Nepal's Gay Rights Movement
|| Jyoti Thapa’s feminine features are distinct: her twinkling brown eyes, slender nose pierced with a shiny nose stud and long, black hair add prominence to her slim, well-maintained figure.
As she takes a ten-minute walk uphill from a grocery store to her house at Sipadol Village on the outskirts of Nepal’s capital Kathmandu, Thapa meets and greets neighbors.
In return, they reply in a typical Nepali way referring to her using the word nani, a colloquial term of endearment often reserved for women.
However, Thapa is a man, who now chooses to be identified as third gender. The 30-year-old is among many Nepalis who identify themselves as third gender who do not classify themselves as male or female, or opts for a different gender identity to what they were assigned during birth.
Though born as a man, the 30-year-old says she has always felt like a woman.
Thapa is also among an estimated 3.5 million-plus people who are part of Nepal’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex (LGBTI) movement that has gained momentum in the new Himalayan republic.
Photo: Bibek Bhandari
In 2007, Nepal’s Supreme Court ordered the government to scrap all laws that discriminated against sexual orientation ensuring equality to the country’s LGBTI population The Court also mandated the government to form a committee to study same-sex marriage.
It was following the Court’s decision and years of depression that led Thapa to come out.
“When people suddenly saw me dressed as a woman, they were shocked,” says Thapa, dressed in blue jeans and a pink top, her hair pulled back. “They called me crazy and told me to check into a hospital.”
But her family was supportive.
Her elder brother, a retired army man, the father and other family members have accepted her new identity. Thapa is treated like the youngest daughter of the family.
In her village, too, after she spoke in front of a large crowd explaining about her identity, rights and equality, people have started accepting her.
“It’s taken four years,” she says recalling the time she came out in 2008 after a transgender beauty contest. “Some people still think it’s strange, but I’m happy.”
While Thapa came out in her community and advocated the LGBTI issue, Sunil Babu Pant has been doing the job on national level.
Pant was one of the 601 members in Nepal’s Constituent Assembly, an interim legislature responsible for drafting the country’s new Constitution after the end of 240 years of monarchy in the country following a revolution in 2006.
An openly gay lawmaker and activist, Pant has been propagating the issue from the streets to the state’s Constituent Assembly, which was dissolved on May 26 after failing to draft a Constitution.
“A voice from this [LGBTI] community was missing,” Pant says of his decision to join politics in 2000, adding, “Street-level advocacy has little impact. So we realized it’s more effective to have a representation and raise the issue.”
He also founded the Blue Diamond Society (BDS), Nepal’s first LGBTI rights organization, in 2001.
Since then, BDS has gained prominence in Nepal’s gay rights movement. But often, its image has been linked with the third gender population than gays, lesbians or bisexuals.
Pinky Gurung, President of BDS, says it is because most gays and lesbians are not out, and they cannot be differentiated.
“With third gender and cross dressers, they are distinct and visible,” says the 34-year-old transgender woman who has been with the organization since its inception.
Kathmandu is a bustling city with vibrant cultures and lifestyles. The Nepali capital has a population of more than one million. As dusk takes over daylight, the tourist hub and backpacker’s district of Thamel and its peripheries become a business point for many transgender Nepal does not have a concrete law regarding prostitution: it is neither legal nor illegal. Thus, many make it as their source of living, according to BDS President Gurung, while some also get involved “for fun.”
But some of the members of the third-gender community who have chosen to make it their profession have a weekly meeting on Fridays at a space in Kathmandu. They have set up their rules and guidelines for business, and also set fines if anyone violates those rules.
Despite discrimination and loathing from society, and while many third gender people have taken a bold step to come out, it is a different story for gays, lesbians and bisexuals.
“It feels like I’m living a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde kind of life,” says a 23-year-old man from Kathmandu who does not want to be identified.
Because of societal expectations and family status, he says he will never be able to reveal to his parents that he is gay.
“They will never understand,” he says as he sips his iced tea on a late summer evening at a rooftop restaurant in Kathmandu.
As soon as a son or daughter is born, families live the dream of their wedding day: it is something inborn with the child.
Dr Chandra Bhadra, Professor of Gender Studies at Nepal’s state-run Tribhuvan University, says that Nepali society is still deeply rooted in traditional values.
Photo: Bibek Bhandari
“From gender perspective, there is only male and female,” she says of the notion that society has. “They never see the sexuality side. So when they find anyone outside the norm of heterosexuality, they are treated differently,” says the professor who has been teaching for 40 years.
But people like Thapa, who is also one of Bhadra’s students, are challenging the traditional norm. She plans to get married to a man once there is a legal provision in the country.
Nepal’s upcoming Constitution, according to lawmaker Pant, has a provision that says everyone has the right to marry, and marriage would be between two people rather than a man and a woman.
But regardless of the laws and social acceptance, some have had the courage to live together amid the conservatives.
However, same-sex relationships do come with a cost.
After finding about their relationship, Bhakti Shah, who identifies himself as a transgender man, and his partner were both discharged from the Nepal Army for disciplinary actions, and not based on their sexual orientation, according to the army.
