Nepali Times
Between taboo and tolerance



When Sunil Pant started Blue Diamond Society in 2001, Nepal's gay and transgender community was entirely underground. There was no legal protection, and police brutality against 'unnatural' sexual behaviour was the norm.

The turning point came in 2007 when the Supreme Court granted basic rights to all sexual minorities, passed an anti-discrimination legislation and ordered the government to use gender-neutral terms and pronouns in all official documents. It also recognised third gender as a new category entitled to citizenship.

After the 2008 election, Pant became the first openly gay CA member. Nepal's oldest school, Darbar High School, admitted a transgender student. And pride parade has become the highlight event during the annual Gai Jatra festival (pictured above). While the most developed and 'progressive' countries are still divided over gay marriages, Nepal is on its way to becoming the first country in Asia to legalise same-sex union.

Pant agrees that the progress and achievements of the community have been unprecedented: "India started its gay rights movement in the early 1990s and it took more than 20 years to repeal Section 377 of the Penal Code and decriminalise homosexuality," he says, "in comparison we have managed to introduce equal rights for sexual minorities in 11 short years. There has been a big drop in discrimination and abuse."

Roshan Mahato, coordinator of the Federation of Sexual and Gender Minorities, played an active role in improving the curriculum in universities to make instructors and administrators more sensitive to the needs of sexual minorities. Today courses in sociology and anthropology in government universities are incorporating gay and lesbian studies.

However, Nepal's archaic bureaucracy and the lack of political will are still obstacles to further progress in the rights of the LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersexual) community. Soon after the SC passed the verdict to allow citizenship for transgenders as well, the Home Ministry, under Maoist Krishna Bahadur Mahara, issued a circular that ended this practice. Today, when third gender people request citizenship they are first met with stares for their 'unusual appearance' and then the habitual 'we don't have permission from above'.

"Until one of the leaders has a transgendered family member, or until the community becomes a large vote bank for the parties, the citizenship issue is likely to drag on," Pant admittted.

It's the same story for same-sex marriages. Bibek Poudyal, a human rights lawyer, says: "Our leaders' hardline ideologies and stereotypical views about gender and sexuality will be difficult to change. If our parliament couldn't grant equal rights to Nepali women, despite the 33 per cent representation, I am not sure how far we can push for LGBTI rights with just one gay CA member."

The degree of social tolerance and acceptance in Nepali society has also not kept pace with legislation. Urban youth seem to accept people of diverse sexual and gender orientation, and a recent magazine poll showed 81 percent of the respondents approved of homosexuality. On the other hand, cases of physical violence, emotional coercion, abandonment and termination from jobs are still common.

Bhakti Shah, a physical training instructor in the Nepali Army and her girlfriend understand the stigma only too well. The couple was fired for being lesbians. Although Shah has filed a case in the Supreme Court, they are unlikely to receive justice. Shah's partner, who is currently studying in Kathmandu, was disowned by her family and says she is constantly bullied by her classmates.

Family pressure is perhaps the hardest to overcome. The demand to continue the family line is so intense that many are forced into marriages and end up leading dangerous double lives, while others escape to bigger cities or to India. "Given our religious society, even if same-sex marriage is adopted in the new constitution, it will take time for Nepalis to accept them as natural and equal to heterosexuals," says Poudyal.

Sex, class and regional divisions within the LGBTI community threaten to blunt the movement. Mahato says people who have migrated from villages to the anonymity of the cities are most open about their sexual and gender identity. "Members of the upper caste elite are the most hesitant to come out of the closest, since they feel they have a lot to lose," he explains, "rich people also can afford the privacy of hotels or to settle abroad. So the middle and lower class have to carry the movement forward."

The LGBTI movement in Nepal has a visible hierarchy with a strong focus on third gender issues due to which gays and lesbians are frequently grouped together in the same category. Also since majority of international funding is funneled towards HIV awareness and prevention for gay men, lesbians find themselves at the bottom of the ladder.

Read also:

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)