A Different Kind of Battlefield

When I was a child, I always dreamed of serving Nepal as a soldier. I felt like a powerful person. Even though I was born in a female body, I felt like a boy and wanted to join the forces to express my masculinity. For a while, female-bodied people could only join the police. That didn’t make sense. Why could women join the police and not the army? So I came to Kathmandu from my home village, Darna Acham, in the far western remote area of Nepal, to apply for a job with the police.

While I was taking my exams for that position, news came out that the Nepalese Royal Army was finally open to applications for women. Maybe this was a response to the insurgent Maoist rebels’ use of female soldiers. After all, this was during Nepal’s Civil War in the early 2000’s, between the Maoist rebels and the Royal Army.1Nepal had a ten year long civil war between the government and a Maoist insurgency that since the Comprehensive Peace Accords in 2007 has joined the government. Over 15,000 people were killed, the majority by the government, and over 100,000 were internally displaced.

During the recruitment process, I encountered so much discrimination because I sounded like a boy yet was applying for a female seat. Everyone was asking what I was. After a special medical examination to determine my sex, I passed as a female and began my training in Chhauni, a district in Kathmandu. Everyone felt very excited for me. Joining the army in 2003 was my greatest victory.

During training, the officer above me became suspicious, and he sent two of my colleagues on a mission to check my private parts. These two women took me to the toilet. When they tried to remove my clothes, I told them, “If you are going to strip me naked, you should get naked as well.” The women realized they shouldn’t violate me like this, and I think they were afraid of me, so they lied to the officer that they had already confirmed I was a female.

Later on, I had lots of crushes within the army. I don’t know why these ladies were attracted to me. I guess I was a talented leader and seemed like a physically strong man. They liked my deep laugh and my masculine face, or so they said. Some delivered flirtatious notes on tree leaves or scribbled in my notebooks when I wasn’t looking. They would help iron my clothes all the time. One day a storm hit my barracks and the roof of my room went flying, along with all my possessions. All the women went running after my things to save them. The next day, I circulated the barracks to collect my possessions from the girls, bedroom by bedroom.

Among all the crushes, there was only one who I truly loved. She didn’t write love notes. She didn’t try to do my chores. Sadhana was nothing like the other girls. She joined in 2006 as a cadet, and I met her in our training camp, Karipati, where I was her instructor. I liked her smile and her simpleness. She didn’t wear make-up. Sadhana seemed real. Once when Sadhana went home for the weekend, I decided to call her and asked if she had reached home safely, how her family was doing, what she was eating. I also reminded her not to forget to bring the assigned gear for next week—an essential duty. If she forgot, she would have been punished and her weekends off may have been taken away. Even though there was love between us, I wasn’t allowed to treat Sadhana any differently than other female cadets. But I was happy once she entered the gate of the barracks. Every cadet used to call me for advice, so it wasn’t unusual that I was calling Sadhana. In the background, there was attraction. We never thought very deeply about our relationship. It just was.

I never felt that something bad would happen to me—I never realized this because it was a common thing for all the leaders to have cadets visit their rooms. I was very close to all the cadets who came into my room to talk, even though they were technically not allowed. One day, Sadhana was with another colleague in my room. She fell asleep in the bed next to mine while she was reading her book. She just fell asleep. When a duty officer found her in my room, on that very day, they made a huge deal of it and called in other colleagues and started investigating.

Another duty officer who was a major general called me and said, “You are the person who has spoiled it all for the cadets.” He took my badge. After that, they imprisoned me in a big hall without any windows. Sadhana was imprisoned too. They told people to stop in front of her room and make her feel left out. She would start crying. Sadhana was there for 45 days.

