KATHMANDU, Nepal — In this capital city, ringed by hills, neighborhoods are marked by the weight of neglect. The office of the Blue Diamond Society (BDS), a group championing the cause of sexual minorities, is based in one crumbling setting. To get there, one journeys down a rocky road and a narrow winding lane, both of which are torn apart by potholes and muddy pools of water. It occupies an unremarkable, two-story building, set behind a rust-covered gate. Facing the BDS’s office is an open field littered with garbage.
Until the middle of this year, the only people familiar with such surroundings were the ones who regularly made the journey there—Nepal’s eclectic mix of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and trangsgenders (LGBT). But not anymore. This everyday scene of Nepal’s city life has become the setting for a remarkable political turn in the Himalayan nation. The clues lie in the unusual attention the building that houses BDS is attracting.
The visitors dropping by to engage with the LGBT crowd are functionaries from the country’s major political parties. And it is not just to campaign for votes in the run-up to a planned election for the second Constituent Assembly (CA) on Nov. 19. More importantly, apparatchiks of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), or UML, are among those who have trooped there with a more progressive vision in mind: seeking prospective candidates to contest the polls. It marks the latest embrace by mainstream politics of an increasingly vocal and visible sexual minority constituency.
“A couple of dozen parties have shown interest in our members,” reveals Sunil Babu Pant, the head of the BDS, a day after he had met a UML delegation in his top-floor office. “This is certainly a big change for us, to be approached this way. They see us as a legitimate and influential group in national politics.”
Mr. Pant, who became Nepal’s first openly gay lawmaker in the first CA, has already joined the UML, one of the country’s larger establishment parties, which has more social democrat leanings than the gun-toting revolutionaries, such as the Maoists. An equally high-profile transgender figure, BhumikaShrestha, has been sworn in to swell the ranks of the Nepali Congress, a first for the oldest political party in the country.
The list of LGBT candidates is expected to grow as the contestant lists are finalized. Already, over 60 LGBT contenders have declared their political intent through the BDS. These 28 lesbians, 21 gays and 12 transgenders are eying constituencies they are familiar with in 31 districts.
“We have assured them that our election manifesto will accommodate their concerns, such as third-gender rights,” PradeepGyawali, a UML politburo member, told The Irrawaddy. “It is quite amazing that Nepal has made this progress about the third-gender community. No political party thought this way 10 years ago; not even the society.”
Such a sea change is a remarkable achievement for three reasons. Nepal, after all, is a predominantly Hindu country known for its discriminating caste structure. Even now, it is common to hear of an upper-caste Brahmin refusing to shake hands with Dalits, members of a lower-caste group known as “the untouchables,” out fear of being “polluted.” Other extreme examples of such minority discrimination abound, like Dalits being forbidden to enter upper-caste houses from the front.
There has also been no religious backlash by social conservatives. Such a tolerant response stands out in South Asia, where waves of religious fundamentalism—Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic—are on the rise. In neighboring India, home to the world’s largest Hindu population, religious groups led the charge to challenge a court ruling to decriminalize homosexuality in 2010.
The other reason for cheer is political. The inroads made by the “third genders,” as the LGBT minority is called here, is a progressive step in a country that has been stuck midway in its plans for reform. The first CA was elected with the promise of drafting a new republican constitution. It followed a historic change in what was once the world’s only Hindu kingdom. The 240-year-old monarchy was abolished on May 28, 2008, at the inaugural session of the 601-member national assembly. That came on the tails of a groundbreaking peace agreement, which saw the end of a decade-long revolution spearheaded by the Maoists in which 16,000 people were killed and some 150,000 were displaced.
The leader of the Maoists, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, better known by his revolutionary name “Prachanda” (“the Fierce One”), is one of a string of Nepali leaders who have presided over five years of political paralysis. The customary bickering between and within Nepal’s political parties has resulted in a half-written constitution. The failure of the CA to meet its multiple deadlines paved the way for another attempt to elect a fresh body to the national assembly. The interim government running the country till the November polls is headed by Khil Raj Regmi, the chief justice.
Yet, for the likes of Mr. Pant, the messy and fractious political transition was fertile ground. His organization rode a wave of human rights activism for the marginalized that spread in post-revolutionary Nepal. Help came from many quarters, the most influential of which was the Supreme Court. The latter ruled in a December 2007 case filed by BDS that the country needs to officially recognize third-gender rights. The government that emerged soon after followed with a call for official documents to have a new category (in addition to male or female) where sexual classification needs to be indicated. Even a budget for these new rights was added to the state’s annual expenses.
The nearly 12 years of work by LGBT activists to reach this pivotal moment was also rewarded during the country’s 2011 census. The official government documents that recognize a third-gender category are supposed to benefit some 500,000 LGBTs, according to government data, although BDS estimates place the figure closer to 2.5 million.
Some analysts who have followed Nepal’s rise as the most tolerant country for sexual minorities in South Asia attribute it to its demographic profile—a population of over 26 million people divided into nearly 100 ethnic minorities and linguistic groups. So respecting another minority, albeit a newly recognized one, is acceptable within the social fabric, they say.
Others locate it in Nepal’s identity since the times of the monarchy. “This country has never had a record of being a theocratic state,” Krishna Hachhethu, a professor of political science at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, explained in an interview. “It was more secular even when it was a Hindu kingdom when compared to secular India.”
Either way, BDS is credited with awakening Nepalese to a community that has long suffered discrimination, some of it painful and humiliating. “We have more work to do to get people beyond the cities to accept third gender unions as natural,” admits PremBahadurThapa, the non-governmental organization’s lawyer. “It helps when a third gender person is legally recognized as a person.”
This story first appeared in the October 2013 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.