Nepal is one of the most open countries in Asia for LGBT rights, with a robust movement for sexual minorities' equality. But even though gay rights have received widespread support, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people have been largely marginalized. Public ignorance, bias, and the absence of funding plague this population, and as a result, these groups face several grave issues.
Most lesbians who come out in Nepal are from poor families, and many have dropped out of school due to bullying or expulsion. They face an impoverished job market and suffer doubly because of discrimination that starts right at the job recruitment process. Disowned by their families and shunned by society for their gender nonconformity, some lesbians resort to drug abuse and run the risk of using infected syringes.
Since even many educated Nepalis believe that homosexuality is a psychological condition and a curable disease, lesbians and trans men are sometimes subjected to “corrective rape.” Men who feel threatened by queer women and transgender men are often rape perpetrators, punishing these women who dare to break out of oppressive gender binaries.
In the absence of safe hormone replacement therapy options, many LBT people self-medicate, which has alarming repercussions. Many bind their breasts and take nonprescribed drugs to reduce breast size. This can result in cancer, damaged ribs, lung collapse, spinal injuries, and other complications. Transgender men report wearing extremely tight clothes that caused breast complications and breathing problems. Some who can afford breast removal surgery opt for this method, but younger transgender men can’t afford to do so, and they often suffer medical complications later in life.
In addition, Nepal's patriarchal setup forces lesbians into heterosexual marriages — often through intense familial pressure — in order to counteract their “unnatural” desires. This can have dire consequences: When the husband realizes his wife can't satisfy him, sex outside marriage with sex workers increases, along with a much higher risk of sexually transmittable diseases brought home.
These issues, unfortunately, won't disappear with mere legislation. Such changes require a complete overhaul of the collective psyche — obviously easier said than done. The current need is the development of orientation programs to acquaint Nepali society with the existence of LBT people. Ignorance is an enormous part of the problem, but without funding, widespread education and raising awareness are impossible.
In 2013 the need for better protection and programming led to the formation of Inclusive Forum Nepal, an organization that works exclusively for lesbians, transgender men, and bisexual women. The founder, Badri Pun, identifies as a transgender man. He is also the first Nepali to obtain a passport in the-third gender category, although he prefers the word transgender, asking, “Who decides who is first, second, and third?”
Born in an obscure village in the country’s Myagdi district, Pun identified as male at the age of 12. As he worked with LGBT issues in Nepal’s capital city of Kathmandu, he realized that even under the broad LGBT umbrella, lesbians were suffering disproportionately due to the patriarchal society where female-born sexual “deviants” are considered lesser than their male-born counterparts. Provoked and motivated by this discrimination, he started IFN.
“It doesn't mean we isolate gays,” says Pun. “But our community has always played second fiddle to homosexual men, transgender women, eunuchs, and hijras, who are prioritized higher with regards to HIV prevention and other medical programs. We are just trying to fill that gap.”
IFN has conducted seven orientation programs to date, says Pun, which have helped to change the perception among Nepalis that lesbians are unnatural deviants: “Before a program, we contact the local leader for permission and invite him to … address the public, after which we take the stage. This is followed by an interactive Q&A session, which helps in gauging the receptivity of the people. This is the real indicator of whether the orientation has worked or not. … If funding were not an issue, we would take our orientation programs to every corner of Nepal.”
Some of Nepal's LGBT organizations, he says, use the L word as part of their LGBT identity to convince international donors that the cause is all-inclusive. When Pun worked with them and asked for lesbians to be tested for HIV, he was told that lesbians do not contract HIV, which is why funding was allocated for gays. “This isn't true, but since we're not exactly known for being sex workers who could infect male clients and subsequently their wives and society at large, we are overlooked,” says Pun.
Since IFN was created, it has been entirely volunteer-based; no one is paid a fixed salary. Pun’s friend Pradip Khadka (from Germany) sponsors the Internet connection, while a Japanese lesbian couple pays the office rent and other expenses.
Raising local funds in one of Asia's poorest countries is a Herculean task, especially if the cause itself is controversial. IFN applied for funds from the health ministry but received nothing. So LBT activism truly relies on foreign funding to stay alive, but because homosexuality is legal in Nepal, foreign funding on LBT issues would not be blocked or questioned as it is in countries like Cameroon, where homosexuality is criminalized.
While global funding for LBT people is approved and legal, embezzlement of international donations and misleading account management has been an unfortunate reality, casting the entire LGBT population in a disreputable light. But with a transparent, nonautocratic setup backed by regular financial reports, Pun said that he can reassure donors. The first steps he would push for are provision of medical facilities and vocational skills training. LBT people can also empower temselves economically by training in driving vehicles, farming, and travel and tourism.
Despite the separation of “gay” from LGBT, Pun says he sees the significance of standing together as a community. With local support and foreign funding, he believes that Nepal's LBT people can live a life of dignity, respect and self-reliance.
NICOLA DESOUZA is a freelance writer and documentary filmmaker based in Mumbai. She recently shot a short film with Nepali transgender activist and politician Bhumika Shrestha. This piece was originally posted on OpenDemocracy.net.