KATHMANDU — It’s a Friday night in Ratna Park, ground zero for Kathmandu’s gay and transgender sex workers. The sun went down hours ago, but the leftover heat drapes itself around bodies, some for sale, some shopping. I’m here for Boby, a dark-eyed beauty wearing a long cardigan over a tight tank top and tighter jeans.
Boby, 27, happens to have been born male. Here in Nepal, they call people like Boby “third genders.” Third gender Nepalis describe themselves as not basing their gender on biology and perhaps not having a fixed sexual orientation. Not all third gender people are gay, and vice versa.
To an American, this park is an oddity. Not because of the prostitution. But because of the attitude of the sex workers. In this crowded little corner of Kathmandu where the bat of an eye buys you a date for the night, the sexually charged atmosphere was not one of aggression or hostility, even from the large curious crowd that gathered around me, my translator and Boby. It was more like business as usual on a typical Friday night.
“I can work here, out in the open, and feel relatively safe,” Boby says. “People who come here know what they are coming for. I am not afraid or ashamed to be a third-gender.”
Nepal is very socially conservative in some ways: women, for example, don’t bare their shoulders or their knees. But it’s in the progressive forefront of the biggest American civil liberties issue of the day: gay and transgender rights.
Diamond is a third gender’s best friend
I first met Boby earlier that day at the headquarters of the Blue Diamond Society of Nepal, where she serves on the board. It’s the country’s first and most powerful non-profit organization promoting sexual and transgender equality.
The Society’s cramped, steamy offices in Nepal’s capital contain too many desks, too many people and too few ceiling fans. People were running around and speaking rapidly in Nepali, punctuated again and again with “Obama.” The talk, my translator told me, centered on the American president’s announcement earlier that week that he supports same-sex marriage.
The vice president of the Blue Diamond Society, Manisha Dhakal, says she and other third gender Nepalese were ecstatic about Obama’s stand on same-sex marriage. “Obama’s statement and support can influence other countries,” says Dhakal, who was born male, but identifies as female. “It’s important that he speaks out on this issue because it helps validate the work we do at BDS.”
Nepal is tiny, landlocked and extremely poor. Paradoxically, Barack Obama and the United States need to play catch-up if they want to match Nepal when it comes to supporting and promoting the rights of gays, lesbians and third genders. While it caused not too much stir in the U.S. last week when the powerful Hollywood director Larry Wachowski (“The Matrix,” “Speed Racer”) publicly revealed he was now a she, Lana, the U.S. is not as open to transgender people as Nepal.
“We are the most friendly country for third genders,” said Bhumika Shrestah, the first openly third gender member of the political party Nepali Congress. Shrestah is a stare-inducing beauty, slender with a feminine frame and full (albeit silicone) breasts. She’s made a successful career as a model in Nepal.
The obvious but critical question is: Why Nepal? How can a conservative, economically backwards country lead the world in a socially progressive issue like third-gender rights?
Three reasons contain the answer.
First, geopolitics. “Because Nepal was never officially colonized, they didn’t have the colonial, oppressive laws that a lot of post-colonial countries are in the process of appealing,” says Kyle Knight, an America Fulbright scholar studying Nepal’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) rights movement. “The contemporary LGBTI movement here isn’t fighting against specific laws that outlawed what they were doing. Rather, they want to change the laws to recognize full, fundamental equality.”
Two, Hinduism. Some 80 percent of Nepalis are Hindu and know Ardhanarisawar, the androgynous, merged form of Lord Shiva and the goddess Parvathi. The concept of a third gender exists as a longstanding part of religious practice.
Three, Sunil Babu Pant, who founded the Blue Diamond Society in 2001. In 2008, Pant became the first openly gay (he does not consider himself third gender) parliamentarian in Nepal.
The Gandhi of Nepal
“Sunil is the Gandhi of Nepal,” says George Ionita, project manager at the United Nations Development Program office in Nepal. “What Gandhi did for independence and freedom in India, Sunil is doing for gay and third gender rights in Nepal. Just like Gandhi led by example, so is Sunil. He galvanized an entire community to come out of the closet and be proud of who they are.”
Pant won a landmark ruling before Nepal’s highest court in 2007 that legalized homosexuality, making Nepal the first country in Asia to do so. The ruling also officially recognized “third genders” as citizens with equal rights. In 2011, thanks to Pant’s advocacy, including threatening to sue the country’s Central Bureau of Statistics, Nepal became the first country to have a third gender category on its national census.
“No one denies our existence now, even as we fight on for equal rights,” Pant says. “Bureaucracy moves slowly here, but we are working on it and moving forward.”
Still, said Knight, prejudice against third genders remains. “Transgender people still face high levels of discrimination, there’s no question about that,” he says. “In some ways, especially on paper, this is the most successful LGBTI rights movement the world has ever seen. In other ways, in the day-to-day lives of people, it’s not quite there yet.”
For instance, Nepalis must have a citizenship card. But it’s very hard for third gender people to get one. Badri Pun, who was born female but considers himself male, is only the third person in Nepal to hold a citizenship card that officially recognizes him as third gender.
Pun, who had a card listing him as female, which no longer matched his appearance, got his card early this year after he spent 11 days and nights camped out in the gravel courtyard of the government building where the cards are issued. “I ran out of money after a few days,” Pun says. “I couldn’t afford to eat, so I went hungry. But I knew what I was fighting for, and all that thirst and hunger disappeared when my new citizenship card was issued.”
“The government has not supported this issue at all,” he says.
The government declined to talk with Latitude News, in part because it was partially shut down by strikes and protests over Nepal’s proposed new constitution. But, during the week I was in Kathmandu, officials announced that the government would begin issuing new citizenship cards in earnest. Pun believes President Obama’s announcement on same-sex marriage prompted the Nepalese government to act now.
Third gender citizenship cards will help continue to bring many in Nepal out of the shadows, but it won’t help get Boby off the streets at Ratna Park, at least not anytime soon.
“This is the job I have. This is how I make money to pay the rent,” she says. Job opportunities in Asia’s second-least-developed country are few, even for those under the best of circumstances. And this is still very much a country and a society in transition – one of the many challenges of being the leader is that there is no one to follow.