Opinion| In Nepal and India, parallel movements for dignity for LGBT communities
I came of age in late 1990s Kathmandu, during a period when Nepal’s capital city was smaller and more insular. There was little room for marginalized groups in the sociopolitical sphere. But the advent of the internet gradually expanded my world. Innate curiosity, a reading habit and love for movies helped me accept my sexuality even before completing high school. At night, I would log onto Gay.com’s virtual chatrooms, organized country-wise. There was no Nepal room, so I would enter the India one, because it was closest to home.
India has always had a major influence on Nepal. I have grown up watching Hindi movies and gained a degree of fluency in the language. I was able to hold conversations and connect with Indian men. The world was quite different then — there were no smartphones or apps like Grindr and Tinder.
My departure in 2000 to a college in the United States coincided with the heightening of the People’s War in Nepal, a movement that highlighted demands for equality and social justice. However, I had made up my mind that I did not have a future in Nepal, and was determined to settle abroad. News from my homeland trickled in: war casualties, the end of the monarchy and the People’s Movement. I also read about the establishment of the Blue Diamond Society (BDS), Nepal’s first Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) organization. Under the leadership of founding member Sunil Babu Pant, homosexuality was legalized in Nepal following a Supreme Court judgment in 2007.
The trajectory of decriminalization of homosexuality in India was a bit more circuitous. I knew about the colonial-era Section 377 of the India Penal Code that criminalized sex ‘against the order of nature’. But when the Hindi movie Dostana was released in 2008, I was pleased that it broached the subject of homosexuality, though caricaturizing it. For people who belong to marginalized groups invisibilized by the mainstream culture — and Bollywood is very good at doing that — a mere recognition of our existence is validating. Soon after, in the summer of 2009, the section was read down to not apply to consenting adults, by the Delhi High Court.
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you,” American writer and civil rights activist Maya Angelou wrote. And it was a desire to share my story that eventually took me back to Nepal. After returning in 2013, I began to write personal narratives and published in La.Lit magazine, The Kathmandu Post and Himal Southasian with urgency, exploring various aspects of being a gay Nepali man. I also designed workshops for Nepali students that sensitized them to queer issues. But Nepal’s new constitution was yet to get promulgated. The Interim Constitution that legalized homosexuality in 2007 had been dissolved, but BDS continued to organize the Gay Pride Parade every summer in Kathmandu. Even as societal understanding improved in Nepal, the Supreme Court of India overturned the 2009 decision in the winter of 2013. Section 377 was constitutional, and a matter for the legislature, not the judiciary, it said. In the meantime, Nepal had gained global recognition for prohibiting discrimination on any ground for sexual minorities. Transpersons had the right to choose their preferred gender on identity cards and Nepal became known for having a third gender category.
By that point, I was more in tune with Nepali politics. When the new Constitution of Nepal was promulgated in September 2015, Madhesis and women activists called it out for some of its regressive measures. Even though the New Constitution includes several provisions to protect sexual minorities, it discriminates against women. If women can’t provide their husband’s or father’s citizenship card, it is extremely complicated for them to obtain the identity card for her child. The bureaucracy does not demand the same from men. In India, meanwhile, a few months later (early 2016) Hindi movie Kapoor and Sons, with a complex gay protagonist, was released. When the Supreme Court of India ruled that Section 377 was unconstitutional on September 6, 2018, I was overjoyed and invited friends to my rooftop to pop open bottles of champagne.
The LGBTIQ movement in Nepal is also shifting. A new generation of activists is urging the BDS, as well as the government, to provide more options on identity cards in addition to the three categories of gender. During recent meetings between the BDS and these younger activists, BDS has expressed their desire to stick to the third gender category, an idea that was radical at the turn of the millennium. But the younger generation is attempting to hold a more nuanced dialogue, questioning the very necessity of including the gender category, arguing that some people may choose to identify as non-binary. But the old guards are resistant to new ideas even though activists are lobbying for same-sex marriage and adoption rights for queer couples in Nepal, as much as India. It has been heartening to witness the progression of these parallel movements in Nepal and India.
(Niranjan Kunwar is a writer based in Kathmandu)