I’m smooshed between women wearing kurtas and saris in a van, the interior covered with decals of Hindu gods and emblems: Ganesh, Lakshmi, flowers, tridents, om. The van jostles through traffic on the smoggy roads of Kathmandu. If people face me, they stare right into my eyes. It’s public transportation, and I am a stray white dude outside the enclosed tourist district, the glitzy playground for trekkers. Years ago I came here for five months studying Nepali culture and development. I think I know this city—its Hindu and Buddhist overtones, its diverse populations from different regions of Nepal, its mix of mayhem and serenity. Since there are no exact addresses, I’m going to a specified chowk (pronounced “choke”), an intersection, to meet a stranger. As the van swerves around cows lounging in the middle of the road and cuts through seas of buzzing motorcycles, I converse with my fellow passengers in half-functioning Nepali to make sure I don’t mistake my chowk for the wrong one. People are happy to help. They grin at me and ask interview-like questions. When it comes I shout over the blaring Bollywood techno. The driver hits the brake.
At the chowk I look for someone who looks like they’re looking for someone, but no matter: they’re already waving at me, greeting me. We head for a place private enough to discuss topics that the sidewalks would probably be scandalized to hear, or maybe pleasantly surprised. We go to the back corner of a grungy tea parlor, swivel in chairs at the office of an NGO, or hike up steep hills to a quiet Tibetan monastery during its off-hours—settings that are not merely matters of taste but critical considerations of privacy. As we grow more comfortable with each other, this new friend and I ask more private questions. An urge to communicate seems to trump any nervousness. We gradually learn about when we each came out to our families, we laugh about which celebrities we have crushes on, we discuss the discrimination we’ve each experienced, and more.
These conversations steadily evolved into writing lessons. In this fashion, I scrambled around the city to work with lesbian, transgender, gay, and bisexual Nepalis on writing autobiographical stories for this publication. Even though the writers and I came from enormously different backgrounds, the theme that brought us together resulted in some unexpected openness: a teenage lesbian brainstormed the details she wanted to use to describe her suicide attempt; a gay man dug for the most accurate adjectives to evoke the emotions of coming out to his relatives in Nepal through the Internet while living in a European country; a transgender man recounted scene by scene the familial pressures that led him to leave his home in a remote village for a life in the capital city. I asked each person to think of a story they felt would be important for Nepalis and the rest of the world to hear. In these one-on-one writing lessons, participants read nonfiction stories from various sources, wrote material based on prompts, and revised their drafts.
This book is the culmination of that summer writing program. I’m the writing instructor and editor for this project, but I am also one of its readers. As a gay American raised in a suburban town where relentless homophobia was the norm, I connected to these stories through a shared sense of oppression, yet I often felt so distanced—me, the Western middle class white boy, rich by Nepali standards—that I began to question sexuality and
gender as unifying factors. On one hand, I felt my identification with the global queer community widening and widening. On the other, I saw glaring schisms in the ways our particular identities were being defined: I didn’t grow up in an agrarian village where it’s customary for men in elaborate women’s dresses to perform at wedding ceremonies; I didn’t come of age as a woman whose life choices were dictated by a patriarchy much harsher and more oppressive than that of the USA; I didn’t go to college in a city where the most visible queer community consisted of older sex tourists, young Western backpackers, and foreign NGO workers; I didn’t wake to my real sexuality—a world-shattering experience for many—in extreme poverty, under a routinely unstable government. Even though I’m gay, none of my growing solidarity could overpower that disconnect I felt toward my Nepali friends’ identities. This realization reminded me of the author David Levithan’s notion that “the minute you stop talking about individuals and start talking about a group, your judgment has a flaw in it.”
