Q & A: Sunil Panta
Nepal’s sexual minority rights activist says there are some 40,000 recorded LGBTs in the country, and that legal reform will be his main focus for the next five years.
International attention on Nepal is not always hardcore political these days. Marginal issues such as rights and identities of minorities have also garnered some such attention in recent times.
One example is the recognition bestowed on the Blue Diamond Society, Nepal’s pioneering community-based organization working for sexual minorities. BDS just received (On May 1, 2007) Felipa de Souza Award from the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC). Sunil Panta, the founder and director of BDS, who was in New York and San Fransico to receive the award, spoke recently to IGLHRC’s Communication coordinator, Hossein Alizadeh.
How did you decide to become an LGBT activist?
In the beginning, I didn't intend to start a group for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community, since I didn't know much about LGBT people in Nepal. But after I found endless problems and a lack of knowledge of HIV among Men having sex with Men (MSMs) in Kathmandu, I started talking to some friends and decided to form the Blue Diamond Society (BDS).
My major role as an LGBT and HIV/AIDS activist was establishing the Blue Diamond Society. It has been really interesting to meet new people, make friends, and educate LGBT/MSMs in Nepal on HIV/AIDS and to stand up for our rights.
Initially I was a lone voice – but early moral support from George M. Carter, the founder of The Foundation for Integrative AIDS Research (FIAR), who also donated condoms and lubricants was encouraging. Since then, I have been personally involved in most of Blue Diamond Society’s activities on human rights and HIV/AIDS advocacy for sexual/gender minorities in Nepal.
Apart from that, I helped to start the LBT women’s support group and have worked with Global Fund and local and regional networks of people living with HIV/AIDS. In addition, I have regularly been called when there is a need to deal with a difficult situation between sexual minorities and the authorities, especially when the Metis (male transgender) or gays are being harassed or arrested by the police.
What are the biggest challenges BDS is currently facing?
We are currently working hard to enshrine equality, non-discrimination, freedom and security in Nepal’s new constitution. The challenge for us is that major political parties don’t take our issues seriously and this means we have to work hard to convince them. Funding is another major challenge as we don't receive any support from the government and it is difficult to find donors who are willing to support LGBT rights work. Although we have networks all over Nepal (more than 22 cities), our limited resources only allow us to provide services in seven cities.
As an LGBT rights activist, how do you compare the current political climate in Nepal with when you started BDS?
The current political climate is Nepal is much more favorable than when we started BDS back in 2001. Currently, we are exploring ways to promote LGBT’s constitutional and legal rights and their economic opportunities, whereas in the past we had to focus only on freedom from violence and rights to live. Many human rights organizations and minority groups are supportive of our cause and even a few politicians have started supporting us publicly.
How do you think people in the West can help BDS to support the LGBT movement in Nepal?
People in the West, especially the younger generation, shouldn't take LGBT freedom and rights for granted. They need to remember the LGBT struggle in the past fifty years. And they should remind themselves that we in the East are still fighting for our basic rights, to gain equal social, economic and political opportunities, to be recognized as equal citizens, and to be free from violence.
The current political climate, particularly in Nepal, is very hopeful but we still need international support: the LGBT people in the West who have the financial means should be generous and help our struggle, and those LGBT members who have political influence can help us by visiting our country or by getting their government to help us in Nepal.
To what extent is BDS active in the current political and social developments in Nepal?
BDS has been a major player in the ongoing struggle for political and social change in Nepal. BDS was one of the first NGOs that opposed the King’s direct rule and actively participated in the 2006 popular movement to oust the King. In the past year, BDS has sponsored various community forums, media campaigns, and delegations to the political parties to educate them on LGBT issues. We also work on the constitutional reform process with other social justice organizations. BDS is part of a national coalition called "Joint Forum for Human Rights" that works on many human rights issues including sexual orientations and gender identity. We are also organizing many social events like our first upcoming LGBT film festival, talent shows, pride festival, International Day Against Homophobia (IDAHO), etc.
Does BDS have any strategic allies within Nepal? If so, please name the groups you work closely with and tell us how you collaborate with them.
Since the start of last year’s people's movement against autocracy, we have found many strategic allies within Nepali society. These groups include Forum for Women’s Law and Development, National Human Rights Commission, Joint Forum for Human Rights, (Women Rehabilitation Center) WOREC, Martin Chautari, and COCAP (Collective Campaign for Peace), Human Rights Home, just to mention a few. We work jointly with our partners on various campaigns, rallies, protests, conferences, discussion panels, delegations etc.
There are also a few young political leaders like Gagan Thapa, who are supportive of our cause.
Where do you see BDS in the next five years? What issues and campaigns do you plan to work on in the next few years?
The next five years will be crucial, and our focus will be mainly on constitutional and legal reform, and creating economic opportunities and development for LGBT members in Nepal. BDS also plans to work for LGBT rights internationally and at the U.N.
How big is your membership in Nepal? Do you have members outside the country? If so, how many and where are these members from?
Our informal membership has grown significantly over the last five years. We have more than 40,000 LGBT people in our database, of which more than 10,000 are actively supporting BDS across the country.
Have you ever experienced any discrimination or harassment because of your sexual orientation?
I personally have never faced violence directly in Nepal, although back in August 2004 I got a public threat from Nepalis officials. The incident happened during a press conference BDS organized following the mass arrest of our members. During the press conference, one of the police superintendents publicly announced "there are about 150 homosexuals in Nepal and we know what to do with them."
Do you have any message for our members, and the LGBT activists in the U.S.?
Please don’t forget that the worldwide struggle is not over yet; homophobia can strike anytime and take away what the LGBT community in the West has so far achieved. Unless we fight this phenomenon globally to ensure that the foundation of freedom and equality is well-established and strong, there is no guarantee for tomorrow.
