A Question of Social Identity
Political parties pushing for same-sex marriages in Nepal could help many sexual minorities come out of hiding.
On the face of it, 26-yearold Nandita* looks like your average young woman with upper middle class values, doing a 9-to-5 job as a Customer Relationships Officer* in a local bank in Kathmandu and having the same aspirations, dreams and hobbies that any other person her age could
possibly have. Except one small thing. “From a very young age, I felt different,” says Nandita*. “It was only in college when I accepted who I was and fell in love with another girl.” In such a conservative society where traditions and customs reign supreme, Nandita* fears she will be be cast out once her family became aware of her sexual orientation. “I am leading a double life. My family wants me to get married but I just don’t know how to come clean to them without hurting their feelings,” worries Nandita*. “I think I should just move out of Nepal and come back when the country becomes more tolerant of such issues.”
Another Nepali, a transgender named Bhakti Shah*, did the unthinkable by marrying another person belonging to the same sex, causing the couple to be persecuted and ostracized by their family and community members. Born a female, 28-year-old Bhakti Shah* realized that he was actually male by the age of 13. “My family does not recognize my sexual orientation or that of my partner. We live in fear and terror,” explains Bhakti*. “We hope the government will eventually feel our pain and fulfill our dreams of openly living together as husband and wife.” With the advent of a new report which contains recommendations for the legalization of same-sex marriages, that dream might just come true.
A committee comprising experts appointed by the government has drafted a 150-page report which includes recommendations for the government to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples. The report reads, “It is recommended to have equal marriage legal provision for same-sex couples with equal family protection to the couple and children.” Other recommendations encourage Nepalese lawmakers “to make necessary changes” to discriminatory criminal and civil laws and to also “make family law inclusive to protect the family members who are sexual and gender minorities as the heterosexual family members are protected.”
If Nepal decides to follow through on these recommendations, it could very well be on its way to becoming the first Asian country to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples.
“This is such fantastic news,” says Sunil Babu Pant, a gay Nepalese parliamentarian who founded the Blue Diamond Society, the country’s only LGBT (Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender) advocacy group. “The report is very good, based on justice and equality without any prejudice.” Other LGBT rights activists like Pant see this development as a positive trend and hope it translates into full equality for many of Nepal’s sexual minorities. “The possibility of Nepal becoming the first country to recognize samesex marriage in Asia is an excitement,” says Pant. “This is another step forward towards full equality for sexual and gender minorities in Nepal.”
The story behind this monumental happening actually goes way back to December 2007 when the Nepal Supreme Court ruled that the country’s then new government must provide legal protection to its LGBT Nepalese citizens and amend the laws that discriminated against them. The ruling proved to be groundbreaking and encouraged many sexual minorities to come out and openly accept their identities as members of the LGBT community. It even led to Nepal’s first ever gay person to be elected as a member of the Nepalese parliament in 2008. In 2011, the Nepal Central Bureau of Statistics officially recognized the ‘third gender’ in its census. Even the international community, particularly the United States, is lauding ‘the positive international trends’ towards homosexuality and marriage rights for same-sex couples.
Yet, in spite of such advancements, many members of the LGBT community continue to face discrimination at the hands of their family and others in colleges, government and company offices and hospitals. According to a 161-year-old law, ‘unnatural’ or gay sex remains illegal, with a maximum sentence of one year in jail. Therefore, although same sex marriages are taking place in public, they are not recognized by law. According to LGBT activists, the government is responsible for changing the current mindset against same-sex marriages as many same-sex couples are forced to separate by their families, who then arrange their marriages with members of the opposite sex. These usually result in divorce and have even driven some to commit suicide.
With the panel’s recommendations yet to be adopted by the government, the happiness of transgenders such as Bhakti Shah* still hangs in the balance. "When we go out at social gatherings and introduce ourselves as husband and wife, people do not believe us and make a joke and tease us," says Bhakti Shah. "In my home, my family does not consider my wife as their daughterin-law and I face the same treatment when I go to the family of my wife. In the absence of legal proof of marriage, we cannot even get the property if something happens to one of us."