I Grew Up Trans in Nepal, Then Became One of Its LGBTQ Leaders
Manisha Dhakal sketches her inspiring journey ‘from a shy boy to a confident woman,’ and now transgender activist and executive director of Nepal’s leading LGBTQ organization.
More than 10 years ago a coalition of Nepali activists, including from the Blue Diamond Society (BDS), which is the country’s largest LGBTI rights organization, filed a case in the Supreme Court of Nepal demanding equal rights for LGBTI people.
I am a founding member of BDS and have been with the organization since its inception in 2001 when I joined as an office assistant, and am now its executive director. We started with only six volunteers and a rented room and have grown into one of Nepal’s largest nongovernmental organizations with 700 staff and over 40 offices around the country.
I vividly recall being at the Supreme Court in 2007 during the hearing for the case and was caught off guard when the justice suddenly asked “are there any LGBTI community members who can share their personal experiences?” My heart racing, I immediately raised my hand without hesitation.
I shared my personal story of being stigmatized and discriminated every day merely for being a transgender woman: how men grope me on public transport; how thugs on the street whistle at me; and how government officials shamelessly ask me personal questions about my genitals and much more.
I have endured countless humiliations but have come out stronger, ready to take on the conservative forces of patriarchy and heteronormativity and fight for the dignity and safety of my community.
I outlined other issues facing LGBTI Nepalis such as lack of relationship recognition, lack of employment prospects, social derision, lack of protective laws, harassment from police and rampant bullying in schools. While I did not realize it at the time, my story apparently made a huge impact on the justice and contributed to a momentous verdict in favor of LGBTI rights and protections on December 21, 2007.
My fellow activists and I were elated that our country had finally chosen to recognize our humanity and rights. While Nepal never criminalized LGBTI people or persecuted us, like many other countries in the region and the world, for too long we had been an invisible and marginalized community. That was finally about to end.
My journey from a shy boy to a confident woman, transgender activist, and executive director of one of Nepal’s largest nongovernmental organizations was not easy and without challenges.
I remember my first day of primary school when my mom left me and a male friend and walked away and we began crying. The teachers brought us some toys. My friend selected an airplane and I chose a doll. In hindsight, I realize now that having feminine tendencies was something I always had.
Being feminine as a male-identified child was not easy. I was frequently bullied by boys and tended to socialize with girls. In high school, I remember being humiliated in front of my classmates when my teacher asked me to speak with a manly voice as I have a very soft voice. But I could not do so as this came naturally to me.
One day when I was a college student, I visited “Ratna Park,” a big park in central Kathmandu and a well-known cruising site for gay and transgender people. For the first time ever, I encountered other people like me. I was so relieved and considered myself lucky to meet them and slowly become friends with them.
In 2001, Sunil Babu Pant–a former member of Parliament of Nepal (2008-12) and Asia’s first openly gay MP who also founded BDS–was talking about forming a LGBTI organization. He urged me to join him in this endeavor. I was very reluctant at first but eventually joined BDS with great fear and hesitation without telling my family.
A few years later, my family found out about my involvement with BDS and prevented me from leaving home for three days. In those three days when I was sequestered at home, I took the opportunity to tell explain to my family all about sexual orientation, gender identity, LGBTI people, and how these things are natural and not a choice.
After a lot of explanation and countless tears shed, my father and sister came around and became very supportive. I think that was a major turning point. But still it was more tolerance rather than full acceptance.
It has taken a long time for the letter and the spirit of the December 2007 verdict to be reflected in the law. In 2013, the government began issuing citizenship, passport and other legal documents with an “other” gender category.
In September 2015, Nepal promulgated a groundbreaking new constitution which protects the rights of gender and sexual minorities, making it the only country in Asia to institute such far-reaching protections. Despite being a small country, Nepal is a beacon of hope for other countries in South Asia and other parts of Asia where LGBTI people are often criminalized, persecuted and/or marginalized.
As I reflect on the Supreme Court’s momentous decision on its ten year anniversary, it is joyful to note the positive impacts at the societal and policy levels. LGBTI Nepalis today are no longer in hiding as they used to be. We are more open, more visible and a part of civil society.
But there still a long way to go before we achieve true equality. For instance, transgender people still struggle to gain white collar office employment, discrimination against LGBTI employees is rampant, and LGBTI youth struggle to obtain education in an environment free of bullying.
At Blue Diamond Society, we work every day to make the lives of LGBTI Nepalis better, to expand their opportunities, and to counter the obstacles and threats they face. We do this through two key pillars of work: human rights advocacy and the provision of health, mental health and HIV services.
Because of our 16 years of hard work, today I can approach senior government officials, police officers, journalists, members of parliament, and judges and have them give me a fair hearing. They also reach out me. We also recognize that LBT women face reproductive health and other challenges that are often overlooked in our male-dominated and male-centered society. Many LGBTI youth face mental health challenges. We are committed to addressing them.
When it comes to society, most people are generally tolerant but prefer to sweep LGBTI issues under the carpet as they see it as somehow shameful. BDS works with various ministries of the Government of Nepal (especially the health ministry and social welfare ministry), Members of Parliament, the National Human Rights Commission, civil society partners and the international community including United Nations agencies and foreign diplomatic missions to raise awareness about the challenges for LGBTI Nepalis and to provide greater opportunities for them.
Our key objective is to make everyone aware that we are normal human beings, we are family members, we are neighbors, we are friends, and we belong.
While our new constitution—which we achieved after over two decades of political turmoil and a decade-long civil war—enshrines the right to equality and the right to social justice LGBTI people, many of the values espoused by the constitution and by the December 2007 ruling of the Supreme Court of Nepal are yet to be achieved in practice.
For instance, successive governments have dragged their feet on introducing marriage equality despite our ongoing efforts. If the government introduced marriage equality, Nepal could be the first country in Asia to achieve it (unless Taiwan introduces a marriage equality law as per their Constitutional Court’s order in May 2017).
As the 10th anniversary of the Supreme Court's historic verdict is celebrated this December, including with a gay beauty pageant—BDS organized the recent Mr. Gay Handsome Nepal competition (won by Manindra Singh)— the LGBTQ community and my BDS colleagues are deeply frustrated and anxious because of the lack of measurable progress.
We have supportive court rulings, institutions and politicians, but nevertheless few laws and policies that explicitly protect us and advance our rights. More needs to be done by the community to push for our rights and by the government to protect us.
Marriage equality has been stalled since an attempt to enact it in parliament in 2010, and we need to make a fresh push for that so we can become the first country in Asia with marriage equality. Violence against LGBTQ people, while nowhere as high as many other parts of Asia and the world, does exist and needs to be combated. I look forward to being a leader in these efforts.
Manisha Dhakal is executive director of the Blue Diamond Society, and a Human Rights Campaign global innovator.