His eyes are tiny and piercing, with a gaze that doesn’t trust easily. Shadowed by the pink mask covering his mouth, they are all one sees of his face. “This is Balram.” The inky dusk spills around his long, straight hair and settles under his eyes in dark pools. His eyes dart between Mahesh and me. “He works for Pink Triangle and distributes condoms to people who come to Ratna Park on Saturdays,” Mahesh tells me. Move your cursor over the image below to know about the laws that criminalise gay sex in the Indian subcontinent.
Mahesh is a gay university student and we are at Ratna Park, which is located smack in the middle of a busy, polluted street in Kathmandu, and is a well-known ‘cruising spot’ for gays, transgenders and rarely, lesbians. Couples, single men, and groups of young boys feverishly and unremittingly pace the length and breadth of the park, looking for companionship, dates or sex. “Hi, you are from India? I have been there, stayed in Pune for three years. Much easier to find boys there. They approached me all the time,” says Balram as Mahesh and I settle down on the cemented railings that border the park. “We come here to meet new people and hang out. There is no other place for us to go, no gay bars or parties.” A small group has gathered around us, coaxed by Mahesh, who works for the Blue Diamond Society – Nepal’s pioneering LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) rights organisation, which has played a central role in giving this small country of approximately 27 million one of the most successful LGBT movements in the world.
LGBT rights are not the most accessible in our part of the world. While India re-criminalised homosexuality with the Supreme Court upholding Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code last December, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Bangladesh and the Maldives don’t recognise same-sex sexual activity either. Nepal is the only country in the region which not only permits homosexuality but whose Supreme Court has also ruled against archaic laws that discriminate against homosexuals. It is even considering the formulation of laws to legalise same-sex marriage. No mean feat for a fledgling democracy which is still languishing somewhere near the bottom end of the human development index.
TG women wait to participate in Miss Pink
In 2007, the Nepal Supreme Court delivered a landmark ruling when it mandated that the government abolish laws that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, instituted the formation of a committee to study same-sex marriage laws across the world and recognised a self-identified third gender category, marked as ‘other’ on official documents. A watershed moment in the struggle for LGBT rights in the region and across the world, it made Nepal something of a haven for sexual minorities.
The much-publicised lesbian wedding of a couple from the US took place in the Himalayan nation in 2011. There have been a few Hindu gay weddings here too, where grooms have travelled from across the world, including India. Manvendra Singh Gohil, a royal from Rajpipla, Gujarat, was reportedly planning to get married in Nepal, as published in The Sydney Morning Herald. From being India’s once-favourite honeymoon destination, the country is possibly now our favourite gay destination.
As silhouettes turn greyer, the chatter of people around us settles down to a steady hum. A fruity laugh penetrates the darkness, and a boyish, slim figure in jeans and hooded sweatshirt comes up. “Main Mohini hoon… You can call me Mohan also. I have come here to date boys, not to find a boyfriend, only boys.”
He sits a few railings away from us, fishes out a half-squeezed tube of Fair and Handsome and a gilded hand mirror, and begins applying the cream carefully on his face. “You’ll see… in a few minutes, I’ll become beautiful like Mohini,” he says with a smile that refuses to leave his face. “We call her Mohini mummy, she is very strong. Fights with the cops or men if she has to. But right now, it’s not unsafe here. You should not be scared,” a couple from the group says, probably noticing my apprehensive expression. By the time she finishes applying the shiny pink lipstick and coats her lashes expertly with mascara, Mohan does become Mohini, and a stunning Mohini at that. One man passing by slows down in response to her singing Tu Mera Hero and inches up to her. That’s our cue to exit. Mahesh nudges me, indicating that we should leave before it gets completely dark. “She runs a small business, a hostel I think. She doesn’t need to get paid for sex. But maybe she sees nothing wrong with it. It’s a great way to date, have fun and get paid for it too,” he says as we step onto the dusty, crowded streets of Kathmandu.
