The Fortunate Accident

At the public university in Kathmandu, it’s always a big crowded classroom where not too many people listen and too many people talk. Students wander in and out at any time while the professor is talking. The seats and benches are so dusty. The professor comes late sometimes. Not many people seem to care.

While I was earning my Master’s in Sociology in 2009, my professor was teaching a lesson about gender. He explained what is male, what is female, masculine, and feminine all in a way that was very traditional. Because I knew about gender and sexuality differences, I wanted to test my professor’s knowledge. On the one hand, I was about to raise a controversial question, which made me excited. On the other hand, I knew asking this question could lead my friends and peers to guess that I was gay. Still, I had to do this. People should know more about LGBTI identities.

I stood up. I raised my hand. I asked the professor, “What is Third Gender?”1Third Gender is a term used in Nepal that describes people who identify neither as men nor women. in front of the seventy-five students in attendance. The room became silent for a moment. They must have thought that I was rude for asking a question most of them had never heard out loud before. The professor didn’t know how to reply during this pin-drop silence that lasted for a few seconds. The whole class became one big sigh. All along I was never afraid. I thought to myself, This is a natural campaign for me. I could feel my pride climbing higher.

Once he composed himself, my professor started to scold me for asking nonsense questions. “There is no information about that,” he claimed. Everyone was talking, whispering, and shouting like seventy-five people leaving a crowded micro-bus.2Mini or “microbuses” are a common forms of public transportation in Nepal. He continued, “I don’t specialize in that. It’s complicated.” While we were arguing, the class dismissed itself. I can’t remember how the professor and I finished our discussion, but the class ended without even starting.

Long before this incident, when I was living in my village and studying in primary school, I felt my inner desire—an attraction to another guy. I used to be afraid because I knew I was different. I lived in Chitwan, a town six hours south of Kathmandu by bus. It’s in the jungle close to the Indian border in an area of Nepal called the terai.3The terai is the Southern geographical belt of Nepal that is comprised of flat plains instead of foothills or mountains. In my village, a traditional place with tons of giant jungle trees, all sexuality is forbidden to elaborate on or describe. Especially in Hindu culture, people don’t feel comfortable even when a straight person describes sexuality. I always asked myself, Why am I like this? All of my questions felt like a phone ringing deep inside me, but I could never answer it.

When I used to clean and cook and help my mom and sisters inside the house, people in the village would treat me like a girl. Those were the gender roles. People used to tease me because I cooked and cleaned very nicely, saying that if any girl married me she would be lucky because I would do her job for her. I felt pressured to hang out with my brothers and male friends, but I could not change. There was no other option but to accept myself. How else could I live? However, I couldn’t think properly at the time. I didn’t know what LGBTI identities were, so I accepted myself in silence.

People used to tell me about Nepal’s capital city. I thought, Oh my God, maybe I’ll have the chance to go to Kathmandu at least one time in my life! I thought my family would never allow it, so I dreamed of just taking a visit there at least once. When my parents could no longer support me, one of my friends found a job for me in Kathmandu. When I got here, I didn’t miss the terai jungles at all. I enjoyed everything here: it’s such a big city with lots of vehicles, three-story buildings, people, electricity, and everything made me relaxed. I totally forgot to think about my family. I would run up a five-story building to get used to looking around at the metropolitan landscape. People would wonder why I did that, but I was so impressed by the size of the city.

Because my native language is Tharu,4The Tharu are another of Nepal’s ethnic groups that live in the Southern belt of Nepal that used to be largely jungle forests. The Tharu have multiple languages and their own cultural traditions and religion.

it was difficult for me to speak Nepali, the national language of Nepal. There are nearly one hundred languages spoken across Nepal, and most people from the terai, and Nepal, for that matter, have an indigenous language. I had many other struggles to adjust to: how to use electricity, how to ride vehicles, and even how to wear shoes. I had never worn jean pants. Everything was testing me.

Within the first year, I saw in a weekly magazine an awkward photo of people cross-dressing at Gai Jatra, a festival where people in Nepal can wear anything. This festival started in ancient times when Queen Ratna lost her baby son. She was in so much pain, crying and weeping, that the Malla King planned a celebration to make her happy. He requested all the people in Kathmandu who had lost loved ones that year to decorate cows as a symbol of peace so the Queen will not feel like the only one who is mourning a death. This festival is still celebrated today, hundreds of years later, and it’s not just cows these days. Even though Gai Jatra means “Festival of the Cow,” people decorate themselves too.

