Queer City: Interactive Storytelling through Twine as Queer Archival Resistance in Bangladesh
Mohammed Rashid / The University of Texas at Dallas
The Bangladeshi LGBTQ+ community use digital media to raise concerns about human rights, communicate desires, and foreground the conditions of being in a nation-state that continues to deny their existence and fails to ensure their legal security and social well-being. Media scholars have recently explored how the Bangladeshi queer community uses networked media in tactical ways towards communicative future-making that also function as digital queer archives. While using online networking media such as Grindr or Tinder enables the Bangladeshi queer community to get in touch and meet, participating in these digital media do not contribute towards long term social change. The scenario is different when it comes to enclave queer blogging websites and digital archives such as Mondro or Roopban that anonymously publish stories, memoirs, poems, and other literature by Bangladeshi LGBTQ+ community members despite functioning in closed communities. These websites, although they work in complete secrecy, contribute towards digitally archiving the queer literature of the region where no other publisher would publish stories related to LGBTQ+ issues. However, there is significant threat and danger for anyone who questions the political and religious status quo in Bangladesh.  That is why clandestine methods of queer archiving is one way through which the experiences and stories of the Bangladeshi queer community may be protected, archived, and carefully circulated. Twine is one such digital tool that allows for such methods.
Twine’s orientation towards queer leaning narratives and stories is well documented, yet, for local communities, like the LGBTQ+ community of Bangladesh, that dwell within extremely marginalized circumstances, Twine can also function as a tool for archival resistance. Anastasia Salter and Stuart Moulthrop brilliantly documented how Twine, both as platform and practice, is situated closely within Queer culture and discourse.Since its inception, Twine has been taken up by designers, artists, and game-makers to focus on issues around LGBTQ+ identity, gender dysphoria, and coming out stories, topics that are closely associate with the queer community. Twine’s contribution as a cultural tool with feminist and queer orientations that uses camp, nostalgia, and excess as tactics to subvert mainstream assumptions and dominant structures of power is irrefutable. Yet, Twine has remained limited, to an extent, within the queer discourses of the West, whereas the emergence of its use by global queer communities is also an important development over the last couple of years. For queer communities that are situated in geolocations and nation-states where being queer is not only socially stigmatized, but also punishable through national legislation and religious ideology, how may queer designers navigate Twine tactically to continue telling their stories?
Queer City is an interactive journey through the recent history of struggle between dominant social structures of patriarchy and heteronormativity, and the marginalized LGBTQ+ community of Bangladesh. Focusing on events from the last decade, the Twine based interactive story highlights major events related to queer oppression and queer resistance that took place in the nation’s capital of Dhaka city. The project narrates the timeline of queer oppression by dominant rightwing political and religious publics and the different ways in which the queer community have survived the oppression exerted on them through social stigmatization, online bullying, harassing, shaming, and even killing. The project, through its many plotlines also highlights the media cultures of the LGBTQ+ community members that have enabled them not only to communicate within an oppressive society, but also subvert the oppression and create potential futures. Some of the examples of the several creative ways the Bangladeshi LGBTQ+ community respond to the heteropatriarchal oppression of the dominant publics highlighted in the Twine project include the emergence of alternative queer inclusive blogging websites, LGBTQ+ affirming digital comics production, and public online display of gender non-conformity through social media. These acts of defiance are archived in the Twine project through referencing the works of Mondro, Project Dhee, and the activism of genderqueer makeup artist SaadMua, all documented as part of the journey through ‘queer city.’
The subtitle of the Queer City project reads ‘a short LGBTQ+ history of Dhaka city’ (Image 1). This is essentially a telling of the queer counter-history of the events which the creators think will be erased and are in the process of being erased by the dominant society that is always under patriarchy and heterosexuality. The story makes this clear in its first page which is also the ‘base’ of operations for this journey through the city. Once interactors enter the ‘base’, they are greeted with the following description –
Welcome to Queer Dhaka! Dhaka is the capital city of Bangladesh, and it is a city with a lot of LGBTQ+ history. However, these histories are deliberately being erased and in a few years, no one might even remember these events ever happened. We want you to know about these events so that you may speak about the ordeals and struggles of queer people of Dhaka city when no one else will. Through these three portals you will come across the stories no one else will tell you. You are free to choose which portal you want to enter first. After all, every portal will bring you back to this exact point. (Queer City, 2023)
The story then gives interactors three choices to choose from – The Recent Past, The Now, and The Tomorrows. While interactors may choose any storyline to progress with, after the completion of the previous storyline, they are brought back to the base from where they can embark on to the next passage (Image 2).
