My way out

My Way Out

I always remember from my school days going to bed and doing all kinds of thinking. Alone in my room, I would always pray, God, when I wake up in the morning, please make me normal. I used to feel such low self-esteem and low confidence. Then in the morning it was just another day with the same feeling.

I grew up in Chautara, 84 kilometers north of Kathmandu, in a mountainous region of Nepal. It’s a small, hilly town at about 1,800 meters of altitude, and from Chautara you can see most of the mountains of the Langtang Mountain range, like Mount Ganesh, and when the weather is clear we can even see Mount Gaurishankar to the far east. During the sunrise, rays would turn the peaks orange. During the daytime, they’re shining bright white. Then in sunset, they are orange again. My town is on a little plateau on top of a ridge, and on either side you can see plenty of hills of all different sizes, forests, rice paddy fields, maize fields, wheat fields, and during the monsoon season the forest grows greener. After it rains in my village, the mountaintops are sparkling white, yet everything below is green.

Life was really weird because I never used to have any gay friends. It’s all very new and depressing when you do not have any information. It makes you more confused. My male friends used to flirt with girls, but I never felt comfortable doing that. Even though boys wouldn’t say bad names in front of me, somehow it always came back to me.

Every Friday after lunch all the students would go to a field to play sports. My male friends were so much into outdoors sports but not me. I was very talented in terms of indoor extracurricular activities such as quiz contests, debate competitions, etc. In my hands, I always had books about geography and other types of general knowledge. My friends would call me a bookworm.

My parents didn’t know about me. Even now, after all this time, they don’t know, so I just pretend that I’m not. They often ask me to get married and settle my own family. They sometimes bring a girl’s photo and ask me if I want to meet her and consider her for marriage. We have this culture of arranged marriage. You sit down with the girl first and then both families come together. Most of the people in my hometown are Newars, an ethnic minority caste with various traditional beliefs and norms dating thousands of years back, and they have a historical affiliation with both Buddhism and Hinduism. We are very tradition-based, and there are plenty of gender stereotypes in Chautara, just like other towns across Nepal. Even though transgender people appear in Hindu mythology, our traditions have no culture of homosexuality.

Life often changes quickly. One Saturday morning I went with my sister to this little stream, half an hour walking distance from our house, where most people do their washing and gather water. While we were returning home, one of the staff from the District Education Office sprinted out of her house and asked us to stop. She started congratulating me. I said, “Wait, why are you congratulating me?” She told us that I’ve got the top score in our whole district for the School Leaving Certificate (SLC)1The “School Leaving Certificate” is a national examination that students take to graduate the Nepali equivalent of high school. exam. I couldn’t believe it all at first.  I scored the district top in the whole of Sindhupalchok District, and my father was ecstatic. He was the one who decided that I would move to Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital city, for my studies. My father’s colleagues and everyone were congratulating him. I was so proud to make my parents that happy. Even though my sexuality was there and I was so afraid of coming out, the time was joyful. If I had stayed in the village like most of my friends, what would I be doing now? I’d be married and living a dual life, one side with my family in a married way and the other with my real sexuality just like so many Nepali gay men. My life wouldn’t have changed.

After finishing my undergrad at Purbanchal University in Kathmandu, I started volunteering with an organization in Nepal that works with international volunteers. I was working with six British volunteers who would go to remote communities in Nepal and run projects in the fields of education, construction, health, and environment. I was their interpreter, and I liaised between them and remote communities.

One time my teams from the University of Glasgow had these conversations about a gay guy on one of the other teams. I wasn’t comfortable talking about it even though it was right in front of me. I was always shielded. I would never speak about that, but as I learned about him, I was craving to meet him and talk to him. At the end of the project, I got his contact information. I don’t know what made me do this, but I emailed Jack and told him it was great working with him, that even though he was in the other group I had always wanted to talk to him. I asked him, “Any chance we could meet sometime for a talk?”

Jack called me that same day. We arranged this meeting in one cafeteria in the middle of Kathmandu that’s always crowded and full of people. It was hard to start the conversation, but somehow he started it. He asked a series of questions about me, and he was trying to know what I wanted to say. It was not very clear in the beginning, but Jack was the first person who I opened up to.

