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These Are The LGBT Activists Hacked To Death By Al-Qaeda In Bangladesh

Xulhaz Mannan and Tonoy Mahbub were killed in Dhaka. One man has been arrested in connection with their deaths.

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Bangladeshi LGBT activists Xulhaz Mannan and Tonoy Mahbub were killed on Monday when a group of men wielding machetes barged into Mannan's home in Dhaka. A day after the killings, al-Qaeda's Bangladeshi branch claimed responsibility for the attack.

Mannan, 39, the editor of Roopbaan magazine, the country's only LGBT publication, also worked for USAID, the U.S government agency responsible for foreign aid. Mahbub, 25, was also involved in the magazine. Their murder was the latest in a series of attacks against secular journalists, bloggers, and academics by Islamist groups that have rocked the country over the past year. ISIS, which has claimed responsibility for the majority of these attacks, has recently identified Bangladesh as a prime target for the group's expansion.

While the killing of Mannan and Mahbub has received condemnation from the international community, it has also brought a new level of fear among Bangladesh's LGBT community, who already live under fear of violence and arrests.

"Mr. Xulhaz Mannan was the most powerful gay man in Bangladesh, so when he can get killed, so we can also be killed [and] nobody will even notice that we are dead," said a 30-year-old queer activist in Bangladesh who asked not to be named out of fear for his safety. "He was like Harvey Milk ... he used to give shelter to LGBTI people in his house, he used to give us hope, give us inspiration, and as a community leader, he used to organize various events which empowered us."

Below, in his own words, a photographer who wanted to be identified only as TB because he wanted to protect his identity to be able to work inside Bangladesh, shares his images and recollections of Mannan and Mahbub with BuzzFeed News.

Others who appear in these photographs have been obscured or removed for their safety.

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They were part of the group that produced Bangladesh’s first gay magazine.

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They called their project "Roopbaan" because it means "Fabulous Boy" and is named after a Bengali folk character symbolizing the power of love. The name combined pride and equality. Tonoy was the manager on the executive committee, but all the Roopbaan work was voluntary. Tonoy was also a well-regarded theatre and TV actor, a talented singer and dancer. He even put together Bangladesh’s first TV puppet show for children.

Mannan knew from age 10 that he was attracted to other boys, but it wasn’t until his university days in the mid-'90s — and the dawn of the internet — that he began to realize he was “gay” and that there were others around the world like him.

TB

His time at the university and during the years that followed was a roller coaster of highs and lows. But it was at a particular low in his late twenties — after he broke up with a man he loved dearly — that he began to form a community around him. Depressed, he would wander around a park for as long as seven hours a day. He’d not realized it was a well-known spot for gay men. Though he wasn’t interested in hooking up, he talked to them and got to know thousands of gay men over the next two years; all of them kept their orientation a secret. In 2007, Xulhaz got a job at the U.S. Embassy, and it was then that he slowly started coming to terms with his emotions and concentrated on making life better for gay people in his country.

I asked Xulhaz to Write something from our conversations on a photo I took of him earlier this year in February. Part of what he wrote was from a love song written by a friend from his university days.

He told me he really loved this photo of him. I took it when he was relaxing with his friends during a picnic outside of Dhaka. To him, his friends and the gay community were a vital part of Roopbaan.

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Xulhaz also started the Roopbaan Youth Leadership Program (RYLP), which was set up to educate young Bangladeshis about LGBT issues. The program organized an annual event, where most of the participants themselves were gay, though not openly.

TB

He was extremely organized and he always made sure groups like the RYLP ran smoothly, getting numerous volunteers to bring their own skills and talents to the table.

Last year, a picture of Tonoy was published in a few news outlets after a group of LGBT people participated in the New Year's parade in Dhaka, dressed to form a rainbow flag.

TB

Shortly afterwards, his mother received a threat about him while he was away. “Be careful with your son, he might be killed,” Tonoy said his mother recalled the man telling her. He told Xulhaz about the threat, and though they took it seriously — there had already been several bloggers murdered at this point — they decided to keep it quiet because they did not want to spread fear.

Tonoy excelled in performing arts both at school and in his career, but dyslexia held him back academically.

TB

He worked hard to support himself and his family even though he had recently become a student again.

“I chose law because now I'm working with Roopbaan, and law will be helpful for me in the human rights sector,” he told me. He was planning on using his degree to get a job with a decent salary, and fight for LGBT rights.

Here he is talking with a colleague at the RYLP, during which volunteers put together a two-day workshop to educate young Bangladeshis about LGBT issues.

Tonoy considered himself non-binary.

TB

He was physiologically male and embraced aspects of masculinity like his mustache, but he would often dress up in a sari. “When I'm wearing the sari, I don't use very manly gestures — I have to wear it softly,” he told me with a smile on his face. “Maybe [dressing in a sari] is feminine, but I'm not thinking it's feminine. I'm just thinking it's ... a different thing. Or maybe feminine, I don't care.”

“I don't know what the face of Bangladesh will be like after 10 years. It could be positive or it could be like Afghanistan —whoever gets the power will win."

TB

"If the government becomes conscious about these kinds of things now [and makes effort to do something], it will be OK," Tonoy told me. "But if [ISIS] or the terrorist groups hold the key to control the people, then I can’t say anything. Even when I was not in this community and before I discovered the internet, I always thought that if I had some friends … or got to know some more people like me, I will organize a movement for LGBT community in Bangladesh. Because we should have an umbrella. Now I'm not afraid but I'm conscious about the movement ... After last year’s rally, I was threatened. Maybe after this year's rally I'll get killed."

J. Lester Feder is a world correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC. His secure PGP fingerprint is 2353 DB68 8AA6 92BD 67B8 94DF 37D8 0A6F D70B 7211

Contact J. Lester Feder at lester.feder@buzzfeed.com.

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