Though Nepal’s law bars any discrimination based on sexual orientation, there is no definite policy in the army.
“There are many same-sex couples within the army,” Shah claims.
A somber look shadows his face and Shah’s voice lowers as he shares their story. Though their relationship came at a cost of giving up a career that Shah had always wanted, he is happy that their families respect their relationship.
“Only if I had won the legal battle, it would have been an encouragement for many of them [same-sex couples] to come out,” Shah adds.
On a muggy summer morning, about 50 students pursuing their social work degree sit inside a classroom at Kathmandu Model College. It is not a regular lecture but an orientation and interaction on sexuality.
Dressed in a black top and a skirt, frequently tucking her shoulder-length hair behind her ear, Bhumika Shrestha speaks about her own sexuality.
A transgender woman, Shrestha explains and also raises questions on gender, sexuality and sexual orientation.
Some students think that all LGBTI people are cross dressers or transgender, and others say they have not come across any gays or lesbians. Most Nepalis, in general, share the same notion.
Roshan Mahato, founder of the Sexual and Gender Minority Student Forum Nepal, says he was discriminated in the university when his peers found that he was gay after a discussion on gender issues in his postgraduate sociology class.
After careful consideration, he established the Forum in 2009 to raise awareness about the issue.
“I thought,” says the 27-year-old, “through our awareness programs, we should make them learn about the issues; through the curriculum itself. So we don’t have to explain what LGBTI is every time.”
With a motive to sensitize and educate the society, and especially the young population, Nepal government introduced LGBTI issues in its undergraduate and graduate level social science curriculum. It was otherwise missing.
Also, Nepal’s media has been open about this topic: Nepali movies on same-sex relationships are now being produced, and Pant hosts a talk show on gender and sexuality issues at the state-run Nepal Television.
Community radios, which have wider coverage and larger influence, have also incorporated LGBTI issues in their radio dramas and programs.
At Saathi Sanga Manka Kura’s office, there are dozens of letters and a number of e-mails and text messages, mostly from rural Nepal, inquiring about sexuality.
Saathi Sanga Manka Kura, which means Talking to My Best Friend, is a youth radio program that has been on air for more than 10 years and has six million loyal listeners.
Handwritten letters in Nepali have arrived from Surkhet in mid-west region of Nepal to Bhojpur in the east.
In one of the letters, a 16-year-old girl asks if her sexuality is some disease and if it has a cure. Another letter from an 18-year-old man wants to know if he should come out and if there is a place for homosexual people in society.
Photo: Bibek Bhandari
“At least people are talking about it,” says Hemant Pathak, Program Manager at Equal Access Nepal, the NGO that produces Saathi Sanga Manka Kura. “We try to make them understand and inform people that this is normal.”
Chaitanya Mishra, Professor of Sociology at Tribhuvan University, says media, and also movies, will “give a face to LGBTI issues” and help to “deepen acknowledgement of the issue.
“It will throw light on a dark and hidden issue and provoke many to question older structures, institutions, values and norms,” he wrote in an e-mail, adding, “It may well add legitimacy to LBGT as a subculture that ought to be tolerated, if not fully accepted.”
While the notion of homosexuality is far from comprehension in rural areas, even in progressive pockets like Kathmandu, though the tolerance level is high, the level of understanding still seems to be low.
Nilu Doma Sherpa, a Kathmandu-based filmmaker, is out on her friends and family. At times, she says it is difficult to make people understand her sexuality, especially the ones who are educated and belong to the higher social class.
“They tend to think I want to be a man … I’m promiscuous,” she lists some of the misconceptions that people have about gay men and women.
But within these past years, the 30-year-old thinks the attitude is slowly changing.
“Until five years ago, I thought I was the only gay girl in town,” she laughs. “Now people are opening up a little.”
In the last 12 years since the gay rights movement started in Nepal, Pant says, there has been positive changes and the issue has been mainstreamed—and not sidelined—including government mandates.
In May, Nepal’s Home Ministry decided to provide citizenship certificates to LGBTI as “others,” and not under “male” or “female” categories. Pant sees this as an implementation and acceptance of the 2007 Supreme Court decision by the government.
“Compared to other countries, it’s definitely been easier,” he shares his view on the country’s gay rights movement, as well as living an openly gay life.
In a country still shrouded by caste system and separated by ethnic identities, a discourse on sexual identities seems to be less of a priority. Despite official recognition and a leniency in social attitude, family pressure and social expectations still force most people from not coming out.
“Though it’s getting better, it’s not easy being gay in Nepal,” Gurung, a transgender woman, says from her 12 years of experience working in this field. “I don’t think the discrimination can be completely wiped out. Until you are not out and open about your sexuality, you are discriminating against yourself. After coming out, you get stigmatized because people are not sensitized. But you need to speak for yourself and stand for your rights.”
“Living Gay: A Perspective of Nepal” is Bhandari’s postgraduate multimedia journalism project. For more info, visit livinggaynepal.info. Bhandari is a correspondent with The Week.
This news item is printed from myrepublica.com - a sister publication of Republica national daily.
© Nepal Republic Media Pvt. Ltd. Kathmandu Nepal.