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No safe space for Nepal’s LGBTIQA+ community

Discrimination, LGBTIQA+ people agree, starts at home. Families try to ‘cure’ them when they finally muster up the courage to open up. Many are taken to see the doctor and prescribed antidepressants

No safe space for Nepal’s LGBTIQA+ community

Home is a safe space. But not for everyone. It’s often a hostile ground for LGBTIQA+ individuals. Most are harassed and abused when they come out. When violence happens at home, where do you go? When your family doesn’t accept you, who do you turn to?

A little over a year ago, a 15-year-old trans girl died by suicide. According to Pinky Gurung, president of Blue Diamond Society (BDS), Nepal’s oldest queer rights organization, the girl was being harassed at home after disclosing her gender identity. Two years before her death, she had written a letter to BDS mentioning how her family was mistreating her.

“Most cases of violence aren’t reported as people don’t want to complain against their family members,” says Gurung. Sometimes, these individuals reach out to organizations like BDS or those from the community. But, Gurung adds, family counseling and mediation can do only so much in the absence of strict laws.

Nepal, despite its pro-queer global image, struggles with the acceptance of different gender identities. Despite progressive constitutional provisions, members of the community face all kinds of discrimination. This limits their access to proper healthcare, education, employment opportunities, and legal protection. Dignity becomes a dream.

Discrimination, LGBTIQA+ people agree, starts at home. Families try to ‘cure’ them when they finally muster up the courage to open up. Many are taken to see the doctor and prescribed antidepressants. When that doesn’t ‘set them straight’, beating them into submission is considered another option. 

“Discrimination paves the way for domestic and sexual violence,” says Sunita Lama, a transgender rights activist and sex worker. She adds the violence that LGBTIQA+ people experience stems from rigid and hierarchical ideas about sex, gender, and sexuality.

In a study conducted by UN Women, four in five LGBTIQA+ respondents said they had experienced at least one incident of violence. Out of 1,181 respondents, 81 percent reported being victims of violence based on their gender identity or sexual orientation, with 71 percent experiencing emotional violence, 46 percent physical violence, 46 percent sexual violence, and 40 percent economic violence.

The report, titled ‘Evidence to action: Addressing violence against LGBTIQA+ people in Nepal’, further stated that violence was compounded by factors such as socioeconomic status, disability, and caste or ethnicity. The report added that the LGBTIQA+ community, besides battling plenty of stigmas, faces problems related to legal protection, gender recognition, and marriage equality, all of which increase their hardships.

Manisha Dhakal, executive director of BDS, says there isn’t much information, data, or studies on the community. Even in the case of the few studies that have been carried out, there is no follow up. Despite the LGBTIQA+ people regularly facing violence—at home, on the streets, at the workplace—little is being done to tackle it.

Domestic violence largely implies violence against women. The LGBTIQA+ community finds itself sidelined here too. There is no proper mechanism for reporting violence, says Gurung. The police are usually indifferent—refusing to take down their complaints and going as far as to blame the victims.

Lama says the situation is worse for sex workers. There have been times the authorities have refused to believe they could be at the receiving end of violence. The common mindset is that transgenders are aggressive. “The police would rather just lock us up than listen to us,” she says.

There have been a lot of campaigns and programs against violence but most of these have only addressed violence against women, claims the LGBTIQA+ community. The media, rights activists, and the government all have a role to play in this. There is extensive reporting and response to violence against women in comparison to violence against other forms of gender. 

“There’s no denying that our society, at large, is still uncomfortable with queerness,” says Lama. Nepal has recently registered its first same-sex marriage, making it the second country in South Asia to do so. However, heterosexual relationships still enjoy a special status in our society.

ApEx asked 20 random people, in Pulchowk and Khumaltar in Lalitpur, if they were comfortable with different forms of non-heterosexual relationships. Most refused to talk about it, a few expressed their disgust with typical Nepali slang—chhya!—and two had to be explained what it meant. Only one, in her 20s, said ‘love is love’.

Organizations lobbying for LGBTIQA+ rights have been conducting awareness programs but the impact is subdued with no outside help. Gender studies is not a part of our school curriculum and gender stereotyping—think blue rooms, cars, and short hair for boys and pink dresses, dolls, and braids for girls—is still the norm.

The rigid notions of sex leave no room for deviation. And any deviation is feared, mocked, and shunned. This mindset in itself is a form of violence, says the community. It is what makes them vulnerable to other, more visible, forms of abuse.

According to a study by the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law, LGBTIQA+ people are about six times more likely to experience violence by someone they know well and about 2.5 times more likely to be at the receiving end of it at the hands of a stranger, compared to non-LGBTIQA+ people.

LGBTIQA+ people are at increased risk of domestic violence from their partners as they often have nowhere to go. Most have been disowned by their parents and legal recourse is often difficult to pursue. Lama says the partners know this and often take advantage of it. “Prior experiences of physical or psychological trauma, such as bullying and hate crime, also make LGBTIQA+ victims of domestic violence less likely to seek help,” she says.

Sarita KC, executive director of Mitini Nepal, which has been working for queer rights in Nepal since 2002, says violence against the community isn’t addressed because of authorities’ underlying biases and lack of laws. Apart from the lack of family and societal acceptance, there is little to no representation at the policy level.

“There is less participation of LGBTIQA+ people in politics and in places where our voices could be heard,” she says. Queerphobia runs deep even when it isn’t immediately obvious. This makes change difficult, and a socio-cultural shift even more so.

Worse, violence against the community is justified by those who actually have the power to do something about it. Families use it to try to fix them. The police blame their queerness. Surely, by flaunting their over-the-top personalities, they were asking for it. Lama says the police have told many of her friends who have been abused that they must have done something to instigate fights. 

Violence in the LGBTIQA+ community takes many forms, from slurs and intimidation to abuse and even murder. In March 2019, Junu Gurung, a transwoman, was brutally beaten. She died from her injuries two days later. In January 2020, Ajita Bhujel, a transwoman, was strangled to death in Hetauda by a group of youths.

Gurung says it’s going to take a lot more than just awareness programs to curb violence in the LGBTIQA+ community. Nepal must have a proper mechanism to address violence. It must also ensure that victims get justice, despite their gender identity or sexual orientation. She says many community people hesitate to file complaints as they know nothing will be done. Their cases, registered after much pleading and palm-greasing, will be another paper in a dusty file somewhere. 

Violence, KC adds, is a daily reality for the LGBTIQA+ community—in buses, public spaces, schools and colleges, hospitals, and other service providers. There is online harassment as well. KC says their posts on Facebook elicit a lot of hateful and hurtful comments. “Our rights and space are constantly being violated but without public support, we can’t do much about it,” she says.