SAM KANG LI
"As long as it doesn't affect others in a negative way, I don't believe that loving someone of the same sex can be a sin," he says. "My priest has told me that although not religiously correct, I have every right to love whoever I want." The 27-year-old remains a Catholic believer and still attends weekly Mass.
Most LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) people in Nepal do not face the same inner religious conflict as Alex. Hinduism contains no explicit religious teachings against homosexuality, and families in the Tarai sometimes invite cross-dressers to bless their newborn children.
But few people want a gay person in their own family. Most battles that LGBTI people have to fight in Nepal are against exclusion from society and their own families.
"If we tell the truth about our sexuality in a job interview, we lose the job," says transgender Kusum Lama, who will take hormone pills for the rest of her life to achieve a feminine figure. The sprightly 21-year-old became a sex worker in discos and bars after leaving her family, but later found support from the Blue Diamond Society (BDS), an NGO that helps the LGBTI community through education, healthcare
Lama, now the national secretary for the Federation of Sexuality and Gender Minorities Nepal (FSGMN), says: "People think that transgender people only know how to put on lipstick, dance around, clap their hands and be prostitutes. They don't know how career-driven and clever we can be."
Leaders of the LGBTI community say there may be 900,000 lesbian and gay people in Nepal, most of whom continue to hide their sexuality from society. Life for these people, particularly transgenders, is especially hard in rural areas, where village society expects them to marry someone of the opposite sex. Many are attracted by the anonymity and relative freedom they can find in larger towns and cities.
Lesbian couple Suman Tamang, 26, and Anusha Tamang, 21, had to leave their village in Jhapa after revealing to their families that they were in a relationship. Now they are struggling to make a living in Kathmandu, and Suman is learning to drive to become a taxi-driver. "We can't go back to our village," says Suman. "Only in Kathmandu can we live our married life in peace."
When LGBTI people in Nepal speak of marriage, it has no legal status. There is no paperwork involved, as the state still doesn't recognise same-sex marriages. But the situation is slowly changing. On 21 December 21, the Supreme Court of Nepal declared that all discriminatory laws against LGBTI people must be repealed by the government, and provision must be made for recognition of the 'third gender' on government documents.
Nepal has become the only South Asian country to provide such rights. And as California's Supreme Court lifts a ban on gay marriage this month, Nepal is making progress on the sidelines, with the BDS and Supreme Court talking of forming a committee to explore the legalisation of same-sex marriages.
Sunil Babu Pant, Nepal's first openly gay MP and founder of the BDS, is hopeful about the future for LGBTI people in Nepal. "Things are improving," he says. "There is less violence compared to three years ago due to increased sensitisation." But there are still more than 50 cases of violence or discrimination against LGBTI people pending in the courts.
Awareness of homosexuality is growing in Nepal. At least LGBTI people do not have to face the religious condemnation they do in Catholic countries, but there is still a long way to go before they are accepted as 'normal'.