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What lies ahead for Nepal’s LGBTIQA+ community in 2022?

What lies ahead for Nepal’s LGBTIQA+ community in 2022?

Nepal is the first South Asian country to recognize transgenders and the first in the world to include a ‘third gender’ in its census. It’s been a decade since the ‘third’ option was added to voter rolls and immigration forms. The constitution of 2015 addresses the LGBTIQA+ community in Articles 12, 18, and 42, granting them social and political rights. But, behind the glossy façade, say the LGBTIQA+ community and those lobbying their cause, there are plenty of unresolved issues.

Bimala Gurung, program officer at Mitini Nepal, an organization lobbying for the rights and dignity of lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, says one of the main issues right now is the paucity of constitutionally protected rights for LGBTIQA+ individuals. That makes them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, she says, which is why Mitini Nepal will focus on stronger advocacy and awareness programs in 2022—besides lobbying for more economic opportunities for the LGBTIQA+ community. “Financial instability is one of many reasons people of the community are suffering. Providing them more career opportunities could fix some of the problems,” she says.

But Bhakti Shah, transgender activist, says they are so sidelined in every aspect that it’s disheartening and stressful. He says they aren’t even asking for special opportunities, just equal chances. The problem right now is that they are disqualified from the get-go because of their sexual orientation. “You can never compete when you don’t even stand a chance,” he says. The society puts up a pretense of acceptance while silently trying to wish their existence away and that complicates things even more. One reason Nepal looks progressive on paper but lags behind in reality are the many loopholes that make rule-implementation impossible.

Also read: Nilam Poudel: Carve out space for LGBTIQA+ community in every sector 

Bhumika Shrestha, vice-chairman of an organization advocating LGBTIQA+ rights, gives the example of acquiring a citizenship that, for most, is a birthright but for people of LGBTIQA+ community, it’s still a major challenge. It’s now possible to obtain a citizenship identifying as ‘others’ but there are issues that complicate the matter. The government requires a sex change operation certificate and not all can afford the expensive surgery. Many might not even want to undergo the procedure for personal reasons but it’s a compromise you must make if you want a citizenship. “So many people in our community couldn’t get the Covid-19 vaccine as they didn’t have the documents required to prove their nationality. The same thing happened when the government distributed food and other essential items to daily wage workers during the lockdowns. No identification meant no help,” says Shrestha.

Identity crisis and lack of self-worth are indeed huge issues in the LGBTIQA+ community, adds Shah. The foundation of every other right for the community lies in first establishing and accepting LGBTIQA+ identities. Everything else hinges on this, says the activist. “Once that issue is resolved, I believe we can fruitfully work on the rest,” he says. Shrestha too believes that unless their identities are firmly established, they will always be ignored. “Disasters are difficult times and it’s worse for us as we won’t get any government help. We have nowhere to go,” she says.

The citizenship issue is something the LGBTIQA+ community has been lobbying for almost 20 years, with little success, says Pinky Gurung, president of Blue Diamond Society. They are hoping the 2021 Nepal census will give them the data to finally put pressure on the government to include them in their plans and policies. “Policymakers have their own biases and agendas. They listen to us and agree to discuss things but nothing ever comes out of it. Hopefully, once we have data, we can get their attention,” she says.  

Also read: LGBTIQA+ community of Nepal: Life on the margins 

The inclusion of third gender in the census is a hopeful start of some really imperative changes to come. But as many families still hesitate to reveal the true identities of their children, the data might not be entirely accurate. Greater sensitivity and understanding are needed for wider social acceptance. Shrestha says the main issue is that many still don’t understand homosexuality. There have been instances of school boys being taunted and harassed for ‘behaving like a girl’. Revising our school curriculum to include LGBTIQA+ stories and such could help foster a more inclusive environment and normalize things.

Marriage equality also needs to be prioritized, agree those ApEx spoke to. Not legalizing same-sex marriage means there is a lot of uncertainty in relationships and that, in many cases, has led to domestic violence. Our patriarchal and conservative society is a breeding ground for violence and the situation is worse in the LGBTIQA+ community where relationships are fickle because of lack of legal recognition. Shah says a lot of people have had mental health issues and even tried to commit suicide after their partners left them. “People in our community feel insecure in their relationships and that often leads to misunderstandings and physical and mental abuse,” he says.

Sunita Lama, LGBTIQA+ rights activist, says change must start at home. She says she feels disheartened by the lack of change in people’s mindset. But they can’t afford to lose hope, she says, as family acceptance is important if they are to ever feel safe and worthy. In the coming year, Lama hopes there is more societal acceptance as a result of families embracing their children irrespective of their sexual orientation. “Social acceptance is the only thing that can bring about policy level changes,” she says. Lama says lack of policies is the direct result of the authorities simply not trying to understand LGBTIQA+ issues because of their underlying biases.

The LGBTIQA+ individuals ApEx spoke to say their lives oscillate between stress and fear. With the odds stacked against them and no one to turn to, every day is a struggle. They have been lobbying for their rights for so long and have so little to show for it that they have lost hope of drastic change in their lifetime. But working today for a better tomorrow, so at least the next generation won’t have to go through what they did, motivates them to carry on. In 2022, like every other year, they hope to achieve a few milestones but, in their hearts, they know it’s going to be like every other year—one step forward, two steps back.