Also please be generous in supporting your brothers and sisters from the Global South.
The Status of LGBT in Nepal
Members of the Nepali for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community identify themselves with a terminology different from those used in the West. For example, effeminate homosexual men are referred to as metis, singarus or kothis. Whereas gay or bisexual men who are not necessarily feminine are known as dohoris. In Nepal the sexual partners of metis and dohoris are known as tas. They see themselves as masculine and mostly act like heterosexual males. In fact, they often consider themselves as heterosexuals. Finally, those who are born biologically male and wish to be female are called hijras or eunuchs. Some undergo castration and join the hijra community.
There is no open gay life though there are known meeting places for gays. Gay men mostly are either forced into marriage by their families or are left with no choice but to leave the country. Although Nepal has no laws that specifically criminalize homosexuality, under the bestiality chapter, an unnatural sexual act is punishable up to 1-year in prison and/or 5000 RS fine, yet what is natural and what is unnatural is not defined by the law.
In recent years, Blue Diamond Society (BDS) has reported many cases of harassment and abuse of LGBT people. In August 2004, the Nepalis authorities detained 39 metis on charges of spreading perversion, after having arbitrarily arrested them from the streets and restaurants or even from the residences. The detainees were held in detention without food and suffered inhumane and degrading treatment. In early June 2004, following a violent rape and assault of two metis in Kathmandu, the BDS organized a peaceful rally against police harassment which was violently interrupted by police. In April 13, 2005 police attacked 18 metis.
The harassment of sexual minorities did not stop after the popular uprising in the spring of 2006. In January 2007, Dev Gurung, a Maoist leader who is now the Minister for Local Development, was quoted as saying that “homosexuality is a product of capitalism. Under socialism this kind of problem does not exist.” In March 2007, another Maoist functionary, Hisila Yami, the new Minister for Infrastructure, told a gathering organized by BDS that the Maoists, “don’t punish homosexuals, but we also don’t encourage homosexual behavior” Her comments came a few days after Maoist militias detained two women on suspicion of being lesbians. The suspected lesbians were taken to a military camp, interrogated for six hours and finally released without any explanation.
Meanwhile, the Nepali LGBT rights movement gained momentum in the aftermath of the democracy movement. In August of 2006, BDS reported that for the first time in the history of the nation, two gay men got married. However, the ceremony was not officiated by religious authorities and the government refused to sanction this symbolic ceremony. At the beginning of January 2007, for the first time in Nepal, a conference was organized by BDS to discuss the constitutional rights of sexual minorities. In February 2007, the Nepalis authorities legally recognized transgender identity by issuing the first citizenship ID for a transgender person. In mid-May 2007, BDS will host the first Kathmandu International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Film Festival at the capital’s City Hall, screening fourteen international movies.
The first cases of AIDS were reported in Nepal in 1988. By early 2005, more than 800 cases of full-blown AIDS and over 4,700 cases of HIV infection were officially reported. The predominant mode of transmission is sexual contact and intravenous drug use (IDU). UNAIDS estimated there are 72,000 people living with HIV. Amongst IDUs the HIV prevalence is 40%, MSM 5%, and sex workers 3%. MSM/MSW/Tg are the highest resource gap population in Nepal in terms of HIV/AIDS intervention.
According to Paula Ettelbrick, the Executive Director of IGLHRC, BDS is one of the most effective human rights groups in the world. Ettelbrick says Panta and other members have been able, in a short time, to build visibility and effective action around LGBT issues in Nepal and international renown among their global peers is nothing short of astounding.
BDS was founded in 2001 in an effort to address the needs of sexual minorities. BDS has strived to create an acceptance of sexual minorities in the society, reduce stigma and discrimination of sexual minorities, reduce high-risk sexual behaviors and increase Sexually Transmitted Infections (STI) service utilization among sexual minorities for prevention of STI/HIV infection in Nepal, and to provide care and support for those sexual minorities who are HIV positive.
Political activism is another area of engagement for BDS. It actively supported the pro-democracy movement of April 2006 and decried official discrimination against gay community. Today, the organization is working with the new government to include sexual minorities’ basic human rights and protections in the new constitution. In January 2007, the society organized a forum on “Nepal’s New Constitution and the Rights of Minorities” where Lena Sundh, Representative of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Justice Edwin Cameron, Supreme Court of Appeal, South Africa shared their thoughts and experiences with Nepali legal and political experts.
1. Government of Nepal’s Official Website: http://www.nepalgov.gov.np/
2. Blue Diamond Society: http://www.bds.org.np/
3. IGLHRC’s reports on the LGBT situation in Nepal: http://www.iglhrc.org/site/iglhrc/section.php?id=5&Area=&DocType=&Issues=&term=nepal
4.Wikipedia on Nepal: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nepal
5. BBC Country profile: Nepal: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/country_profiles/1166502.stm
6.Human Rights Watch, Nepal Reports: http://hrw.org/doc/?t=asia&c=nepal
7. State Department’s Annual Report on Nepal, Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, March 6, 2007: http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2006/78873.htm
8. Gay Time’s report on LGBT In Nepal: http://www.gaytimes.co.uk/gt/listings.asp?action=ShowCountry&CID=692
9.HIV/AIDS in Nepal: http://www.youandaids.org/Asia%20Pacific%20at%20a%20Glance/Nepal/index.asp
10. Library of Congress, Country Study: Nepal: http://memory.loc.gov/frd/cs/nptoc.html
11. BBC Timeline: Nepal: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/country_profiles/1166516.stm
Acknowledgement: Thanks to Hossein Alizadeh of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) for providign the above Q&A as well as the report on LGBT in Nepal for publication in Nepal Monitor.
Posted by Editor on May 4, 2007 8:03 AM