Maybe because people are allowed to wear anything on this day, LGBTI people have been able to use this festival as a kind of pride celebration. The Gai Jatra Pride Parade happens every year now. A lot of LGBTI friends have died due to violence and discrimination, so it also feels like we’re celebrating people in our community that we’ve lost. Continuously, I read more newspapers and saw more articles about LGBTI activism by Blue Diamond Society, an NGO. Through these magazine articles, I learned that I was a homosexual and that I am part of this community, although my realization was gradual.

In that classroom, I realized that it was not the professor’s error or the students’ error for their lack of knowledge, but an error on the part of the Ministry of Education, which has a duty to sensitize the professors and students to LGBTI material in the curriculum. Within one week, I got calls from two classmates who said they were gay and wanted to help me. They knew I was working for the Blue Diamond Society, and these two boys explained that they couldn’t support my effort openly or directly, but that they wanted to support it in some way. They didn’t want to disclose their sexual identities in public and to their families. I was understanding about how difficult it is to come out in Nepal. Their motivation inspired me.

After two months, there was a student election held at the university. I thought it was a great time to run in the election as the first openly gay candidate. Blue Diamond Society’s Director, Sunil Babu Pant, had recently been elected as a member of Parliament, and that was the first time that an openly gay person had been publicly elected to a Parliament in any Asian country. I thought that if I ran in the student elections, the university would realize that there’s an LGBTI community fighting for their equality. One of the two guys who met with me agreed to be my running mate. We became candidates for members of the Student Union.

One’s first election is very tough. We campaigned by email, mobile phone, and Facebook. One time, another candidate was making a speech for his campaign, and he scolded another party by telling them that they are weak flip-floppers just like the Third Genders, changing their minds all the time like people who dress like females but act like men or the other way around. I realized that people were aware of transgender people but negatively aware. In the end, I didn’t win, but I was so happy and proud.

In 2009, I formed the Student Forum; we started giving orientation programs that introduced people to LGBTI issues. We went to private institutions like Kathmandu University and public ones like Tribhuvan University. We held an essay competition. We set up an internship program with students from different universities. As a result of our work, the Education Ministry now includes LGBTI content in health, environment, and gender classes at Tribhuvan University. We also collaborated to create the first South Asian LGBTI Sports Festival and the Mr. Pink beauty contest for transgender men.

We have come pretty far since that day with my professor. Professors and educated people have started to accept us, but the Education Ministry still needs to include LGBTI issues from primary schools and up. They have to open more scholarship programs, as they’re doing for other marginalized communities. When somebody tells their family about their sexuality or gender identity, parents fear a negative image for their family. That fear creates a negative learning environment, and the student might get kicked out of their home. Many LGBTI people in Nepal have their education interrupted in this way.

When I finished my Master’s Program in 2012, I had to present my thesis, and the same teacher who first argued with me appeared at my thesis defense! He looked a little red in the face with drops of sweat. All of the other professors were calmly sitting across from me, but this guy came right up to me and sat beside me and took the thesis document off the desk in front of me. I was nervous that he was seeking revenge.

I introduced myself, but he seemed hurried. He raised many pointless questions, saying that I spent too much time analyzing one topic and that I made many mistakes. He told me I should go back home to rewrite it. None of the other teachers agreed and they all asked productive questions. When my thesis was approved, the angry professor didn’t talk any more.

Accidents are always great lessons in life. If somebody makes a mistake, that should be seen as a great lesson. I don’t like to think about what my life would be like if I had remained silent in my seat.

By Roshan Mahato. Roshan Mahato identifies as a gay man. He earned a Master’s degree in sociology at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, Nepal, and served as the LGBTI representative for two years on the American Embassy Nepal Youth Council. He founded the Sexual and Gender Minorities Student Forum Nepal in 2009. Mahato won a gold medal in the 100 km race in the first South Asian LGBTI Sports Festival in 2012, and he worked as the program manager for that event. He also won a gold medal in the 5km race at the New Zealand Asia-Pacific Out Games in 2011. He currently works as the National Coordinator for the Federation of Gender and Sexual Minorities Nepal and serves as the Board Secretariat for the Blue Diamond Society. He has traveled to Uganda, New Zealand, Mexico, USA, Malaysia, Thailand, and India.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Third Gender is a term used in Nepal that describes people who identify neither as men nor women.
2. Mini or “microbuses” are a common forms of public transportation in Nepal.
3. The terai is the Southern geographical belt of Nepal that is comprised of flat plains instead of foothills or mountains.
4. The Tharu are another of Nepal’s ethnic groups that live in the Southern belt of Nepal that used to be largely jungle forests. The Tharu have multiple languages and their own cultural traditions and religion.