We ended up talking for two hours and decided to meet again later that evening in Durbar Square, a cultural heritage site in Nepal from the 18th century, an old area of elaborate palaces and temples where people hang out. Jack and I talked for two more hours at the top of the Basantapur Temple. He shared his experiences from school, such as how hard it was growing up gay in England and how he wasn’t able to open up to his friends. He had recently come out to his friends and parents but not his grandparents yet. We did talk a lot about this issue: how it is in the UK versus in Nepal, how our past lives had been, and how introverted we had both been. There were so many similarities that we talked almost until midnight. From then on, Jack and I met nearly every day to talk, even though he only had one week left. He knew what I was going through and he comforted me and told me not to be depressed. Right before he left, he came with me to visit my hometown in Chautara.

By this time, I had already applied for a study visa in the UK.  So just two weeks after Jack left Nepal, I went to London—my first trip outside Nepal. London was too massive in every way. People were rushing, the climate was pollution-free, and the traffic was quiet in the sense that vehicles weren’t blowing their horns all day long like they do in Nepal. The roads were broad and busy. London was very systematized. The main thing that was really challenging for me was the food, of course. You have this breakfast, lunch, and dinner—like toast, cereal, sandwiches, and mashed potatoes. I really missed my own food—lentils and rice, Nepali dal bhat.

Eventualy Jack visited me in Newcastle, at Northumbria University where I was studying, and during Christmas break I managed to go to Manchester to visit him. His family was very welcoming. Jack had this huge plan for me to go to this gay club. He invited other gay guys to his home, and we were already drunk before we left his home. This was my first experience getting drunk. At about 10:30 p.m. we went to this famous gay neighborhood called Canal Street, where I was so surprised to see these openly gay party scenes in public, like people making out or drunk sleeping on the sidewalk, talking, walking in a zigzag way.

We went to several clubs. Oh my god, we drank a lot, and it was so expensive. We were completely wasted. We were still dancing, and it was so surreal for me. Jack was protective around me, even though he was wasted himself. One of his friends was like a caretaker, helping us stay aware. We danced until 4 a.m. that night, until the club closed, but I got locked inside. When Jack and his friends left, I was in a bathroom. The bouncer accidentally locked me inside the club alone. I was completely out of track about which way to go out, and my mobile was out of battery. When I finally found my way out, I saw Jack crying on the curb. He had left me plenty of voice messages that we listened to the next morning and laughed and laughed.

That’s how I started feeling comfortable with my sexuality. Jack convinced me, looking at all these people, that it’s normal. There’s no option left but to accept yourself. He convinced me to come out to my friends.

In Newcastle, my two best friends were a straight Nepali couple. They were working in Scotland, and I decided to send them an email about myself. It was really hard to figure out how to write it. I was all ready to tell them because they were my best friends, and they never hid anything from me. In my email I told them not to call me until they’ve replied by email. I was crying when I saw the reply from them. They always knew that I was gay, they said, but they never asked because they didn’t want me to feel awkward. That was my first exposure coming out to Nepali people. With Jack, it was automatically comforting, but these friends were straight and Nepali. It was the biggest secret in my life and they were the first Nepalis to know.  They told me that they loved me even more. They invited me to celebrate Tihar,2The “festival of lights,” also known as Diwali in Northern India.  a big Nepali festival with lots of lights and colors, but I was still so anxious. I found it so awkward to face them. On the phone is one thing, but in life it’s another. Still, they comforted me.

I started coming out by email, then it became via phone, and now I just tell people in person. If people ask me if I have a wife or a girlfriend, I just say, “No, I have a boyfriend. I’m gay.” If anyone here in Nepal asks me, I don’t feel anything obstructing me. The first time coming out, you will feel a great burden in your head. But it’s like any process. When you get habituated, it will get easier. Now it’s like, I ate rice this morning; I’m gay.

When I was in Manchester, I tried the same tactics to come out to my straight Nepali flatmate. I wrote an email saying, “There is something I need to tell you but I want to tell you on Facebook.” Then on Facebook I told him to check his email. I was playing around a little bit, sending him on a chase. I asked him to call me as soon as he got that message. He was shocked because he used to ask me about my girlfriends all the time, but he took it well.

