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Members of Bangladesh's transgender community participate in a pride rally in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Nov. 10, 2014. (AP) Members of Bangladesh's transgender community participate in a pride rally in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Nov. 10, 2014. (AP)

Members of Bangladesh's transgender community participate in a pride rally in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Nov. 10, 2014. (AP)

Grace Abels
By Grace Abels January 12, 2024

Is the U.S. ‘promoting transgenderism’ in Bangladesh? We unpack DeSantis’ claim

If Your Time is short

  • The Bangladeshi population has long included communities of people who identify as "third-gender." They were criminalized under British rule, leaving them marginalized today. Not all third-gender people identify with the term "transgender," though some do. 

  • Over the past decade, the government of Bangladesh has taken steps to legally recognize and provide greater employment opportunities to third-gender people. 

  • Since 2018, U.S. foreign aid has gone to local nongovernmental organizations that work with the LGBTQ+ community to advocate for third-gender people’s rights. 

We fact-checkers are sometimes stumped when hearing politicians make claims. And when Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said at a Concord, New Hampshire, town hall, that U.S. tax dollars "have gone to promote transgenderism in Bangladesh," we had one of those moments.

In January, we heard him say it again in Iowa.

What was the Republican presidential candidate referring to? 

The Bangladeshi population has long included a community of people who identify as "third-gender," sometimes referred to as the "hijra." For centuries, they played a role in religious life in South Asian communities but were criminalized under British colonization, which lasted from 1757 to 1947. 

In the past decade, Bangladesh’s government has taken steps to reduce discrimination against third-gender people by legally recognizing a third-gender category and opening job opportunities.

What is the United States’ role? DeSantis’ team pointed PolitiFact toward U.S. foreign aid that was given to local Bangladeshi organizations from 2018 to 2020 that supported gender-diverse communities. The program aimed partly to increase third-gender people’s awareness of their rights and promote access to legal aid. USAID wrote that its support helped "mobilize" and get a third-gender option added to  Bangladesh’s national census in 2021. Another round of funding was awarded in 2022. 

So, U.S. foreign aid has supported local LGBTQ+ nongovernmental organizations since 2018, but Bangladesh already had a long history of gender diversity, and Bangladesh’s government has been moving toward greater recognition of third-gender people since 2013.

History of the hijra

In Bangladesh, and in other South Asian countries such as India, "hijra" are most often intersex individuals — those born with reproductive or sexual anatomy that is not exclusively male or female — or those assigned male at birth, but who present as women or identify as feminine.

Experts have noted that the term "transgender" is an imperfect way to describe the hijra community. "Most hijras consider themselves to be third gender — neither male nor female, not transitioning," said a 2018 case study on the community from Harvard Divinity School, but some hijras have identified as transgender or sought out gender reassignment procedures. 

Before the British colonized the region, third-gender people were "revered" and rose to "significant positions of power under both Hindu and Muslim rulers," according to the Harvard case study, written by graduate student Kristofer Rhude. South Asian cultures considered hijras to be people who had sacrificed their male genitalia in return for what they deemed spiritual power that allowed them to perform rituals and bless or curse marriages and newborns. Hindu holy texts include references to a third -gender.

In 1871, under British colonial rule, hijras were criminalized, and that stigma has lasted.

In a 2016 report by Human Rights Watch, a New York-based nongovernmental organization, hijras in Bangladesh reported stigma, discrimination and violence, as well as challenges doing tasks like registering to vote or opening a bank account. 

But the community remains strong in number, with Bangladesh’s 2022 census counting more than 12,000 hijras

Bangladesh has been changing its policy toward third-gender people since 2013

The country made its first significant policy change when it announced in 2013 that it would legally recognize a third-gender category. In December 2014, the Ministry of Social Welfare invited hijras to apply for certain government jobs. 

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However, according to the Human Rights Watch report, people who went through the interview process reported inappropriate interview questions and were subjected to invasive medical examinations. Several interviewees were accused of being men impersonating hijras. 

In the following years, the government took several steps to expand employment opportunities for third-gender Bangladeshis.

In 2015, after a hijra witnessed and helped solve a high-profile murder, the government announced plans to recruit third-gender people into law enforcement, specifically traffic police jobs. Banks were instructed to allow hijras to apply for bank loans. And, in 2021, the government announced a tax rebate to benefit companies that hired third-gender employees. 

U.S. foreign aid for gender-diverse communities

Where do U.S. tax dollars come into this? DeSantis’ campaign pointed us to a 2018-20 program by USAID called the Rights for Gender Diverse Populations. The program was implemented by a partner NGO, the Bandhu Social Welfare Society, over three years and cost $850,000, according to a 2021 performance evaluation of the program.

