The light

The Light of Knowledge

At eight or nine years old, I started realizing that I was a woman. I was the youngest in my family, and nobody said anything when I wrapped myself in my sister’s dresses. They were way too big for me. My elder brother even used to do my make-up and dress me like a doll. He built me like a beautiful doll, put me in a chair, and left me, saying, “If you are happy with this, just stay like this but please let me go study.”

At that time, my name was a male’s name, Krishna, which is also the name of a God famous for being a playboy. When people were calling me by that name, I never realized that I was a man. I always thought I was a woman. I was not the son but the daughter of my parents. Then I stopped wearing women’s dress and make-up. Since then, I felt I was living a double role in my life: a male role for society and a female role for myself.

When I entered a new class in 7th grade, I usually wore men’s clothing, but I always clung to the girls in my class. There was pressure to walk and talk with the boys. They were interested in playing football and volleyball, and everybody noticed that this one guy was not playing these sports. Teachers started telling me that my eyes, my soft cheeks, my soft hands, and my small and thin voice were just like a girl’s. I also never had a moustache and a beard on my face as I grew up. Part of me felt happy to be acknowledged for who I was, but because I was in a man’s clothing, I felt embarrassed. At different times, I wanted to show them that I was either not a girl or that I was a girl. I felt very sad and confused.

When I entered college, people would often turn to me and ask, “What kind of voice do you have? Your voice is so girlish but you are a boy.” They would call me derogatory words like chakka.1Chakka is a derogatory word that is directed at many sexual and gender minorities, particularly transgender women and gay or bisexual men who don’t conform to traditional codes of masculinity. Later on, I felt too discouraged to go to class. I still passed my exams, but those incidents led me to study from home.

Due to the financial situation of my family, I started teaching in the community school near my home in the town of Bhaktapur, a mid-sized ancient city near Kathmandu. While I was teaching, I heard from my students, “Oh, what kind of teacher is this? This teacher has a feminine voice and acts like a woman?” Students gossiped about my eyes and my body structure, and their parents were also equally curious. Nobody was saying anything to my face.

Once there was an article published in the newspaper about a homosexual marriage between two foreign women. My villagers knew about these two females who lived together and got married in Nepal. Slowly, I started hearing about those kinds of things—that there are people attracted to the same sex. I came to know that there are people like me, who feel like a man but are women or feel like a woman but are actually men. Then I came to know that there is an organization working for these types of people in Kathmandu. I was at rock bottom. After the passage of time, everything went in an opposite way. I kept wondering, How can I expose myself? If I expose myself, I’ll go crazy.

Everyone wanted me to get married to a woman. This is how it is in Nepal. Arranged marriages are still more common than love marriages.2In Nepal, “love marriages” are marriages in which people choose their own partners as opposed to partnerships arranged by the family. Parents feel that their child is their responsibility until he or she is married. They think, If we give them a good family and marry them into a good family, they will not have any sorrow or come across harm. Their future will be secure enough. I made so many excuses: “I do not have my job yet, I haven’t completed my Bachelor’s yet, first I would like to complete my studies, and then only will I get married with a girl.” I said anything to delay it. I was so isolated at that time because I was silent. After my family went to bed, I would always start crying because I felt like I had no choice. For two years during my Bachelor’s, I put some clothes in my mouth to cry at night so that nobody could hear, but I wished I could cry in a super loud voice. I wanted to relieve myself. I was in a critical depression. I cried for two years. If somebody asked me to do something, I would usually forget those things once I entered my house. That’s a trait of depression: you usually forget everything very quickly. I always thought about ways to die. I didn’t want to eat my food, I didn’t have any kind of interests, and I was so, so, so isolated. I only worked on my schoolwork.

In my third year of the Bachelor’s program, I joined the college with my friends again. They were all new people to me. Being around people helped me get rid of my depression. I began seeing a therapist. I also met a best friend, who was actually a boy, and I explained everything to him. That situation was very relieving because I actually got to share my feelings with another human being. I acted as the mediator and messenger between him and a girl he liked. In that way, we became good friends. At that time, I still dressed as a man, but I shared my whole story with him, including the confusion I’ve felt since my childhood. I came to realize that my feelings were never going to change, so I decided to contact the Blue Diamond Society, the NGO for sexual and gender minorities in Nepal. My therapist told me to try and meet other transgender women and to be open to these kinds of things.

As per her advice, I started coming to Blue Diamond Society on Saturdays. I felt a very different kind of satisfaction when I shared my feelings with these community members. I came to realize that I’m not alone. Until then, it was unimaginable that other people could be feeling the same thing. There were other community members kicked out of their homes, rejected from their families, and expelled from their schools all because of their sexual orientation and gender identity. I learned that many of them are forced to do sex work to live. In reality, I felt fortunate. My family was accepting me to a certain degree. I was still staying with my parents and had an opportunity to continue my education. I decided to start thinking positively about my life. Okay, I should live. I should do something with my life. I can’t do it for anyone else. I found lots of community members who were deprived of their education because their family shunned them. Thinking all of those things, I joined a Masters program at a university.

I was searching for an ideal kind of media that might help me disclose my identity. The media has that kind of convincing power. I thought, If it’s conveyed as information given through the media, my family might have a better chance of accepting me. Then I got a job as a peer educator at Blue Diamond Society’s branch office in my hometown of Bhaktapur. At that very time, Blue Diamond Society organized a beauty pageant contest for transgender women. I saw this pageant as the best opportunity for me to disclose my identity to my parents. I had no more excuses. It was perfect timing.

