Fighting for gay rights in Nepal
The United States made headlines this June when it announced that the passports of transgender individuals will reflect their changed genders. But those in and around Nepal will remember that the Nepali authorities issued similar "third gender" identification cards back in 2007. And leading this charge for gay rights in Asia is Nepal's first openly gay Parliamentarian, Sunil Pant. We find out what it took, and what it will still take, to give the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community an equal footing in Nepal.
Pant was born in the remote district of Gurkha, famous for its highly trained soldiers recruited by the British army. The child of a schoolteacher, Pant later ventured to Belarus and Hong Kong for higher education. From an early age, Pant knew he was attracted to his own sex and thought nothing of it until he arrived in Minsk, Belarus, where the University clinic bore the sign, "Beware of gays."
In 1997, Pant went to Japan, where he stumbled upon Tokyo's predominantly gay neighborhood of Ni-chome. Not realizing where he was, it was while perusing the neighborhood bookshop that he noticed an abundance of gay literature, restaurants, bars, and shops in the area. "I was so overwhelmed with joy," says Pant. Still not open about his sexual orientation with family and friends back home, it was the first time Pant found himself in a gay-friendly environment.
In the center of Kathmandu is the popular Ratna Park and in the evenings in the late 1990s, that was where the city's LGBT community would quietly meet. Within one month, Pant met thousands of Nepal’s sexual minorities. Pant shared what he learned about the Stonewall Movement, about South Africa's legalization of gay marriage, and the open environment in which gays live in other parts of the world. At the same time, people shared with Pant the fear, intimidation, abuse, and violence they experienced at home in Nepal.
Pant and his friends began to organize. They held the first training of its kind in Nepal addressing condom usage for gay men, sexual health, and human rights. When one transgender member of the training committed suicide after being beaten and discovered by her brother, Pant became determined to document and campaign on behalf of such individuals. In 2001, Pant started the Blue Diamond Society (BDS), a thriving resource, advocacy, and community center for Nepal's LGBT community.
Pant himself had not yet come out to his family and friends at the time when BDS was started. It was not until a journalist from the Nepali Times interviewed him and published statements from Pant about his sexuality that Pant's family found out he was gay.
2006 saw the rise of populist movements in Nepal and it was then that Pant presented the government with an agenda to protect the rights of LGBT individuals. In 2007 he took the government to court demanding equal rights; they ruled in favor of Pant, agreed to issue third gender identification cards, and sanctioned the formation of a committee to research the societal effects of same-sex marriage. As Pant puts it, the committee wanted to ensure that "the sky would not fall" if Nepal were to legalize gay marriage.
Pant says his policies are moving fast, the media is supportive, and gay individuals are more open about their sexuality now. "Government policies don't change, but individual ministers do," and that is where Pant sees possibilities for progress. "We have the same politicians and people expect miracles to happen," says Pant, who is now leading a broad-based youth activist movement in Nepal.
Chosen to lead this year’s South Asian march as Grand Marshal in New York City Pride, Pant is excited by the news of the United States' measures to promote the interests of transgender individuals. While such laws are being implemented three years later than in Nepal, Pant says, "It is still good."
And like Nepal, Pant believes the United States should move toward same-sex marriage laws on a federal level and not let individual states decide on matters of marriage.