Through the three storylines Queer City invites its interactors to engage with several key moments in Bangladesh’s queer culture and its struggle towards establishing queer rights. One of the paths titled ‘The Recent Past’ demonstrates how queer subjects, under the conditions of compulsory heterosexuality and patriarchy that is bolstered by religious fundamentalism, continued to negotiate their identities through meeting secretly and through living dual lives. Drawing from Shuchi Karim’s work on queer cultures of Dhaka city, this section highlights how members of the Bangladeshi LGBTQ+ community, mostly gay and lesbian subjects, discreetly met in specific parks, social spots, and urban gardens, with their queer identities protected from public gaze and knowledge. This section then progresses to include the 2014-2016 visible activism of the urban queer community, a watershed moment in Bangladesh’s LGBTQ+ rights activism that resulted in the murders of LGBTQ+ activist leaders Xulhaz Mannan and Mahabub Rabbi (Image 3). The last passage of the first section of the project describes how the LGBTQ+ community went back into hiding after their brief coming out due to experiencing extreme oppression from religious fundamentalist and queer phobic groups.
After the third passage under the first unit ‘The Recent Past,’ the story then shifts to current projects taken up by the LGBTQ+ community to tactically continue queer activism and respond to the heteronormative institutions and publics of power. Under the section subtitled ‘The Now,’ the project introduces interactors with four tactical projects – Mondro, Dhee, the Performances of Saad Mua, and the Photographs of Gazi Nafis Ahmed, each of which resist and respond to compulsory heterosexuality in Bangladesh through negotiating visibility in different domains of public discourse.
Finally, the story moves into speculating what the future may hold for the LGBTQ+ communities in Bangladesh thinking about multiple communities that are not only situated within the urban spaces of Dhaka city, but also in other regions of Bangladesh where queer people and their identities intersect though multiple axes of social categorization – gender and sexuality – along with class, color, caste, and disability. This section also highlights projects that foreground the experiences of indigenous queer communities of Bangladesh as social groups that are marginalized through many intersecting layers of systemic oppression.
The project ends with optimism towards establishing inter-community and inter-regional bonds between LGBTQ+ communities in South Asia and more globally in the hopes of collaborating on more social-justice oriented projects through queer and feminist makerspace practices. It is the aspiration of the Queer City project developers that these projects will both foreground the marginalized conditions of the queer community of Bangladesh, along with beginning enough conversations both locally and globally that it becomes difficult to ignore the LGBTQ+ rights issue in Bangladesh. Ultimately, projects like Queer City open up discussions towards how queerness generates new and nuanced ways of imagining futures that are geographically and historically situated, along with reimagining queerness itself as a political project that is constituted according to regional and temporal specificity. Surely, Twine as a political tool has a lot to offer as we continue the work of this reimagination.
- Opening page of the Queer City. (author’s screenshot)
- Queer City passages and links appearing in the back end of Twine. (author’s screenshot)
- Archiving LGBTQ+ events through Twine. (author’s screenshot)
- Mohammed Mizanur Rashid, “Queer Blogs and Digital Archives: A Tactical Shift Towards Queer Utopia in Bangladesh,” Media Fields Journal 17, no. 1(2022): 1-11. [↩]
- Nur E Makbul and Md. Ashraful Goni, “Bangladesh’s Invisible Cyberqueers: Self-Image, Identity Management, and Erotic Expressions on Grindr,” LGBTQ Digital Cultures: A Global Perspective, ed. Paromita Pain (2022): 210-223. [↩]
- US-based Bangladeshi writer and blogger Avijit Roy who often wrote freely about secular ideas that challenged the religious and political status-quo in Bangladesh was murdered in the streets of Dhaka city in February 2015. The murderers escaped from the court while being on trial for the murder. For more details see Hannah Ellis-Peterson’s report “US Blogger’s killers escape on motorbikes from Bangladesh court,” The Guardian (2022). [↩]
- Anastasia Salter and Stuart Moulthrop, Twining: Critical and Creative Approaches to Hypertext Narratives (2021). [↩]
- The Queer City project will be open for interaction at the HASTAC 2023: Critical Making & Social Justice conference from June 8-10 at the Pratt Institute. [↩]
- Shuchi Karim, “Erotic Desires and Practices in Cyberspace: “Virtual Reality” of the Non-Heterosexual Middle Class in Bangladesh,” Gender, Technology, and Development 18, no. 1 (2014): 53-76. [↩]
- Queer City project creators, interview with the author, 21 February 2023. [↩]