAPORE’S PENAL CODE. COLUMBIA HUMAN RIGHTS LAW REVIEW, 45(1):46. ↩︎

  9. Sholihyn, I. and Chew, S. (2021). 377a was introduced because of racism, not homophobia. https://www.ricemedia.co/current-affairs-features-history-377a-racism/. [Accessed: 2021-10-05]. ↩︎

  10. Kizito, K. (2017). Bequeathed Legacies: Colonialism and State led Homophobia in Uganda. Surveillance & Society, 15(3/4):567–572. ↩︎

  11. France-Presse, A. (2016). Suspected islamist militant arrested over bangladesh gay activist murders. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/may/15/
    suspected-islamist-militant-arrested-over-bangladesh-gay-activist-murders. [Accessed: 2021-10-05]. ↩︎