Gay in Nepal
In Conservative Nepal, a Tribune for the ‘Third Gender’ Speaks Out
By TILAK POKHAREL
Published: September 19, 2008
The New York Times
SUNIL Babu Pant likes to take advantage of the frequent delays at Nepal’s newly elected Constituent Assembly. As the only openly gay member, he takes every opportunity to work on his homophobic colleagues, trying to convince them that contrary to what they were taught growing up in this very conservative country, homosexuals are just like any other people.
Mr. Pant, 35, a computer engineer by training, opens his laptop — an object of fascination to many in the assembly, who come from the rural hinterlands — and gives a PowerPoint presentation wherever he finds his audience.
“Kalpanaji, come join me,” Mr. Pant said during a break recently to a fellow parliamentarian, Kalpana Rana, inside a tent that serves as a canteen. Other lawmakers, there to kill time, began to move closer to his laptop.
“I have prepared this presentation for members of this assembly,” he said, giving them a beaming smile. The female members were too shy to join the crowd.
“There are some people on earth who consider themselves neither male nor female” he continued. “They like to be called third gender, which comprises roughly 10 percent of the total population.”
A man interrupted. “Oh, yes, I had seen this term in a medical book I have at home,” said the man, Mathabar Singh Thapa, of the rightist Janamukti Party in the 601-member assembly. “But, I have a question. Do they have genitals?”
“They do,” said Mr. Pant, trying not to giggle. “But, they don’t have natural sexual orientation.”
He then put a political spin on his presentation. “South Africa’s Constitution already has a provision that the third genders are not to be discriminated against,” he said. “Following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, led by V. I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky, Russia became the first nation to legalize homosexuality.” The members listen attentively until the bell rings, summoning them back to the assembly hall.
If Mr. Pant, who represents the tiny Communist Party of Nepal (United), recognizes the long, uphill battle he faces, he never admits it. In a society where premarital sex is strongly taboo and where a leader of the ruling Maoist party, Dev Gurung, once called gay people “the product of capitalism,” it is a lonely fight.
But all is not bleak for Mr. Pant. This has been an extraordinary time in Nepal, with the declaration of a democratic republic in May, the abdication of the king in June and a new constitution in the works. Moreover, the now-dominant Maoists emphasize that theirs is the party of the poor, the minorities and the disadvantaged, and they have recognized “third gender” people as “sexual minorities.” The phrase “third gender” has been used to refer to gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, the transgendered and others.
Mr. Pant, always a good student, came to Katmandu, the Nepalese capital, from his home village in hilly Gorkha district in 1990 to pursue his studies. Two years later he won a scholarship to study computer science in Belarus, where he first heard the word “homosexual.”
By that time, he knew that he was attracted to other men but did not realize that this placed him in the minority. “I thought everybody would be like me, having the same feeling,” said Mr. Pant, who has never married.
HE learned differently, particularly during a police crackdown on homosexuality in Belarus in 1994. “There were many secret police officers deployed to crack down on gays and lesbians,” he said.
He got his first taste of sexual freedom in 1997, when he had a chance to travel to Japan. “I got to learn about gay rights,” he said. “I started visiting clubs and restaurants for gays.”
He stayed three months then returned to Nepal, determined to exercise the same freedoms. He started handing out condoms at a gay hangout in Katmandu — a daring act in conservative Nepal. “It was like a tool to initiate discussion with people,” he said. “I used to talk to people who would come there, discuss H.I.V./AIDS, ask them if they know anything about sexuality, ask them if they had heard anything about gays and lesbians.”
In short order, he had a good grasp of the city’s clandestine gay culture (“After you know two or three people, then you know everyone,” he said), and he was determined to bring its problems out in the open. Just a decade or so ago, it was hard for gay people to live a normal life in Katmandu, he said. The police were brutal. Many friends, he said, were driven from their homes, and others endured torture in police custody. “I thought nothing would improve unless we organized,” he said.
He tried to found an advocacy group to fight for the rights of gay men, lesbians, the transgendered and others. But government officials said they would register the group only if it devoted itself to converting homosexuals into heterosexuals.
To get around that, Mr. Pant said only that the group was dedicated to defending human rights in general and working on health issues and H.I.V./AIDS. Today, the group, the Blue Diamond Society, has offices in 20 districts and has 120,000 registered members.
WITH Mr. Pant’s heightened profile, it was inevitable that his sexual orientation would be revealed to his family. He said that his mother, who could never understand why he did not marry, was very upset. “But things cooled down in about a week,” he adds. “Now, my parents live with me in Katmandu and have stopped insisting that I get married.”
But Nepal remained officially hostile to sexual minorities. Mr. Pant said that 13 transgendered people were exiled to India and that two were killed in Katmandu. The Nepalese Army removed two female cadets for engaging in “an indecent intimate relationship.” In August 2004, 39 members of the Blue Diamond Society were imprisoned for 13 days.
But last December the Supreme Court ruled that “sexual minorities” were guaranteed the same rights as other citizens. Since then, at least one gay man has received his citizenship card with “both” written under the “gender” category.
Relations with the police have improved, Mr. Pant said, and the government is preparing to ask local authorities to issue citizenship cards to gay men and lesbians, transsexuals and others that recognize their preferred gender status.
Richard Bennett, representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Nepal, has urged the state to respond in line with the court verdict, “to enact new laws or amend current legislation to accord equality and end all discrimination against members of sexual minorities.”
Though Nepal’s politics are in flux, Mr. Pant is optimistic that the Constituent Assembly will soon adopt a stronger and more “inclusive” constitution. “In the past, it was like ‘Don’t kill us, recognize us.’ Now, it will be like changing our livelihood. We will focus on equal justice, economic and cultural rights.”
But Nepal still has a way to go before it comes to terms with the new realities. Inside the Parliament building, Mr. Pant said, “Some male members take me to a corner and whisper questions like, ‘Why do you promote sex which doesn’t give children? What if everyone becomes homosexual?’ As if they think that this is not something to talk about in public.”
“I have found a good platform to raise the issue,” said Mr. Pant, who is already thinking of new issues to tackle, like pollution and the environment.
Not that he is about to drop his signature issue, or even that he is lowering his sights. “There is a lot yet to be done,” he said. “There is not even a single person from our community holding a high government position.”
Just goes to show that one person can make a big, if not, huge, difference.
Be the love you seek.