Nepal is gearing up for the general and provincial elections—to elect the 275 members of the federal House of Representatives and 330 members of the seven provincial assemblies—on Nov 20 this year. But the LGBTIQA+ community feels grossly underrepresented and marginalized again, much like in the local elections earlier in May. Despite Article 42 of the 2015 constitution guaranteeing them equal rights in all important state organs, the reality is that lesbians, gays, and transgenders are still easily dismissed.
“It’s one thing to make laws about equality and inclusion but quite another to put them into practice,” says Sunita Lama, transgender rights activist. She doesn’t want to vote in the general elections because “it doesn’t matter who is elected”. Unless there are candidates from their community, their issues will again be sidelined. “No one else will work for us,” she says. Lily Thapa of the National Human Rights Commission supports her claims and says there is little participation of the LBGTIQA+ community in politics. “They were sidelined in the local elections too. It’s a human rights violation,” she says.
Surya Prasad Aryal, assistant spokesperson, Election Commission of Nepal, says there are only 185 people registered under the ‘others’ category in the voter list. It’s still too early to determine how many candidates from the LGBTIQA+ community are going to contest the elections. He says each party has to meet certain criteria for inclusiveness. But the problem goes beyond what happens at election time. That is just one of the many repercussions of a much larger issue of identity crisis.
The fact that the government has tried to force-fit all identities into a single category doesn’t sit well with the LGBTIQA+ community. Transgender males identify themselves as males while transgender females identify themselves as females. ‘Others’ is basically meant for those who don’t identify with either male or female. In the previous elections, there have been issues of gender minorities not being allowed to queue with the gender they identify with. Using an umbrella term for all sexual identities is unfair and undermines their worth, say community members.
“It’s humiliating to be a transgender woman and then be called by your dead name [the birth name of a transgender person],” says Lama, adding this makes many people from their community hesitant to participate in the elections. Bhakti Shah, activist, Blue Diamond Society (BDS), says they have been lobbying political parties to include them in the upcoming elections by making the polls safe and inclusive.
Shah is hopeful Dilu Buduja (Badri Pun), a transgender man, and Shilpa Chaudhary, a transgender woman, both from the CPN (Unified Socialist) party, chaired by Madhav Kumar Nepal, will get elected. That way, they will at least have someone to voice their concerns in parliament and their issues could then be addressed at policy level. Following Sunil Babu Pant, who became the country’s first gay MP after the 2008 polls, some members of the LGBTIQA+ community had contested the elections in the hopes of repeating the feat.
In 2013, Bhumika Shrestha got a seat in Nepali Congress and won the second Constituent Assembly election that year. Her name was then recommended for the federal elections in 2017 but she was later told it had to be pulled back as her citizenship stated her name as ‘Kailash Shrestha’. Laxmi Ghalan, who founded Mitini Nepal, an NGO working for lesbian rights, was another gender minority candidate contesting the 2013 CA election.
In 2017, Pinky Gurung, president of BDS, contested the federal parliament elections as a candidate from the Naya Shakti Nepal Party. In the same year, Pun was barred from contesting local level elections in his home district of Myagdi as his citizenship was issued under the ‘third’ category. The district election officer told him he was neither male nor female and was thus disqualified.
“The government has included ‘third’ gender in voter rolls, immigration forms, citizenship, and the census. But it’s still largely for show, to appear progressive,” says Pun. Lamenting the fact that people of the LGBTIQA+ community still face many challenges while applying for citizenship, he says this limits their agency and access to important national events like the elections.
Elyn Bhandari, activist, BDS, says he isn’t going to vote in the upcoming elections as he isn’t yet on the voter list. The reason is that he would have had to register as a female and he isn’t comfortable with that. “I want to vote in the elections because it’s our right. But I’m not going to unless my citizenship is changed to identify me as male,” he says.
Manisha Dhakal, director, BDS, agrees with Bhandari. As a transgender woman, she too feels discriminated when she can’t exercise her right in the way she wants. She says political parties are going against the constitution by not including them in their manifestos and not filing their names as candidates. Representatives from the community are holding discussions and workshops with different political parties on how this can be rectified, in the hope of changing things in future elections, if not the upcoming one.
In 2007, Nepal’s Supreme Court ordered the government to end discrimination against the then estimated 350,000 people who made up the LGBTIQA+ community. Homosexuality became legal. This landmark ruling paved the way for equal rights legislation. Since then, it’s been easier for LGBTIQA+ people to come out, without the fear of persecution. But the bias and aversion are still palpable, says Nilam Poudel, transgender activist, model and makeup artist.
There have been instances when people have talked about the CPN (Unified Socialist) party as ‘that party which has unnatural people’ in it. Political parties seem to have much to lose by bringing in gays and lesbians. Pun, who belongs to the party, doubts he has gotten the candidacy to represent the LGBTIQA+ community. He says he and his entire family have been involved in politics for far too long not to be picked.
Poudel says LGBTIQA+ issues are a political agenda for the parties. There is rarely any commitment to uplift the community. She knows many LGBTIQA+ people won’t vote as they have lost all faith in political parties and the system. “Different political parties have approached me. They have tried to convince me and my friends to vote for them. They say they will guarantee our rights if they win. But I can tell, based on past experiences, that these are empty promises,” she says.
Swastika Pariyar, who works at Mitini Nepal, says she too won’t be voting in the general elections. She isn’t interested as the community has never received any political support. But she says there is definitely a need for LGBTIQA+ people to participate in politics. “Madhesis and Dalits, who are marginalized too, have their own candidates in different parties. We need that too,” she says.
Pun, on the other hand, thinks there’s a long way to go for that. Political parties aren’t progressive enough. The biases run too deep. Instead, the community could come together and form their own party. But running a political party is an expensive affair. The LGBTIQA+ community is also divided as many people have problems with one another. It needs to give serious thought to how to come together and work for a better future, Pun adds, and not put little rifts over life-altering reforms.
Raunaq Singh Adhikari, advocate, says not including LGBTIQA+ people in important state organs is just a bureaucratic hurdle. From a legal standpoint, much is in favor of the community. Despite the constitutional protections, there’s still a certain level of homophobia and transphobia in those in power.
“It takes time for the Supreme Court’s directives to be implemented. Those who should be working on it are not doing so,” says Adhikari. For instance, the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that people should get citizenship based on the mother’s name but when people go to the ward office, they are denied this right. “We are limited by our mindsets, not by our laws,” he says.