Bhakti Shah – the fight for gay and transgender rights in Nepal22 January 2018
For the second instalment of the gender, security and development interview series, we spoke with Bhakti Shah, a Nepali LGBTI activist. In the interview, Bhakti speaks about her struggle to achieve recognition for the diverse community and to gain respect as a Nepali lesbian.
Bhakti, a former soldier in the Nepal Army, was discharged once her sexual orientation was made public. In this interview, she discusses the systemic discrimination faced by the sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) community in Nepal – an umbrella term for a broad range of sexual and gender minorities including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people – but also highlights the important positive changes made in the last nine years that have made it possible for the Nepali state to become accepting of the SOGI community.
Bhakti’s interview also reflects the remarkable social and political changes Nepal has experienced in recent years, particularly in recognising the rights of minority groups who have historically faced systemic exclusion and violence. Just 20 years ago, identifying as lesbian or gay in Nepal was unthinkable. Homosexual sex was a criminal offence while same-sex relationships were strictly taboo. Men and boys who displayed so-called ‘feminine characteristics’ such as speaking softly, using their hands while conversing, or wanting to pursue a career in dance, music or the arts were assumed to gay and were victimised as a result. These men were often bullied and pressured by family and peers to be more ‘masculine’ in their behaviour and interests. While not all men with so-called ‘effeminate’ characteristics are gay or transgender, the abuse directed towards them indicates a lack of acceptance of anything that deviates from the norm of how boys and men are expected to act. Despite the countless movements that challenge these harmful attitudes and repressive beliefs, progress has been mixed.
In 2007, during the drafting of Nepal's post-conflict interim constitution, the legalisation of same-sex marriage was debated by parliament, and in 2008 the legislature elected its first gay lawmaker. Over the last decade, there has been a very gradual but positive shift in the state's treatment of sexual minorities, with increased representation of SOGI people and their participation in social and political life. The 2015 September Constitution of Nepal for the first time provided legal recognition to SOGI as a group – an action that has important implications including the state’s increasing acceptance and willingness to allow them the right to live with equality and dignity. While there have always been same-sex relationships, the 2015 constitution does not legalise gay marriage. This has been a key point of contention for many SOGI activists like Bhakti, who regret that the positive momentum gained through the 2007 Supreme Court ruling was not fully realised by the current constitution. It also makes it almost impossible for SOGI couples to confer citizenship on their children should they have any. However, Bhakti and many other activists express relief that they are now legally recognised as a group with rights and have their identities reflected on passports and other official documents. This has many positive effects, from allowing SOGI people to access their rights in state-led development policies and plans, to increasing their ability to demand the private sector and government to include SOGI-friendly provisions. This process has already begun in the form of dedicated toilets and changing rooms for SOGI individuals in a few public locations. It is also worth mentioning the efforts of Sunil Babu Pant (the former Member of Parliament) and Blue Diamond Society in combatting intolerance toward the SOGI community. It is through their sustained activism during a time when being gay was taboo that we have been able to see these historic changes today.
Despite these steps forward, champions of sexual and gender minority rights highlight the need to keep up activism around the issue, particularly to change negative public attitudes towards the SOGI community in families and within wider society. In particular, employment opportunities are hard to come by, with many SOGI people vulnerable to higher levels of insecurity and violence through their vocations – such as commercial sex work. As Bhakti points out, continued activism is especially important in more rural and remote areas where access to information and media is limited and where intolerance toward the SOGI community is greatest. This contradiction between increased legal recognition and a lack of social acceptance is exemplified by the nomination of a gay parliamentarian through proportional representation in the 2008 Constituent Assembly, and the November 2013 CA elections which saw more than 60 influential SOGI candidates stand for election with none winning the vote.
While there is no denying that Nepal has reached a key milestone in legally recognising the SOGI/LGBTI community, there is still work to be done to address other forms of discrimination such as unequal opportunities at the workplace, a lack of access to justice and security, and physical violence.