Thoughts on “Pride Climbing Higher”

by Saurav Jung Thapa1Saurav Jung Thapa is a Technical Officer for LGBT and Human Rights at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Asia-Pacific regional office in Bangkok. He works on a joint UNDP-USAID initiative called ‘Being LGBT in Asia’ which is being implemented in eight countries in South, Southeast, and East Asia to gather and analyze information about how LGBT people and LGBT organizations are faring in the region.

Available in Nepali

Reading the twelve stories compiled in this book was an eye opener. I was touched, shocked, and inspired by the range of experiences presented. More than anything else, I was optimistic.

These stories cover the full gamut of the most visible sexual and gender minority identities in Nepal—transgender women, lesbians, transgender men, and gay men. As a self-identified and proud gay Nepali man who has worked on LGBT rights in Nepal, I was humbled and honored to learn that the paths of many of my friends and former colleagues have been full of seemingly insurmountable challenges which they managed to overcome with incredible courage and perseverance. For this I salute them.

The lesbian teenager who attempted suicide when her family did not let her be with her lover, the gay youth who were harassed for not participating in group sports (an experience I personally identify with!), the transgender man who was forced to leave his home and family because he refused to adhere to gender norms, and the transgender women who resorted to sex work to make ends meet—these stories moved me deeply and brought me close to tears at times. Despite the suffering imposed by rigid social norms, ingrained stereotypes, a deeply patriarchal society, and ironclad expectations of marriage to someone of the opposite sex, these narratives express a desire to make life better for others in the same predicaments; these writers are exemplary and humbling.

The gay man who excelled at a school in a remote village then went on to obtain a graduate degree with a full scholarship in the UK and now works for the United Nations, the transgender woman who is obtaining her graduate degree despite slurs and abuse, the gay man who came to Kathmandu without shoes from a village that did not have electricity and is now a prominent leader of the LGBT movement, the lesbian who was expelled from the army but went on to make a career as a well-known activist: these are no ordinary stories of courage and heroism. They make me proud to be a Nepali! I have no doubt that many others will feel the same way.

The stories of my fellow Nepali compatriots make me inherently optimistic about the direction that the lesbian, gay, and transgender movement is taking in my country. Compared those who shared their stories here, I did not face the same degree of social, economic, and survival challenges. Having been born to a privileged family in Kathmandu, I attended prestigious boarding schools and was aware of my gay identity since the age of 11 because of my voracious reading in which I had come across plenty of gay narratives. Nevertheless, given the fact that I was attending all boys’ schools where the focus was on high achievement in academics, sports, and extracurricular activities, I had little time to think about my sexuality. After excelling in my high school exams and the SATs, I went off to the United States at the age of 18 on a full scholarship at a private liberal arts college. I returned home in 2012 after eight years of schooling and work to take up a position as a senior advisor at Blue Diamond Society, Nepal’s leading LGBT rights organization which had become renowned around Asia and the world for its pioneering work for the rights and health of sexual and gender minorities. It was then only that I met fellow Nepalis who had overcome obstacles of every kind and many horrors to become leading activists.

Despite the sense of optimism and commitment that comes through in these stories, many huge challenges remain before Nepali LGBT people can be truly equal citizens. The threat of HIV remains ever present, especially for gay men and transgender women who are at massively higher risk than their straight counterparts. HIV interventions have been ongoing and have formed the backbone of funding for organizations such as Blue Diamond Society and the Federation of Sexual and Gender Minorities Nepal. This is excellent, but it has also had the consequence of often overlooking subgroups such as lesbians and transgender men. These subgroups are not at high risk of HIV, so the current programming in Nepal generally does not address their unique needs. More needs to be done to introduce additional programming on human rights, mental health, and sexual and reproductive health. A focus on the needs of lesbians, transgender men, and bisexual women (LBT) is also crucial given that Nepal is a deeply patriarchal society where women face extreme difficulties in being visible or “out.” Organizations working on LBT rights such as Mitini Nepal should be encouraged and supported.

Many LGBT people are forced to marry opposite sex partners against their will given the overwhelming social expectation of marriage. This point has been demonstrated by the stories of Yubraj, Simran, and Shiva. The family in Nepal, like in many other Asian countries, stands at the center of society and of individual aspirations. Unless more is done to communicate that LGBT people are our brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, and relatives, there is only so much that reforming laws and policies can achieve.

Nepal’s record of achieving LGBT rights looks great on paper. But as a Nepali I know how difficult it is to be fully accepted—not merely tolerated—as a gay person in my country. Despite coming from a privileged, worldly, and highly educated stratum of society, the level of ignorance and the rigid stereotypes that I have come across are breathtaking. Most Nepalis assume that being gay implies cross-dressing and adopting feminine mannerisms or that it is the same as being a transgender person. It is a shock to most people, even highly educated and self-proclaimed cosmopolitan ones, to learn that many gay men can be quite heteronormative and “normal” in their behavior, dress, speaking, and interests. Gay men, transgender men, transgender women, lesbians, and bisexual people encounter variously damaging misconceptions across the board. Convincing our family and friends to become allies and supporters of our right to full equality is a challenge, but a challenge that I believe will be met well by the new generation of activists whose stories are presented here and by others like them.

It will be wonderful to see the day when Nepalis can marry lovers of any sex, when gay boys are not made fun of simply because they may prefer reading or cooking to rough and tumble sports, when lesbians are not forced to marry a man against their will as soon as their sexual orientation is discovered, when transgender men and women can choose the identity they wish on their government documents and walk into a restaurant without people sniggering. I hope this anthology will be a step in the right direction in bringing about the needed change of perspective in Nepal, South Asia, and the world so that LGBT people may live lives of honesty that are free of hatred and prejudice. As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has noted, widespread abuse, violence and discrimination against LGBT persons around the world is a “monumental tragedy—a stain on our collective conscience” requiring renewed efforts to ensure that the human rights of all persons are protected.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Saurav Jung Thapa is a Technical Officer for LGBT and Human Rights at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Asia-Pacific regional office in Bangkok. He works on a joint UNDP-USAID initiative called ‘Being LGBT in Asia’ which is being implemented in eight countries in South, Southeast, and East Asia to gather and analyze information about how LGBT people and LGBT organizations are faring in the region.