In the west, when gay people fight for their rights, it is usually to scrap or change existing laws. But what if we had the opportunity to hit reset on the whole system? Would gay rights look substantially different if we were to start from scratch? What would laws look like if we could write them without the baggage of sodomy laws, or marriage as defined as a contract that occurs between a man and a woman? Nepal, a small, idyllic country nestled in the midst of the Himalayas, got a chance to do exactly that.
It was the first country to legally recognise trans people, at the same time as legalising homosexuality and gay marriage. Until 2001, it did not have a single gay organisation, but 6 years later in the midst of political unrest, the LGBT community and other disenfranchised groups received some of the most progressive legislation and soon-to-be constitutional rights in the world.
The journey started when Sunil Babu Pant returned to his native Nepal after stints in Belarus, Japan and Hong Kong where he came to terms with his own sexuality after encountering gay culture there. In Nepal, he saw that there was a vibrant cruising culture that was being targeted by the security forces. “Blackmail and extortion by police was common in those days,” explains Pant. It was the death of a transperson that inspired him to set up the Blue Diamond Society (BDS) as place that provided training, support and resources for the community. Like many places with nascent gay rights movements, BDS worked under the guise of health and human rights, in reality, their work was not just confined to HIV/AIDS related work, instead BDS started chronicling cases of homo- and trans- phobic violence committed by the security forces and rest of society.
The political background of Nepal during the early 2000s was that there was an insurgency against the monarchy and the government that was acting as the puppet of the monarchy. When the King declared a state of emergency, the attacks against LGBT people by the security forces increased. At this time, the BDS with Sunil Pant at its helm were working with the pro-democracy popular movement. Pant explains the rationale of the LGBT movement’s participation in the popular uprising, “All human rights workers were working together. We advocated democracy for everyone. We [as LGBT people] are credible and concerned citizens, we wanted to play a critical role for the nation as citizens.”
In 2006, the King agreed to reinstate parliament following weeks of violent strikes and protests against direct royal rule. Parliament voted unanimously to curtail the king’s political powers. In 2007, the LGBT community approached the interim parliament to enshrine their rights along with others in the constitution; however, at that time their demands were not met. They ended up taking their case to the Supreme Court of Nepal. In December of 2007, the apex court rendered its decision, “Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and intersex are natural persons irrespective of their masculine and feminine gender and they have the right to exercise their rights and live an independent life in society.” This phenomenal judgment declared that LGBTI people have the same rights as any other person living in Nepal, which meant not only marriage, but also property rights, adoption rights, the non-discrimination clauses, social security, pay and pension rights, etc.
The Supreme Court ordered the government to issue citizenship IDs to the trans people (known as third gender) according to their gender identity and to amend or scrap discriminatory law policies against LGBTIs. Additionally, the bench also issued a legal note to the Constituent Assembly to recognize LGBTI rights while drafting the new constitution. After the Supreme Court decision, when the Interim Constitution was formulated, the suggestions were not even tabled. Pant describes, “Implementation is a process. The ideas can be there, but people have to understand them to act on them.”
LGBTI groups started educating the political parties to ensure that their issues are understood and heard by them. At the last minute, CPN (United), a small communist party asked people from the LGBTI community to run under their banner. Sunil Pant put himself forward and won the election, gaining a seat in the Parliament. From there, the LGBTI activists had the opportunity to sensitize the entire Constituent Assembly and Parliament on sexual minority rights issues, while Pant participated in writing the draft constitution. Within the draft constitution, Pant made sure that LGBTI rights are enshrined in every section. The constitution is slated to be promulgated by August 28, 2011.
Since the Supreme Court decision many changes have taken place within Nepal. The first pride parade was held last year. This year, in its census, Central Bureau of Statistics officially recognized a third gender in addition to male and female. People from all over the world go to Nepal to get married. Nepal has been able to market itself as a haven for the gay tourist who does not want to participate in a segregated gay culture. Pant has decided to contribute more time to the Blue Diamond Society. When asked where he sees the LGBTI community in Nepal is headed, he replies, “I do not want to segregate ourselves from society. I don’t want gay neighbourhoods, gay discos, gay stores… I want equality because that is better in the long run. I want LGBT people to contribute and take part in society.”
Rights for sexual minorities across the world follow different trajectories. In the west, we are battling to change existing laws. There is social upheaval and regime changes sweeping across, this could usher in a new era for the rights of many oppressed peoples. Nepal remains an inspiration and a wonderful story to ponder on of LGBT rights in a small country in South Asia that took form in the midst of no less than a revolution.
For more info on the IGLA award-winning Blue Diamond Society, check out http://www.bds.org.np/