USAID, the leading U.S. agency for foreign aid, receives its money from Congress. Congress’ revenue for federal spending largely comes from tax collection. The Bandhu Social Welfare Society, which works with gender diverse populations in Bangladesh, has received grants from USAID in 2018 and in 2022.  

The 2018-20 program goal was, partly, to "advance human rights advocacy for (gender-diverse populations)" and improve access to public services and legal aid. The program set up a panel of lawyers to provide legal advice, educational radio public service announcements, collaborated with private agencies to provide employment opportunities, and trained community watchdogs to help third-gender people "learn about and assert their rights." 

In promotional materials, USAID said its support helped "mobilize the National Human Rights Commission to include a third-gender option in the 2021 (Bangladeshi) census for the first time."

Our ruling

DeSantis said U.S. tax dollars "have gone to promote transgenderism in Bangladesh."

Since 2018, the U.S. has invested in aid programs in Bangladesh that support gender-diverse people. 

But PolitiFact found no evidence that this money was used to persuade people to take on a new gender identity or undergo gender transition, as some hearing DeSantis’ statement might be led to believe. 

The money is supporting a community that describes itself as "hijra" or "third-gender" — not necessarily "transgender" — that has existed for hundreds of years and that the Bangladeshi government had worked to recognize.

His statement is partially accurate in that there is a program funded by the U.S. that supports the gender-diverse community in Bangladesh, but he omits critical cultural and historical context.

We rate this claim Half True. 

Our Sources

Medium, "5 Ways USAID Promotes LGBTQI+ Inclusion Around the World | by USAID | U.S. Agency for International Development," Aug. 5, 2021

USAID, "About Us," accessed Jan. 9, 2024

NPR, "A Journey Of Pain And Beauty: On Becoming Transgender In India," April 18, 2024

Bandhu Social Welfare Society, "About Us," accessed Jan 9. 2024

Britannica, "Bangladesh - British Rule, Partition, Independence," accessed Jan. 9, 2024

The Business Standard, "Bangladesh includes transgenders in national census for first time," July 27, 2022

Human Rights Watch, "Bangladesh Should Support Hijra, Trans Under Covid-19," May 8, 2020

YouTube, "Being Laxmi: 'I belong to the hijra, the oldest transgender community'," Sept. 3, 2015

Heliyon, "Discrimination and social exclusion of third-gender population (Hijra) in Bangladesh: A brief review," Oct. 2022

USAID, "Final Performance Evaluation for USAID’S Rights for Gender Diverse Populations (RGDP) Activity," May 7, 2021

Culture, Health & Sexuality, "The paradox of recognition: hijra, third gender and sexual rights in Bangladesh," Aug. 24, 2016

YouTube, "Gray Television Town Hall with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis," Jan. 2, 2024

Dhaka Tribune, "Hijras to be included as separate gender in National Census 2021," Sept. 17, 2020

Dhaka Tribune, "Hijras to be recruited as traffic police," May 19, 2015

BBC, "How Britain tried to 'erase' India's third gender," May 30, 2019

U.S. Treasury, "How much revenue has the US government collected this year?," Sept. 30, 2023

USAID, "How to Work with USAID," accessed Jan 11, 2024

University of Alabama at Birmingham, "India’s Relationship with the Third Gender – UAB Institute for Human Rights Blog," Oct. 29, 2018

NBC News, "India’s "Magical" And Oppressed Third Gender," June 23, 2015

Cleveland Clinic, "Intersex: What Is Intersex, Gender Identity, Intersex Surgery," July 19, 2022

Harvard Divinity School, "Kristofer Rhude," accessed Jan 12, 2024

The New York Times, "Opinion | Transgender Rights, Bangladesh Style," July 2, 2015

The Telegraph, "Pride and persecution: The rise and fall of the world's oldest transgender community," accessed Jan. 12, 2024

Al Jazeera, "Tax rebate for Bangladesh companies hiring transgender people," June 4, 2021

HuffPost, "The History Of India's Third Gender Movement," Nov. 22, 2016

The New York Times, "The Peculiar Position of India’s Third Gender," Feb. 17, 2018

Harvard Divinity School, "The Third Gender and Hijras," 2018

Stockholm School of Economics, "Transgender Inclusion in the Workplace," 2023

Indian Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism, "Transsexualism in Hindu Mythology," June 2020

USAID, "USAID Support for LGBTQI+ People," 2021

The Washington Post, "Why terms like ‘transgender’ don’t work for India’s ‘third-gender’ communities," April 23, 2016

Human Rights Watch, ""I Want to Live With My Head Held High": Abuses in Bangladesh’s Legal Recognition of Hijras," Dec. 23, 2016

Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust, " From Recognition to Realizing Rights," Dec. 2019

USA Spending, "Awards to Bandhu Social Welfare Society," accessed Jan 11, 2024

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Is the U.S. ‘promoting transgenderism’ in Bangladesh? We unpack DeSantis’ claim

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