Nepal, a one-time Hindu monarchy, became a secular democracy only in 2006, following a revolutionary decade-long Jan Aandolan. “It was the most inclusive time of our nation’s history. The agenda of inclusion and representation of all minorities – ethnic, religious, linguistic and sexual – became embedded in the mainstream political narrative of the country,” says Akhilesh Upadhyay, editor-in-chief of Kathmandu Post, one of the largest English dailies in the country. “Everyone – be it the Dalits, the Muslims, women or sexual minorities – came forward to demand their due place in the country.” Riding on the liberal wave that had swept the nation, Sunil Babu Pant, the founder of the Blue Diamond Society, became Nepal’s first openly gay member of parliament in 2008. “When I walked into parliament, quite a few were shocked. They didn’t know how I looked so normal. I would often give presentations on gender identity and sexuality and there was a lot of curiosity about the issues. They would ask me if transgender individuals had genitals or what was the use of sex which couldn’t lead to procreation. It was all discussed very openly,” said Pant, in an interview over Skype (he was in England at the time).
Pink and politics do mix: Bhumika Shreshtha, born a boy, was teased for being a feminine child. She grew up to win Miss Pink, a transgender beauty contest, and recently joined politics.
If Pant gave presentations to ministers, Bhumika Shrestha, a 27-year-old transgender woman (men who identify as women), was elected as a representative of the Nepali Congress Party in the last election. Post the historic ruling of 2007, the 2011 census was conducted with an option that allowed people to identify themselves as a third gender. Shrestha has identified herself a woman since she was 14.
Dressed in a leopard print dress, knee-length boots, on-trend orange lipstick, metallic eyeshadow and hair in a chic topknot, she looks straight out of a Nepali street-style blog. With a slight Mean Girls edge – a Hollywood film based on a pack of high school queen bees – to her personality, it’s easy to see why she was crowned the first Miss Pink Nepal in 2007, a beauty contest for transgender individuals organised by the Blue Diamond Society. “I always felt like a girl, even though my passport said Kailash till some time ago,” she says. “I didn’t understand issues like gender identity back then. I was constantly teased with names like hijra and I felt very alone. Then I joined the Blue Diamond Society where I understood my rights and got recognition. My mother was initially confused about my identity but now understands me and has helped sensitise people around us, once even on national television.” With silicone breast implants from Thailand, daily doses of hormones and Liv-52 and a weekly roster of facials and massages, Shrestha is a mini celebrity in her country. Apart from several television interviews and articles, she was in the Nepali film Highway, similar to Bollywood’s Bombay Talkies, with a storyline revolving around a homosexual relationship.
Miss Pink is not the only event on the LGBT annual calendar. Mr Handsome (a beauty pageant for gay men), the LGBT Olympics (an event of multi-sport games for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community), along with the Gay Parade are events that encourage the community’s visibility on social platforms. Biswaraj Adhikari, a 24-year-old gay man who lives with his boyfriend and his mother in Kathmandu, won Mr Handsome in 2013. “I am male, not a girl. I just like boys,” he says staring unblinkingly into the eye of the photographer’s camera when I inquire about his gender identity.
This stone-cold confidence, which perhaps won him the crown, came after years of depression and loneliness, when he was forced to leave his home town Hetauda and settle in Kathmandu, even though his parents had accepted his sexual orientation. “I wasn’t out of the closet then and was almost raped by a man. I couldn’t go to the police for help and somehow everyone around came to know about it. My family was constantly traumatised with hurtful comments. I had to leave town for their peace of mind.” He visits them sometimes, but is careful to stay indoors even though things are different now. “I am lucky to be in Nepal, where it’s not a crime to like someone from your own sex. But the society still needs to understand that.” Biswaraj wants to move to Australia, where his Zumba trainer boyfriend will be working soon.
