Esan Regmi was born with a vagina and his parents raised him like a girl. But as his teenage years kicked in, Esan’s breasts stopped developing and he began to grow facial hair, along with other masculine features. In the far-western village of Bajura that he grew up in, fatalistic thinking prevailed, and Esan’s gender was frequently commented upon by fellow villagers. “This is neither a boy nor a girl,” the villagers remarked, “This creature must have committed crime in its previous life.” Soon, Esan started believing that God was punishing him for a sin that he committed during his previous existence. Before he turned 20, Esan attempted suicide three separate times—in spite of the fact that he was born into a family that loved him unconditionally.
Esan’s father, like most other men in the village, was not well educated and frequently migrated for seasonal work to India. He did not stop loving Esan when the villagers pressured him to kick Esan out of the family. When bullying forced Esan out of school, his father made sure that he had the means to educate himself. Esan was enrolled in school, but continued to study from home. But eventually, the pressure from society became too much to handle. When he went looking for teaching jobs, the well-to-do among the villagers said that one had to be “born either as a boy or a girl” in order to be a contributing member of society.
If he had not found timely counseling from the far-western chapter of Blue Diamond Society (BDS), Esan doubts that he would still be alive. For many LGBTIQ+ people, the knowledge that they are not alone is what saves them from going down a path of self destruction.
LGBTIQ+ people are a minority group in Nepal and elsewhere in the world, and frequently referred to as Gender and Sexual Minorities(GSM). A feature of this group is that each letter in the acronym represents a distinct gender and sexual identity, which has presented challenges in forming a political coalition that does justice to the entire group.
A decade ago Blue Diamond Society successfully lobbied with the government to allow the category of ‘Other’ or ‘Third Gender’ as a gender identity in the citizenship certificate and various legal documents. This is considered an important victory to the GSM movement. It has helped many transgender people to gain legal recognition but several LGBTIQ+ people contend that the category of ‘Other’ presents a very deterministic view of the GSM community.
Many, including Esan, are dissatisfied with Blue Diamond Society for hijacking the GSM movement in Nepal. “Transgender and intersex are proper categories. ‘Other’ as a gender category does not make sense,” Esan said, emphasizing that there should be an option for self-identification. He also accused BDS of not doing enough to support the small intersex community in Nepal, and has begun the process of establishing a separate organisation to advocate for the rights of the intersex community.
Esan and several others from the GSM community claim that despite the fact that Blue Diamond Society towers over the GSM movement in Nepal, the organization has made an effort to address the needs of the transgender community only, and in doing so, undercut the voices of others who fall under the LGBTIQ+ umbrella.
Still, the work done by Blue Diamond Society and its founder Sunil Babu Pant, Asia’s first openly gay politician, has made Nepal one of the most progressive countries in South Asia with regards to legal provisions for those in the GSM community. BDS was founded at a time when there was no international framework for ‘LGBT rights,’ Kyle Knight, a LGBTIQ+ researcher with Human Rights Watch, notes in an essay on queer organizing in Nepal. After seven years of organised ‘LGBT rights’ activism in Nepal, Sunil Babu Pant became the first person in the world to win a parliamentary seat by using GSM issues as his electoral agenda, all the while playing a pivotal role in BDS’ work by maintaining a “complex balance amid demands from donors, media, families, and the government.”
The rights of Gender and Sexual minorities are enshrined in the constitution.
But the recently enforced civil code, going against a mandate given by the Supreme Court to legalize same-sex marriage, has defined marriage as a union between man and a woman.
This threatens to undo the legislative wins that had made Nepal, at least on paper, the country in South Asia with the most progressive provisions for LGBTIQ+ people. While the implications of the civil code are not yet clear, the regressive clauses indicate that the incumbent government is not ready to grant members of the GSM community the same civil rights as everyone else.
In addition to the reversing of marriage equality, something that has been a cause of concern among those in the LGBTIQ+ community is the ‘Other’ gender category. While some see the ‘Other’ category in the citizenship certificate as a victory, some see it as a clear setback. This category hinders the idea of gender and sexual fluidity. The ongoing disagreement is fueled by the difference in identities within the LGBTIQ+ umbrella. Lesbians, gays, bisexuals and queer groups, Knight points out in his essay, claim that trans and intersex people have it easy as they do not have the burden of “coming out.” Whereas, some transgender people claim that their community needs a greater legal and societal protection because their visual appearance makes them vulnerable to discrimination.
Need for visibility
Esan’s story and Pant’s rise in Nepal’s political scene are suggestive of the potential benefits of greater visibility. After almost two decades of consistent activism, LGBTIQ+ issues have received an acknowledgement from the general populace, but not acceptance. In the last three years, the Kathmandu theatre circuit has had three plays that talk about LGBTIQ+ issues in a sympathetic way, but popular media such as film continue to present LGBTIQ+ people in a derogatory manner. The stereotypical and unnuanced portrayals continue to have a negative impact on the 900,000 individuals, who, according to Blue Diamond Society, identify as LGBTIQ+ in Nepal. The continued lack of acceptance means that very few people are willing to speak up publicly about their concerns.