That idea touches on a major purpose of this project. The trans-ender, lesbian, gay, and bisexual movement in the USA and the West has an inherent bias of voice within the arts. One problem is the tendency for any queer narrative to present itself as the queer narrative. Many queers around the world, especially in poor countries or rural areas, have stories projected upon them instead of being empowered to speak and share their own experiences. It’s not hard to notice that the dominant narratives are centered in a white, male, Western subjectivity much like my own. Centralizing queerness under such privileged ways of being cuts people off from reality, encouraging audiences to ignore the ways race, class, nationality, body, and culture impact people’s own unique experiences of their sexuality and gender. It also diminishes our sense of the possibilities for an identity group like “LGBT,” especially considering that many people either simply do not or chose not to identify as “lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.” Much of the thinking in America and in this book does occur within the lines of LGBT identities, yet people’s experiences are often not so cut and dry—many times being “gay” was something people learned and not something people were necessarily “born as.” Some of the writers here talk about how they didn’t think of themselves as LGBT until they migrated to the city and were told by urban Nepalis that that’s what they are. As for me, I’m frequently boxed into stereotypes about how gay men should think and behave, stereotypes enforced by straight and gay people alike. The senselessness in denying individuals the right to their own stories is very personal to me, and this project aims to do the opposite.
Insisting on that right to storytelling in Nepal may not have been possible without the Blue Diamond Society,1An NGO advocating for the rights of sexual and gender minorities in Nepal. which graciously connected me to its community. BDS’s consolidated network of outreach workers helped me find people who wanted to write autobiographical stories. Without BDS, Nepal wouldn’t be where it is today in terms of political advancements nor would people be so poised to voice their histories. In order to participate, people needed a working knowledge of English, an openness to writing, and a readiness to reflect on their lives. I strove to recruit an equal mix of variously identified people first and foremost, whether they were transgender men, transgender women, lesbians, or gay men. Many of them migrated to Kathmandu from rural areas of Nepal with drastically different languages and cultures. Add the fact that there are so many voices, experiences, and identities even within a single life, and it becomes impossible to think of these stories as the Nepali “LGBT” experience. Rather, these stories are autobiographical snapshots from distinct individuals whose narratives need to be more actively welcomed into the bigger picture.
The arts offer a way to extend our imagination of queer experience. I often heard the participants say that it felt strengthening to produce their own narratives and hold authority over their life histories. History feels slippery and ungraspable if you do not preserve it. As Bharat said in a reflection piece, “This is my own story, which I’ve not told people yet… It is very personal, and I enjoyed looking back on my life to witness all the changes I’ve gone through.” This agency to construe and articulate a personal narrative was one of many outcomes. I think much of the social dialogue that needs to occur to obtain full social justice for sexual and gender minorities will rely on people’s ability to relate their lives to their larger social settings.
Before I left Nepal, I asked the participants to evaluate me and the process. A majority said that they had never edited a document multiple times to deepen its nuances or rethink its organization. The long stretches of time spent rummaging for the best possible word, often with frustrating compromises, can seem pointless, but expressing the scope of a personal history at the atomic level of particular words is a vital skill, in life and in advocacy, and that effort matters to an audience. The lesson on continuing to imagine an audience at every step of the writing process also struck a chord. I told participants that people across Nepal, India, the rest of Asia, Europe, and beyond—a seemingly infinite set of eyes and ears—could be on the receiving end of their words. With that in mind, Vishnu asked himself, What details might a transgender person in the USA need to know about this scene in order to understand me? Ankit wondered, How might I structure this narrative so that other dudes in South Asia can more deeply feel the urgency behind protecting themselves against HIV? Circling back to thoughts about audience not only reminded participants of the broader significance of their work but cued them in, as writers and activists, to the responsibilities of communication at stake when you put pen to paper: intention, persuasion, accuracy.
This project was specifically designed for English Language Learners. Some people were already quite proficient English speakers while others worked with me to develop their competence. A couple participants had to work with translators or dictated their stories to me. It might seem awkward that they didn’t first write in Nepali then have their stories translated into English,2The translation process went in reverse: from English to Nepali. Gita Manandhar of the Fulbright Program in Nepal offered her translation services. but English skills are a valuable asset in the 21st century and this aspect of the project appealed to some of the participants as there is an outspoken demand for English lessons in this community, especially as people have often been forced out of schools and barred from college degrees due to their circumstances.
