KATHMANDU (DPA) – Bhumika Shrestha, a transgender, once found herself being fondled by a security officer at an international airport because the man on duty found her gender identity "confusing."
Her passport identified Shrestha as male, but her lipstick, kohl-lined eyelids and breast implants suggested otherwise.
"The security official did not understand when I tried to explain to him that I am a transgender," she explained. "He took me to a separate cubicle to 'investigate' and touched me in a way that made me feel violated."
She grew up experiencing molestation and stigma for her sexual orientation. But over the years, a popular movement for the rights of sexual minorities has given her some hope.
Sexual minorities found a voice for the first time in Nepal when Sunil Babu Pant established the Blue Diamond Society in 2001.
The organization provides care, counseling and other services to HIV-AIDS victims. Fearing a backlash, the person seeking those services had to register covertly, said the founder, who went on to become Nepal's first openly gay lawmaker in 2008.
"When I was a student in Belarus, I realized that my sexual identity could be a problem for the society," said Pant, who came out publicly in 2002 after he returned to Nepal. His family was initially upset, but they supported him because they "understood the risk he was taking," he said.
"In the past, people thought all transgenders were prostitutes and they misbehaved with us. But with the movement created by BDS, that is changing," explains Shrestha, who recalls being bullied at school and in the neighbourhood for her body language and appearance over much of her life.
Shrestha, who changed her first name from Kailash to Bhumika, said the only time she did not feel scared about her sexuality was when she was dealing with the organization.
Transgender characters appear in the Hindu scriptures. However, the predominantly Hindu society in Nepal has avoided open discussion on the issue.
"The police and civil officers saw LGBTIs [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex] as an easy source of blackmail, free sex and/or rape," Pant said.
"Many queer men and women in the capital and towns of Nepal faced beatings, even murder, extortion and incarceration without charge."
Before the community became organized, many faced ostracism from their families, which led them to destitution, despair, drug abuse and prostitution.
Over the years, the sexual minorities movement has become a distinct voice in Nepal. Pant and Shrestha have become national figures, organizing gay parades, appearing on TV shows and meeting with government officers, demanding their rights be guaranteed.
In December 2007, the Supreme Court ordered the government to issue citizenship rights to third genders and to scrap all laws that discriminated against them. The government has introduced voting rights and included third gender in the national census.
The government is preparing to introduce a provision identifying the third gender on passports. Legalization of same-sex marriage is also under consideration.
Compared to South Asian neighbours where homosexuality is still criminalized, Nepal has made accomplishments that put it ahead in terms of gay rights, according to Nepali Congress leader Gagan Thapa and Maoist leader Baburam Bhattarai.
But the activists say they have suffered a setback because they are not represented in the current parliament.
Shrestha, the first transgender politician, failed to win her party's nomination for the House of Representatives.
"Changes are being processed. But we're still not there," she said, noting that legal provisions are not enough unless there is a change in public perceptions.
Pant agreed that the new generation needs to be taught to celebrate human diversity in terms of gender and sexuality.
"There is a subtle backlash in the last few years, with the defaming of activists and the bureaucracy giving problems to the gay rights organizations, and the government not implementing the Supreme Court's orders," Pant said.
"But the good thing is, there is much more visibility, communities are more vocal and organized, and many support LGBTI rights."
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