Nepal’s rainbow stripes are leaving footprints across the globe, but its deep-rooted patriarchal mindset makes the struggle for LGBT women that much more arduous. Lesbians face struggles of education, employment and forced marriages more than men. Transgender men (women who identify as men) are also bitterly opposed when they assume male identities. When Bishnu Adhikari, a 25-year-old transgender man, identified with the identity of a man, his family was vehemently against it. “I wanted to play with boys, since I felt like one of them. But after I attained puberty, my family forbade me from hanging out with them, even though I wasn’t attracted to men and wouldn’t get pregnant.”
A few years ago, he fell in love with a girl, but her family forcibly got her married elsewhere. She contacted him recently through a radio programme run by the Blue Diamond Society – Geetikatha: success stories of gay, lesbian and transgender couples – which Bishnu hosts. “She said she was happy for me and that I was finally getting to live the way I wanted to. My family is now okay with my gender identity. They even call me ‘chora’, ‘babu’, and my friends often address me as, ‘oye hero’. It feels nice.” Reticent to speak about his current love life, he later admitted to dating a girl but disclosed that her family thinks it’s just a close friendship between two women.
Lesbian love remains the most forbidden of all LGBT relationships, even in Nepal. Reports of mental torture, physical abuse and threats to their life and safety routinely crop up in local newspapers. As a result, most of them reportedly choose to not come out. While some are forcibly wed into unhappy unions rife with domestic violence, a few resort to a life of drugs and depression with little control over their finances or circumstances. Eight years ago, Deepa (name changed on request) was 20 when she was tried for being a lesbian in the army and maintaining a relationship with a transgender man, who was her senior officer. “My crime was my sexual orientation. My partner and I were charged for a petty offense and jailed for 45 days without adequate access to food, water or sunlight and tortured mentally to verify whether I was a lesbian. My parents got to know of my sexuality from the newspaper reports, and that time they were just concerned about our safety.”
Nothing to hide here: Biswaraj (L) and Yuvraj are gay but not a couple. Durbar Square, Kathmandu, where the shoot took place, is often filled with same-sex couples.
Extending the relationship, she now lives in with her partner and her family has finally approved of their couplehood. They routinely visit each other’s parents for dinners and lead a normal couple’s life. “I often get teased by his family, like a girl would get from a boy’s. We are happy. But I want to get married now and I am certain that the new law will get passed soon, after which we’ll be able to wed legally.”
With separate toilets for its third gender, a box that says ‘other’ on some documents (such as the application form for a mobile phone connection or papers to rent trekking gear) and the official census, a portion of its economic budget allocated to LGBT rights, and detailed manifestos on their rights included in the agendas of most political parties, Nepal’s rainbow movement is already the most successful in South Asia. But much is lost in translation. Progressive laws alone don’t ensure change and society needs to catch up more, even though a chain reaction is already in process. Vienna, an Austrian woman who owns a bar in the popular tourist area, Thamel in Kathmandu, says the difference is palpable. “A few years ago, it was rare to see transgenders, gays and lesbians out openly. Now they are increasingly surer of themselves and that’s great.”
With little education and limited skills, earning a livelihood is difficult. Though non-profit organisations like the Blue Diamond Society provide considerable employment to the community (almost five lakh LGBT individuals are directly involved with the organisation across the country), there is an estimated unofficial count of 35 lakh plus LGBT individuals in Nepal according to some reports. Prostitution becomes the only resort for many transgender individuals. Vulnerable to threats, some individuals are still subject to arbitrary violence and attacks. According to the Human Rights Watch, “An uptick in police crackdowns on LGBT people has resulted in expensive fines and prolonged detention.”
It’s my last day in Nepal and we are at Durbar Square, Kathmandu, shooting our cover picture. The two gay men posing for us are in a corner, giggling at their phones. “This is his boyfriend, cute no? But not my type,” says one. “Who’s your type?” I was curious. “I like John Abraham and Salman Khan. Maybe I’ll come to India to meet them. But they need to make us legal first.” Their nervous laughter hangs thicker than mist in the cold air, long after they have left.
Photo courtesy: Niranjan Shrestha
Follow @YashicaDutt on Twitter
From HT Brunch, January 12
Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch
Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch