“It is really expensive being a girl,” says Manisha with a smile, referring to her new make-up, high-heels, wigs and dresses. It has been three weeks since she came out as a woman, but she has not yet mustered the courage to confront her family and friends. During the day, she is Mahesh, a shopkeeper and a dutiful son. At night she is Manisha, the version of herself she is most comfortable with.
Muna, who was helping Manisha with her make-up one evening last week, also leads a dual life. It’s more complicated for her because she shares an apartment with her family. Her nights out as Muna involve elaborate planning, excuses and even lies.
That evening, she decided to stay home and be a dutiful brother to appease her elder brother and his wife. She did not say much, instead she handed over a note explaining how it was not her choice but nature that put her in a man’s body. She did not regret being different, but hated being called names and was scared of coming out to her family.
Muna and Manisha were in Rolly’s apartment. They refer to Rolly as “Mom” because she helped them break into the network. “You cannot randomly show up out of nowhere as a queen,” Manisha explains,“other queens can be pretty territorial and aggressive. But when you show up as the daughter of one of the queens, they are more accepting and let you be one of them.”
Rolly has nine 'daughters' after coming out last year, and Manisha thinks that is because she is very warm and knows how to make the newbies feel comfortable in their own skin. She says, “Transitions can be extremely frightening initially, but Rolly knows exactly how to handle that fear and reluctance.”
Rolly seemed comfortable talking about her life. She grew up as Ramesh in Chitwan, and always knew she was different. “I did not know why I felt like a girl, but I found support online by connecting with many people like myself through a fake Facebook account,” she confided.
One such friend was from her village; they decided to meet. To
Rolly’s surprise, the person she had been chatting with was her friend Bikram (now Nirja). From the walks around their village in Chitwan as Bikram and Ramesh, to their scooty rides on the streets of Kathmandu as Nirja and Rolly, they have supported each other ever since.
Across town in another apartment, Nirja’s dual life is much simpler; she does not have to change to Bikram every day. She just maintains a façade of masculinity when she needs to visit her family in Chitwan a few times a year. For the rest of the time, she is Nirja, has taken part in beauty contests and is comfortable with being photographed.
Pics: UPASANA KHADKA
“More awareness about our situation through the media could potentially make it easier for us to come out to our parents”, says Nirja, gluing on fake eyelashes.
Manu, on the other hand, dresses as a woman only a couple of nights a month. The rest of the time she is Bikash, a college student in a boy’s hostel. She has homework and tests to keep her busy, her other life is a secret. “I am the only son in the family which makes it more difficult to tell my parents. I hope to come out when I finish my studies and become financially independent,” says Manu. “Maybe once I earn a livelihood and fulfil my duties as a son, my parents will be more willing to accept me", she adds.
Manisha, Muna, Nirja, Rolly and Manu say they have to be thick- skinned to be queens. “People harass us. The police, the drunks, the drug-addicts chase us, call us names and treat us like animals, many fear us,” says Muna. Despite all this, they are relieved to be 'out', even partially. They wait for the day when they can transition fully.
Sharmila does not need to lead a dual life, she has come out completely. “It was not easy, people still talk; call me names,” she says, “but my Mom has finally come around and I feel very lucky.” She has a tattoo with her birth name ‘Shankhar Chowdhury’ on her hand, which reminds her constantly of her past life. “I can erase it but doing so costs Rs.18,000, so I don’t bother,” Sharmila laughs.
Sharmila’s family tried everything to ‘heal’ her after they found out. They introduced her to girls to get her married off, even took her to a witch doctor, but nothing worked. She hated playing with her brothers, and felt shy around her guy friends. She preferred helping her mother out in the kitchen and yearned to wear kurtas.
“I always felt something was terribly wrong with me. Why could I not be normal like my brothers? Why did I feel like I was trapped in the wrong body? I did not know anything about transgenders,” she reveals.
She used to work at a bank, and finally met someone like her who took her to the Blue Diamond Society (BDS) where she learned that there was nothing wrong with her.
Sharmila is now the second wife of a taxi driver, and proudly displays two framed pictures of her wedding. “Every girl dreams of having a wedding and I did too,” she says, “I was so thrilled when he asked to marry me. We got married at Gujeshwori temple, all our friends came.”
Sharmila is happy and comfortable now, but is uncertain about the future. She says, “I will most likely run a small shop and continue to take care of my nephews whose parents passed away. I have to constantly remind the boys to call me aunty but they just won’t listen.”
Names have been changed.
What is in the constitution
When Nepal promulgated its new Constitution in September 2015, Madhesi politicians blockaded the border. However, Nepal’s sexual minorities hailed the document which explicitly guarantees equal rights for them.
Nepal became the first nation in Asia and the third in the world, after South Africa and Ecuador, to ensure equal constitutional rights to people from the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community.
The rights of Nepali citizens to choose their gender identity on citizenship and passports -- male, female or other -- is enshrined in Article 21 of the Constitution. The Department of Passports has already issued its first passport under the “O” category to Monica Shahi, 37 (pictured), a transgender activist.
Article 18 forbids discrimination against gender and sexual minorities by the state or judiciary, and Article 42 safeguards the right of gender and sexual minorities to participate in the civil service and state mechanisms.
Transgender activists have applauded the government’s efforts to protect the rights of sexual minorities, but they say implementation is slack.
“We are very happy that the government has explicitly guaranteed our rights in the Constitution. Now the government should implement them,” says transgender activist Bhumika Shrestha. She says the government needs to address issues of same-sex marriage, right to property, right to adopt children and affirmative action.
The Supreme Court in 2007 had issued a verdict to recognise LGBTIs as a third gender category and also ruled to recognise same-sex marriage. Pinky Gurung, President of the Blue Diamond Society, says the government should publicise recently-introduced provisions in order to facilitate the implementation process.
“Many LGBTIs are facing obstacles in obtaining citizenship despite provisions in the Constitution because local-level government officials are unaware of it,” says Gurung. “The government should circulate the necessary information to all government offices.”
Lesbian: A woman/female-identified person attracted to another woman/female-identified person.
Gay: A broad term referring to homosexuals, particularly to specify a man/male-identified person attracted to man/male-identified person.
Bisexual: An individual who is attracted to persons of the same or opposite sex.
Transgender: An umbrella term for persons whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from their anatomical sex or the gender they were assigned at birth.
Intersex: Describes a person whose biological sex is ambiguous. The term 'intersex' is not interchangeable with, or a synonym for 'transgender'.
The third gender, Tulsi Ram Subedi
Nothing about us, without us, Sunil Babu Panta
Hidden in plain view, Ayesha Shakya
Finding refuge in cyberspace, Christopher Kelly