20 year old Rukshana Kapali, a transgender woman, is one of the few individuals who is vocal about issues that threaten the normal existence of those in the LGBTIQ+ community. Unlike many people in the transgender community, Rukshana was able to identity herself at a young age. In 2012, Nepali media had given a lot of mileage to the coming out story of a famed comedian’s transgender daughter. This had sparked Rukshana’s self-exploration. It was her grandfather’s birthday and all her blood relatives had gathered for the celebration. Rukshana made an entrance by wearing women’s clothing. The celebratory mood of the congregation evaporated. “What kind of joke is this,” her relatives exclaimed, “surely, he has gone crazy!” Some of her relatives were quick to suggest that she be tied and locked in a room until she came back to her senses. She was 14 at the time.
At school, while her teachers and peers were generally supportive, the principal beat her, punched her, humiliated her in front of the whole school.
The principal threatened Rukshana and her parents, telling them that if she “continued with his abhorrent behavior,” she would not be allowed to take SLC examinations. Had the school principal been supportive Rukshana would not have different names in her legal papers, a problem that is rampant among the entire transgender and intersex community.
Rukshana is currently fighting with the authorities at Tribhuvan University to allow her to sit for her examinations. Esan Regmi also has horrifying stories to share from the time when he went to sit for his examinations. He was forcefully dragged because the name in his document was that of a woman but he looked like a man. Not being able to complete one’s education is a plight among many in the transgender and intersex community. For the transgender community, lack of education, coupled by a general contempt has meant that many have no choice but to engage in sex work to carve a livelihood for themselves.
Rukshana has a clear vision of where she wants to be. She hopes to be a linguist someday and coin LGBTIQ+ terminology in Newa, her native tongue. “I am surprised that there is no proper LGBT term in Newa already,” she puzzled, “There is so much homosexual imagery carved in our temple walls.” If Tribhuvan University continues to deny her the right to register for examinations, receiving the academic opportunity to train as a linguistic might prove difficult.
Rukshana is not ready to give up. “It’s a struggle,” she said, “But it is a happy struggle.” Rukshana has garnered a lot of media attention, both for her LGBTIQ+ activism and for her heritage conservation work. As a result, her family has had an easier time accepting her identity; the relatives who initially wanted to tie her up now come to her for advice.
Visibility helps but challenges remain
Since 2013, BDS has been organizing beauty pageants targeting the LGBTIQ+ community. During such pageants, donor logos and pre-prepared speeches on donor driven agendas are the most prominent feature on stage. Nonetheless, they also serve the crucial function of validating the lives of those who participate in such beauty pageants.
29 year old Bishwaraj Adhikari was accepted by his family members soon after he won the first Mr. Gay Handsome in 2013. Winning the pageant helped Bishwaraj to overcome his depression, which had cost him his job as a Radio Jockey.
His life has changed since winning the title. These days Bishwaraj is working out in preparation for an international Gay-Handsome beauty competition. Beyond the limelight, the pageant has given him a purpose: to rescue those who are in urgent need of help, like he once was.
When Bishwaraj realized that there was something different about him, he did not think he was being punished like Esan did, nor did he have the access to information like Rukshana to correctly identify himself. He assumed he was a transgender person. If you are not straight then you are trans, he had heard from his childhood days. Self-misidentification, another problem faced by many LGBTIQ+ individuals, led Bishwaraj to a depression spiral.
Bishwaraj’s depression was taking an ugly turn. A timely counseling session from a GSM organization helped him recognize his true identity. Since then, he has consistently worked towards disseminating information on LGBTIQ+ issues.
Yet, despite the information available now, pervasive stigmas in Nepali society are such that many people continue living in the closet, which has had disastrous effects. Dr. Shailesh Shrestha at Rhythm Neuropsychiatry Hospital said that most of his patients are gay men inauthentically living a heterosexual life. “They have wife and kids. At first they are reluctant to talk, but once they start they cannot stop,” he said, “Most of my patients come to me only when they are about to have a severe mental breakdown.”
Many LGBTIQ+ rights activists claim that LGBTIQ+ people are prone to committing suicide because of lack of acceptance from society. Though there are doctors like Shailesh Shrestha who advocate for Gender and Sexual Minorities, the medical community at large remains ill-equipped to serve their needs. The problem is further exacerbated by the fact that some textbooks used in medical schools present homosexuality as a disorder. Several transgender people have reported that medical practitioners have asked them to strip naked even when they have gone to get treatment for a simple ailment such as the common cold.
A lack of knowledge about LGBTIQ+ lives seems to be at the heart of many of the problems encountered by this minority group. While legal representation remains an issue, years of knowledge dissemination has pointed to another problem. Nepali people have shown a willingness to accept an individual as long as they hover in society, like a distant satellite. As soon as people have discovered an LGBTIQ+ individual in their private sphere, the most common reaction is that of contempt.
Many were disowned by family as soon as their gender or sexual identity was revealed. Homelessness is another hardship faced by hundreds, if not thousands from this community, thus binding many to the dangers of prostitution.
What is the way forward then? The only path seems to be that of activism. Esan is happy that his activism has helped others like him. If there had been no need for activism, he would have been a teacher, and Bishwaraj would have continued as a Radio Jockey. For Rukshana, LGBTIQ+ activism might steal the dream of becoming a linguist. She might go on to coin LGBTIQ+ terms in her native tongue, but she may not be able to spend enough time studying languages. There will always be somebody in need for whom she will be fighting. For the past and present generation of LGBTIQ+ activists, their gender and sexual identity remains a site of struggle. It is both a blessing and a curse.
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