I used Skype to come out to my cousins and other friends in Nepal. We would be chatting, and I would just tell them that I’m this kind of guy; I like boys. My closest cousin was the first person who didn’t handle it well, and I thought, Oh my God, what to do? He asked, “Is that how will your life be? How will you tell your family?” I found it really hard to convince him about my sexuality. Whatever question he asked me I couldn’t answer. I didn’t know if I would get married or if I would tell my parents and my sister. It was depressing, but every time I came out to someone, no matter how they reacted, I felt a little burden released.

And every time I came out to someone it was always completely different. I used all different media but I found that chatting on Skype was the easiest. One of my best friends actually cried when I told her because she was afraid for me to face all the awful stereotypes in Nepal. But I convinced her my life was going to be okay because I’m meeting all these people, all these friends. I was building myself up. More recently, I came out to my sister too.

Then I went to a Mesmac, a health club for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people in Newcastle. This was my first experience with activism, but I was so passive there. I couldn’t talk at all. Then I went to this conference called the Scotland National Men’s Sexual Health Conference in 2010. There was one scholar who was the best part of the conference. He had been with his partner for nine years, and they wanted to show me how a gay couple lives in a home together, so I visited their home. Because of him, I decided to do my dissertation on HIV/AIDS and sexual health of gay men across the world. I conducted a comparative study where I chose stories from developed countries and some developing countries.

One Nepali lecturer in Newcastle who helped me edit my dissertation asked, “There are so many issues in Nepal and in the world relating to public health, so why are you focusing on gay men’s sexual health? Why not other things? There are so many other problems.” He knew that I was going to come back to Nepal to work and he knew it was taboo here, so I would have little opportunity to get a job when I came back. He said, “Why are you choosing this topic?” And I said, “Because I’m one of those. I belong to this community. I want to build my career around this.” Then he suggested that I join other organizations first and build a network and meet more people first, so that I can start working in this field somewhere else.

Looking back, I don’t feel sorry that I didn’t do that. I just jumped into this field in Nepal. Through my research in Newcastle, I started making contacts with the Blue Diamond Society, Nepal’s NGO for sexual and gender minorities. When I finished my Master’s, I moved back to Nepal and started volunteering here. It was so fascinating to learn about so many stories and to see all the misconceptions regarding transgender people, gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals.

Eventually there was a vacancy for a job at the Federation of Sexual and Gender Minorities, Nepal, and now I’m working here. I am developing both personally and professionally in so many ways. My initial plan was to do a PhD, but working this job first is much better. I play a pivotal role for LGBTI communities in Nepal, where I primarily lead trainings and strengthen the networks of LGBTI-based NGOs in different districts.

I’ve explored myself. I’ve plunged into this activism, despite all of the challenges and disapproval from friends, despite my professors’ advice. Now I am an openly gay activist working for the health and rights of minorities like me in my home country. All that I’ve learned and experienced has given me motivation and strength to work for us, for our equal rights. The more I do, the more I realize we have so much more to accomplish.

But I wish I was more open with my friends earlier in my life. I feel like I lost the chance for important experiences and expressions in my younger years when my straight friends were able to express themselves, but I couldn’t due to fear. Imagine what it would be like if young boys in a small village like Chautara could come out to their families and friends with no big deal at all. Imagine if boys could date each other freely and openly even in a small town like that, or elsewhere in Nepal—or all over the world.

by Bharat Shrestha. Bharat Shreshtha identifies as a gay man, and he possesses a MSc. in Public Health from Northumbria University, UK, and a Bachelor’s degree in Public Health from Purbanchal University, Nepal. He currently works as an LGBT Human Rights Officer at United Nations Development Programme for the UNDP-USAID “Being LGBT in Asia” regional initiative. He has worked as the National Program Assistant at Federation of Sexual and Gender Minorities, Nepal (FSGMN) and worked as part of the USAID funded Saath Saath Project that primarily focuses on HIV prevention, capacity building, and network strengthening of LGBTI-based organizations in Nepal.

Available in Nepali

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. The “School Leaving Certificate” is a national examination that students take to graduate the Nepali equivalent of high school.
2. The “festival of lights,” also known as Diwali in Northern India.

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