A Ques­tion of So­cial Iden­tity

Po­lit­i­cal par­ties push­ing for same-sex mar­riages in Nepal could help many sex­ual mi­nori­ties come out of hid­ing.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Mahrukh Fa­rooq

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."

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