Nepal: Gays and lesbians struggle for justice

Issue 

The Blue Diamond Society is the largest LGBTI (lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender and intergender people) rights organisation in Nepal. The society's coordinator, Subash Pokharel, spoke with Ben Peterson about the current situation for LGBTI people and how it relates to the process of transforming Nepal since the overthrow of the monarchy and declaration of a republic by an elected constituent assembly last year.

Peterson is a member of the socialist youth organisation, Resistance, currently in Nepal. He maintains a blog on Nepalese politics, , where a longer version of this interview can be found.

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It is clear that the Hindu religion, and in particular an orthodox form of Hinduism, plays a big role in Nepalese society. Is that something of concern for sexual minorities?

It is a religious society so, basically, "one culture, one religion, one pattern". I think every religion is like.

For more than two centuries, the Hindu religion was carried out by the Hindi-based high-ranking caste group, the Brahmins. The so called high castes in the society dominated. And that brand of religion dominated all aspects of society.

The Brahmins cannot imagine that certain other cultures, groups and genders exist in society. They only recognise the established, such as male and female relationships.

But slowly attitudes are changing. We are starting to come out and committee groups are already raising our voice in the decision-making bodies, like the constituent assembly.

We have a representative, Sunil Babu Panta, who is an openly gay member of the assembly. So right now, we are a bit more comfortable in society.

We are in the process of making a new constitution. We are engaging in that process. And very good sentiments are already part of this process — like including our committee.

On every front, the assembly is trying to include a wide range of groups. There is already a sexual and gender minorities committee. So it's very positive.

We are very hopeful that in two or three years, at least, we'll have a very inclusive legal framework.

We have to accept the fact that society will always change slowly, not abruptly. Until we have good legal mechanisms, there can be no change. It's very hard to expect that society will change without the laws being changed also.

We are hoping that, with the right legal framework, we can advocate. We can say, "You know in society we are citizens, the same as other citizens, so why you not accepting us?"

And through this, society will change.

We are starting to extend our network to other organisations, such as civil liberties and civil society organisations, media groups and political parties. They are starting to understand us and slowly we are entering society.

What is your relationship with the Maoists (the United Communist Party of Nepal-Maoists hold the largest number of seats in the assembly and head a coalition government)? I have read that, up until a few years ago, and even more recently, Maoist cadre would pressure people not to accept queer tenants, among other things. But I have also been seeing a lot recently that suggests a change in policy.

The Maoist culture has also been monolithic. They also believed in one culture and one command. But we can channel our voice into party organisations, due to our representative in the assembly.

There is the case of two lesbians in the Maoists' armed rebel group [the People's Liberation Army]. They were expelled from the PLA-run cantonments.

After they were expelled, the two came to our office and we provided them with some accommodation and raised the issue within the Maoist organisation.

After a month, our approaches and our relationship with the leadership meant they were able to return to the cantonments.

This is a great example of how we have been able to make them believe that we are human and citizens too.

They are trying to learn. They are listening to us. This process is going on.

We can put our voice forward. This sort of environment encourages us to use our voice, because there is democracy.

What sort of activities does the Blue Diamond Society carry out?

The organisation was established in 2001 and it is formally a non-government organisation.

At first, our committee focused on HIV prevention and treatment. Later, we realised that only taking up HIV-related issues will limit us.

We are experts on HIV because of our sexuality, however only taking up HIV will not resolve all the social issues we face, so we started to raise our voice through human rights campaigning.

On the basis of our human rights work, and our HIV/AIDS work we have built ourselves.

In recent times, there has been widespread human rights violations in Nepal. Has there been much risk involved in this work?

In previous years, because we have no legal protection in the law, we could not appeal to the police to protect us from violations.

Our community had to rely on sex work, we had no other means of livelihood. But now, the Blue Diamond Society is able to employ more than 500 people.

The society now has more than 35 offices in Nepal. We are already very influential.

Violence against the community was very great in previous years, but now, because we have support from other organisations, we are able to have confidence to do our work. But there is still some violence.

Do you do much work in rural areas? How does this differ from urban work?

If people in our community in rural areas, more than 95% I would say, become open about their sexuality, they are expelled from and have to leave their family, community and even village.

It is typical that those who have been expelled tend to centre around the cities. So we concentrate on city areas.

People move there and open up offices. Initially we had one office, but so many people got in contact with the society that we encouraged them to open up more offices in their area. In that way we are able to grow.

We have been able to increase our HIV prevention work, because we are recognised and work with the government's prevention plan. Because of this, we have been able to open up more offices.

What are your hopes for the new constitution and the "new Nepal"?

It is in the discussion process, and the Supreme Court has ordered the government to form a study committee that will research the needs of our community, international norms and make recommendations for the constituent assembly.

Is there any already noticeable difference in the attitudes of people? Is there more acceptance then there was a few years ago?

Ultimately, attitudes are changing. Our programs are bringing more people into contact with the LGBTI community.

The antagonisms between our community and society as whole are starting to slowly lessen. But even in developed nations things are not perfect and ideal.