I was imprisoned for 60 days in a big hall with vaulted ceilings. They kept telling me that I was a criminal, and that other people were not allowed to talk to me. There were holes with water leaking onto my bed, and they wouldn’t let me shift it. They always asked nonsense questions. They kept on asking us about “lesbian relationships.” At that time, we had no idea what a “lesbian” was. I don’t know what they asked our colleagues, but one day the army very quickly read us some documents that we didn’t even have time to absorb or analyze. We just wanted it to be done, so we just signed it. They told me that I showed homosexual behavior, that I was a black mark on the whole army because I was a homosexual and a terrible person. Then there was another document on which they wanted our signature. They threatened me when I tried to read through the paper more slowly: “Just SIGN HERE. It’s an order.” After 60 days, they called me and said that I was now expelled from the Nepalese Royal Army and that I should go home.

While we were in prison, a newspaper discovered our case and published an article about it. Then an NGO for sexual and gender minorities called the Blue Diamond Society came to know what was happening. Some activists tried to contact the army but the army directly denied that anything involving homosexuality was happening. A guy named Sunil Babu Pant called me and asked if I needed any kind of help. When I came to Blue Diamond Society, I was not well. I had low blood pressure and infections from the cold conditions in the cement cell. Sunil visited me in the hospital and took care of me like a father. He always took me to different meetings to help make my mind fresh. For two years, he took care of me.

Eventually, I went to the army court to challenge the expulsion. I filed a case against the Nepalese Royal Army in the Supreme Court. There’s no law against homosexuals in Nepal, so there was no ground on which the army’s expulsion could stand. It was clear that they had made an example of us, and the army doesn’t ever want to compromise when it comes to disciplinary issues. During the trial, my colleagues from the Nepalese Army were afraid to talk with me as well. If the army officer found them talking to me, they might suspect that person of also being a homosexual. If we had won, it would have been a big victory for the community, encouraging others to come out, but I lost the case.

At first my family was very happy because I was one of the first people born as a female who had joined the army. They were very proud of me. Everybody thought I could do anything, but they never found that I am a transgender man. The media covered my case widely, but my family was not informed about the incident because they still lived in a remote village in western Nepal. However, all the people from my village who were living in Kathmandu came to know about this scandal after two or three years.

While I was in the army, I was only focused on the battlefield matters. Especially because I was a teacher, I was always focused on physical training. But after coming to Blue Diamond Society, I came to know how to speak professionally, how to convince people to become more aware, and how to gather support. Also, after improving my English, now I can understand or figure out what English-speakers are saying. Even though at first there was no goal in front of me and I had lost my dream, these days I’m feeling very happy because I get opportunities to meet with other human rights activists. Now I have so many friends with whom I can talk. There aren’t any kind of rules or regulations. Unlike in the army, my life is free.

Still, the army shouldn’t do this to other community members. This case happened in Nepal, but other armies in other countries could also benefit from hearing this story. Homosexuality and gender identification should not be reasons to discharge people. Due to my case, community members who are in the army are still hiding their identities. They are unable to be themselves while straight people are allowed to be themselves. The army made an example out of me and Sadhana, and it has had such negative effects.

I still feel exactly like a man. Excluding my body, I am a man. Since my childhood my family knew that I liked girls and they were afraid that I would spend my life with a girl. But after discovering my identity as a transgender man, I shared all of this information with my parents. They were shocked, but later on they never tried to ask me why I am what I am. They never challenged me. Now they are realizing I’m happy with this identity so they have accepted me. They don’t know each and every thing very clearly, but they know some things. Although I was expelled from my job, I found lots of friends. I’m now helping other community members. Now I can share my identity with anybody.

By Bhakti Shah. Bhakti Shah identifies as a transgender man, and he works as a regional coordinator for the Blue Diamond Society. He has been an LGBTI activist for six years. He is also the President of the Sexual and Gender Minorities Student Forum Nepal. He is currently waiting for the results of his college exams at Tribhuvan University, Ratna Rajya Campus.

Available in Nepali

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Nepal had a ten year long civil war between the government and a Maoist insurgency that since the Comprehensive Peace Accords in 2007 has joined the government. Over 15,000 people were killed, the majority by the government, and over 100,000 were internally displaced.