I planned to meet with my parents, brothers, sisters, sisters-in-law, nephews, nieces, uncles, and aunts, grandparents—all of them at the same time. I knew that in the worst case scenario I would still have the Blue Diamond Society. While everyone was seated around the chulo,3Round seats that surround the central stove in Nepali kitchens.  I explained each and every feeling: how I had been isolated and what those years of depression were like. I told them, “Okay, if you want me to get married, I can’t marry a girl. If you consider my happiness, I must marry a boy. This is my natural preference.” I continuously showed them articles explaining that other people are like this too, and I shared that I was working with Blue Diamond Society as a peer educator. I told them that I wanted to raise my voice for sexual minorities. “I will do as much good as I can possibly do,” and I told them, “I will never fail you. I will never create any kind of situation where I’ll embarrass you because I’m a transgender woman, but I have to fight for our rights and ensure that there will be laws protecting us.”

My family never showed any objection. In place of that, they asked me, “Why did you hide yourself? If you shared this with us, you may not have felt so isolated or alone.” Everyone just encouraged me, except my sister-in-law was very worried. She thought we could find medicine to cure me. She was totally unaware of how these issues existed and was worried about the backlash of the villagers.

But my father and siblings said, “Okay, you are educated, you know what is right and what is wrong. Please be a role model for this village. Maybe it’s not necessary to get married and have children. However you want to live your life, it’s okay for us.” That was the happiest day of my life. I felt like a bird flying freely through a giant blue sky.

Then I participated in the beauty pageant. As I was starting at Tribhuvan University for my Master’s degree, I began coming out as a transgender woman. A Nepali guy studying in England wanted to make a video about me and the beauty pageant, which involved filming me at the university. He was interested in shooting a film about my family’s accepting attitudes. I was the first transgender woman who was exposed in front of that kind of huge crowd at Tribhuvan University, the school where students from all over Nepal gather together for their studies. Everybody wished me well and hoped that I would win the beauty pageant. I think the filming was why people took it very positively.

One day when I arrived home, I saw an article about the beauty pageant cut out and hung it on the wall. My brother had written, “Congratulations Jyoti for your success.” I had won the pageant’s HIV/AIDS Ambassador prize, and I had also changed my name from Krishna to Jyoti specifically for this pageant. My family members kept saying I should be a role model, so that gave me a clue for my new name. “Jyoti” is short for a Nepali name that means “light of knowledge.” After I was in the newspaper, the villagers of Bhaktapur also came to know me as transgender. Because they started gossiping about my character, it was not very easy to walk freely in front of the villagers, so I looked for other opportunities to educate them.

In October and November, we hold the second largest festival of Nepal called Tihar.4The “festival of lights,” also known as Diwali in Northern India. During Tihar we celebrate for five days: for the first day, we worship the crow because crows send us messages; on the second day, we worship the dog because there is a belief that after we die there will be a big, big dog in front of the door of Yamraj, the God of the dead, and if we don’t worship the dogs we cannot be let in; on the third day, we worship the cow and Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. That very day, the third day, I dressed up like a female in my own home, and I went out to the town square, where the cultural program with microphones was held. I took ten minutes at the microphone to explain my identity. On a stage! In front of a microphone! Most of the older generation believed that my speech was a theater performance, and the small kids thought it was drama too, but I think the younger generations started to understand me. The next day, everybody started gossiping about me. The son of blah blah blah is a meti!5Meti is a Nepali term for transgender women. He started wearing a woman’s dress! But I only cared about raising awareness.

This gossiping lasted for three or four months. They asked if I was a lunatic. The villagers started noticing me and following me everywhere, looking at me from head to foot, and some of them used to say that I should get treatment. Everybody was saying, “Now nobody will agree to give him a daughter for marriage and he will never get married now!” Some people suspected that my parents didn’t know about my gender while I was born and only now I was exposing myself as the opposite. In the village, people still feel like transgender individuals are intersex6“Intersex” refers to people whose sex is not clearly male or female.—that they have both sexual organs, which isn’t true.

That was the situation in 2008. Now, in 2013, everyone knows I am a transgender woman. The villagers have changed their minds towards me. They take me as a role model in the village. I find the villagers of Bhaktapur very aware about these issues in comparison to other villages where transgender women are out. I’m proud of my neighbors.

If your parents and community do not accept you, try to convince them. Tell them that as a person, you have a right to live. Don’t let your education fade away. Complete it. Be persuasive with your parents and don’t give up. Never try to escape any kind of chance to have these conversations. Now there are NGOs in over thirty-five districts across Nepal. There are communities that will support you in fighting for these rights. Now you have to come out and say who you are. Accept yourself first and then try to make your family accept you. Responsibility is a part of your life. Don’t skip that part. Struggle to be at peace with what you are and fulfill your responsibility at any cost. We are able to take our society onto the right track, but first you should be happy with who you are. Don’t skip that.

By Jyoti Thapa. Jyoti Thapa identifies as a transgender woman and is from Bhaktapur. She graduated from Tribhuvan University in 2013 with a Master’s degree in General Studies. She has worked as a LGBTI advocate since 2007 and currently works as Project Officer in the Blue Diamond Society Bhaktapur office.

Available in Nepali

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Chakka is a derogatory word that is directed at many sexual and gender minorities, particularly transgender women and gay or bisexual men who don’t conform to traditional codes of masculinity.
2. In Nepal, “love marriages” are marriages in which people choose their own partners as opposed to partnerships arranged by the family.
3. Round seats that surround the central stove in Nepali kitchens.
4. The “festival of lights,” also known as Diwali in Northern India.
5. Meti is a Nepali term for transgender women.
6. “Intersex” refers to people whose sex is not clearly male or female.