An overview of the situation of same-sex sexuality and gender variance in Nepal

Nepal is a small Himalayan country historically described by its first king as a “yam between two boulders,” India and China. However, despite its relatively small population of 26.5 million, Nepal is staggeringly diverse with many different ethnic groups, religions and languages. The world’s largest mountains have helped make Nepal a complex mosaic of different cultures with influences from both India and Tibet along with its own unique history and characteristics. Any generalization about Nepal, therefore, will inevitably fall far short of its realities. Nepal has unfortunately been the target of endless orientalist portrayals over the years: a peaceful shangrila, a “pure” un-colonized Hindu Kingdom, failed state, an underdeveloped and impoverished country, a geopolitical strategic buffer, and so on.

Yet, what can be said is that Nepal is currently undergoing rapid changes in respect to its society, politics and cultures. The past decade has seen the end of the world’s last Hindu Kingdom, the establishment of a federal democratic republic and the cessation of a ten year long civil war. The Comprehensive Peace Accords in 2006 ended the civil war by abolishing the monarchy and bringing the Maoist insurgents into the government. In the aftermath of the violence, people were optimistic of the promise of a “New Nepal,” democratic, developed and inclusive—one that would finally begin to address the historical grievances of the war, social inequity, and marginalization. Internally, many spaces have opened for marginalized ethnic groups, low caste groups, women, sexual and gender minorities, and others whose rights, issues, and concerns were “invisible” under the monarchy. However, almost eight years later, four years past the original deadline, the new constitution has yet to be ratified. Economic hardship is still a pervasive experience for many Nepalis. Many people, youth in particular, are tired of the difficult economic and political reality they endure.

Alongside this, a quarter of Nepal’s economy now relies on millions of Nepalis who work, study and live abroad in order to send home remittances for new levels of consumption. The migration of people and capital through the remittance economy and tourism has brought with it new media, fueling new ideas and discussions about lifestyles, relationships and desires. Many of these discussions have at their center issues that involve gender roles and sexuality: some women want careers, other people don’t want to be married at a young age, while others want to choose their spouses for themselves. None of these desires are uniform across the country and it would be a failure to assume that traditional Nepali values are gradually being replaced by modernity and its associated values; rather, many new ideas and desires are being created, adapted, and incorporated into people’s lives and identities in complex and uneven ways that often reflect the many dimensions of Nepal’s diversity: social class, caste, gender, sexuality, religion, and ethnicity to name but a few.

Within this context, Nepal’s sexual and gender minorities face a highly ambiguous social and political climate. Nepal in many ways evinces a progressive legal environment for sexual and gender minorities, having made several positive reforms and decisions that uphold their rights to social and political equality. Important to sexual and gender activism has been the work of Blue Diamond Society, an organization that works with sexual and gender minorities that was initially registered to protect and promote men’s and transgender women’s sexual health. With over 750 employees and 50 field offices, Blue Diamond Society has also become an important network for sexual and gender minority activists in Nepal—providing counseling and legal services as well as pushing for nation-wide reform in policy and legislation. In 2007, Nepal’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of non-discrimination of “LGBT” peoples1 in a case jointly supported by Blue Diamond Society, Mitini Nepal,2 and Cruiseaids3and Parichaya Samaj Nepal.4 Since the decision, there has been substantial progress regarding rights for sexual and gender minorities at the national level and regional levels: the decision was followed by the election of the first openly gay parliamentarian in Asia, Sunil Babu Pant, a revised national curriculum that includes sexual and gender minority issues, the establishment of a same-sex marriage policy committee, and the inclusion of third gender identified citizens on the census, passport and citizenship documents.

Yet, despite the legal progress, social attitudes and bureaucracy have been much slower to change and many reforms have yet to be implemented. There have still been periods of arbitrary arrests of sexual and gender minorities. Many who were legally provided the right to identify as third gender on their citizenship cards have yet to be allowed to do so in practice. Perhaps most importantly, the majority of sexual and gender minorities are afraid that their relationships, desires, and gender identities will be discovered by their families, friends, and wider social groups. Many fear discrimination and stigma for having same-sex relationships or gender variant identities; some might be cut off from the only support they may have in their lives—their families and communities. Others face ridicule, discrimination and harassment. This is not to say that social attitudes have not changed in recent years or were historically never in any way in favor of sexual and gender minorities’ equality. Indeed, the recent years have seen a growth in awareness and acceptance of different forms of lifestyles, relationships, sexualities, and gender identities—a shift that holds promise for the prospects of sexual and gender minorities’ social equality. Yet, larger and more substantial discussions over sexual and gender difference need to take place and the current issue is often overshadowed by the many other pressing concerns and challenges people, including sexual and gender minorities, face on a day to day basis.

Part of the difficulty surrounds the fact that many matters regarding gender roles and sexuality are not discussed openly—something that this anthology will hopefully help promote.