I’m awed and grateful to have had the opportunity to work with these twelve people. I tracked them down in the maze of Kathmandu, sometimes tagging along like a shadow as I waited for whenever they had a free moment. In this way, I saw the participants going about their daily lives. I am thankful for so many engaging, joyful, serious, and hilarious conversations with these people who became my friends. Our meetings were eye-opening for both parties. I was able to meet with each person for an average of six sessions over two months, yet I found myself wishing for more time to delve deeper. Here in New York City I teach creative writing to all types of young people, and I’m used to working with the same students for an entire school year. I also regret that I was unable to include more than twelve individuals. Fortunately my few dissatisfactions point toward a future direction for my work.
This book is the beginning of a longer process of sharing and discovery. Selected stories will be featured for free online through Creative Nepal, a new collaborative project that runs creative workshops with sexual and gender minorities. On Creative Nepal’s website (www.creative-nepal.com) you can also find photography and research. Many photographs by Creative Nepal’s Photo Project participants are featured throughout this book. This book was funded through a crowd-funding campaign, and I’m grateful to the many family members, friends, colleagues, and strangers who supported it. I hope they are pleased with the result.
Precisely because these stories are so individuated, they are very private. I echo Saurav Jung Thapa in celebrating these writers’ bravery for being so open about themselves in front of you, their manifold audience. In some parts of the world perceptions of sexual and gender minority people are changing. Still, certain parts of my own country and many other nations remain unthinkably hostile places to those who are as open as these writers. While I have been putting this book together, a new Russian law stokes violent homophobic action. Uganda and Nigeria’s revised anti-gay criminal penalties now submit people to life in jail for simply being different from the rest of society. India re-criminalized homosexuality, taking a step backward from a 2009 court decision that struck down a colonial ban on gay sex. In Nepal, meanwhile, things remain in limbo. None of the dozens of openly LGBT candidates won their bid for a seat in the Second Nepal Constituent Assembly—the latest of many attempts at drafting a constitution in post-civil war Nepal. Anxiety over India’s reinstatement of sodomy laws raises questions over whether Nepal’s progressive legislation will survive after the constitution’s ratification. While I was darting around Kathmandu to meet with people in private spaces for this project, I saw that behind Nepal’s image of legal progress lay socially conflicted and sometimes hostile attitudes towards homosexuality and gender variance. For instance, four participants chose not to publish their real names with these stories and two requested that their stories be published only in foreign countries. This anonymity seems to be rooted in fear of social retribution should their identities be discovered by their families or larger communities. Sadhana’s story, How to Be Bold, explores those familial pressures in detail.
Solidarity happens when people empathize with each other’s situations, realize a common interest, and collaborate in pursuit of a goal. It happens when people are more than merely aware. What forms of global solidarity are possible for sexual and gender minorities? Considering the fragmentation across nations, races, classes, genders, sexualities, ages, physical abilities, and cultures, it’s a fraught question with no clear answers or solutions. Rather than scare us off, this complexity should interest and challenge us. I’m reminded of the times each of my friends who wrote these stories said they once felt like they were the only person of their kind in the world. In Roshan’s story, he remembers asking himself how he could be like this, how he could be the only one, and “all the questions felt like a phone ringing deep inside me, but I could never answer.” The haunting ringtone of that phone is probably familiar to many of us. But no matter how isolated, these writers each met a person who related on some level, and more people, and more—a process that did not rely on magic but real, grueling, painful bravery. These pages ask you to meet some people. To me, they prove that solidarity begins at the most individual level no matter how far apart those individuals might be.
Chad Frisbie graduated from Bates College in 2010 with a BA in Engish and creative writing. He currently works as a writer and arts educator in New York City. He studied in Nepal in 2009 and returned to Nepal to lead writing workshops in 2013.
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||An NGO advocating for the rights of sexual and gender minorities in Nepal.|
|2.||↑||The translation process went in reverse: from English to Nepali. Gita Manandhar of the Fulbright Program in Nepal offered her translation services.|