In our blog for June, Sunil Babu Pant helps us understand challenges the HIV-affected LGBTI community in Nepal faces, made worse by the recent earthquakes.
Nepal, as you may well know has been in the news lately, severely devastated by high magnitude quakes that repeatedly hit my mountainous country since April 25. The earthquakes wrecked buildings and hutments alike and severely affected rural areas. While the actual number of those dead may never be know, one thing is sure that at least one in four people are directly affected. While the world looks to helping Nepal, I would like to talk about the challenges LGBTI people, who are more severely affected by HIV than any other group, face. Understanding their problems even under normal circumstances will help us appreciate what the community now faces following the earthquakes. Our situation has only just become worse because of the earthquakes.
If you are gay and living in Nepal, you may not face death threats and physical violence but your sexuality and/or gender identity is still largely disapproved of by society. ‘Passive’ intolerance towards the LGBTI community often comes as naturally as the tolerance Nepal’s society, Hindu religion and culture is otherwise noted for. Nepal may never have had anti-gay legislation but its laws have for a long time been misinterpreted by state authorities to target LGBTI people. Nepal continues to live this dichotomy and although it has transformed from a monarchy to a republic, from absolute rule to a democracy, its people still live in a time warp of socially sanctioned intolerance towards us.
Take the case of Suresh [not his real name], a 23-year-old youth born male with a feminine nature (often refereed to as a third gender). He told me his heart-rending story of how at the age of 11 he was married off by his family to ‘cure’ him of his ‘illness’. He didn’t understand marriage then and scared for his life, ran away to eke out a living dancing and begging. Suresh was found by his elder brother at the age of 14 and forcibly brought home only to be married again to another girl. This was under normal circumstances. Following the earthquakes, I have heard stories of how people such as Suresh are finding it difficult to access healthcare, support for food and other emergency support services. Where would a person like Suresh go? Current services are only allocated for ‘men’ or ‘women’ and so a person like Suresh is unable to get food rations, relief aid or even use community toilets.
Under normal circumstances, even in death, it is not uncommon to still feel the intolerance. I myself have carried the body of a transgender person who died from an HIV-related disease from temple to temple begging for her body to be cremated. Being a third gender person almost automatically puts a person at a disadvantage. On top of that HIV is such a stigmatized disease that even temple priests refused to cremate the body. Eventually, I found a small Hindu-Buddhist temple that was willing to perform the last rites.
STRENGTH IN NUMBERS
People ask me why I do the things I do. How can I not when so much injustice prevails in our society? The reason is simple. Either you silently witness and suffer the injustice or you rise up for justice. I chose to rise up for justice no matter what the price because it’s worth it. Individual people can make a difference but individual people working together in a concerted way can not only make a far greater difference but also impact and change the way society thinks. That is why I graduated from distributing condoms at cruising spots in Kathmandu to founding in 2001 the Blue Diamond Society, Nepal’s first organisation for sexual and gender minorities and at that time the only local NGO providing sexual health services for the third gender, gay men and men who have sex with men.
We must put as much energy as we can into HIV/AIDS work so as to make this into a rights movement that becomes an irrevocable part of Nepal’s international image
Within a few years of being registered, the Blue Diamond Society in 2004 was hauled to court for encouraging homosexuality. Although it didn’t seem like it then, it was a blessing in disguise because the Supreme Court had to clarify Nepal’s position on homosexuality. Nepal does not have an “unnatural sex” law to censor gay men (that the colonial British left behind in neighbouring India) but it does have an “unnatural sex” clause that refers to bestiality and which state authorities have used to target LGBTI people. Hence, the government was asked to explain why the “unnatural sex” clause did not render the Blue Diamond Society illegal and the government was forced to concede that homosexuality was not a criminal issue. The Blue Diamond Society then took the government to court demanding an end to all forms of violence and discrimination against sexual and gender minorities and to ensure legal equality for sexual and gender minorities.
After eight months in 2007, the Supreme Court in a historic verdict ordered the Nepal government to recognize a third gender, amend all discriminatory laws and look into same-sex marriage. This was largely because the Blue Diamond Society had moved from an initiative of a few people to have 40+ centres across the country involving at least 250,000 people, and so could even demand official recognition of sexual and gender minorities and their rights. The violence against LGBTI from police has reduced since 2007 but little has changed since then in terms of the LGBTI community members’ socio-economic conditions. The government especially has been extremely slow to implement the Supreme Court’s decision. The popular perception that same-sex relations are unnatural is changing but only slowly. It will take a long time for the public to view LGBTI people positively, especially when the law does not recognize or protect them.
LGBTI, DISCRIMINATION AND HIV
As elsewhere in Asia, the LGBTI community besides being targeted for our sexual orientation was also at the receiving end of discrimination because we carry a disproportionate burden of the HIV epidemic. This, particularly in Nepal, has led to atrocities against the LGBTI – atrocities that in some cases can range from having your throat slit after being forced to perform oral sex to being detained without charge and constant harassment from security personnel. Human Rights Watch even went as far as to describe atrocities against the LGBTI community in Nepal as “sexual cleansing.” However things are improving since 2007. As more and more sexual and gender minorities are coming out, more HIV and human rights services are available. There is even a thriving movement of LGBTIs in Nepal with 40+ LGBTI community based organizations forming the Federation of Sexual and Gender Minority Nepal.
Following the earthquakes, with normal infrastructure totally destroyed or in disarray, the LGBTI community which is most affected by HIV is finding it difficult to cope. Their support structures, places where they would meet and collect medicines — so important for their remaining healthy — has been reduced to rubble. Many people within their support group are missing or dead. With humanitarian relief aid and reconstruction being a priority, HIV-related physical and mental health services for the LGBTI community seem less important.
THE WAY FORWARD
Despite such insurmountable challenges, experience has shown me that collectively we can make a difference. Intolerance breeds contempt which in turn breeds hatred all because people are either uninformed or misinformed. Unless the community identifies itself as a coherent group, fights for its rights and makes sure they are protected, help others understand what it is, what it stands for and the unjust challenges we face, society will always view us as outsiders. Together, we can and have challenged norms and changed laws to make a difference in real people’s lives.
That is why we must as a group deliberately be sought after in international HIV/AIDS and LGBTI circles. We must put as much energy as we can into HIV/AIDS work so as to make this into a rights movement that becomes an irrevocable part of Nepal’s international image. This is because HIV/AIDS work and work for the LGBTI community cannot be distanced from each other. They are closely co-related. The earthquakes that have ravaged Nepal make this even more immediate.
I understand that coming out can never be easy. I know people are scared of being open. I know too that we will most surely suffer at first for coming out. But it is also true that now more than before if we come out and suffer for a while, we very well together can change things in the long run — especially if we have each other to support and be supported by. That has been our story.