A Nepali Gay Rights Activist Achieves the Impossible

Sunil Pant in the Gai Jatra Festival in 2011 (In Chitwan, Nepal)
Sunil Babu Pant, standing, participating in a gai jatra festival of cows in 2011, in Chitwan, Nepal.

The name Sunil Babu Pant is synonymous with gay rights in Nepal. Over the last two decades, Pant has been seen rallying on the streets of Kathmandu, the capital, distributing condoms to people in the gay community and recently making laws as a parliamentarian in Nepal’s Constituent Assembly. Under his watch, homosexuality was legalized in Nepal in 2007, and citizenship was issued to the third gender in 2013, making Nepal one of the most gay-friendly places in the world. Pant is among 278 people and groups nominated so far for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, which will be announced in October. An interview with Pant, adapted from one that first appeared in Story South Asia, explains his work:

Q. How did you bring recognition of lesbian-bisexual-gay-transgender-intersex (LBGTI) rights to mainstream media in Nepal?

A. There are two ways of being recognized in mainstream media. One way is to be included in the development sector; the other is to be a part of the social sector. To be a part of the social sphere, we started celebrating gai jatra [cow] festivals and other sport festivals for the LGBTI. We did all of this to consume the public space. To get included in the development sector, we fought for our rights with the government.

Q. What do you think of the recriminalization of homosexuality in India and how do you think it affects South Asia?

A. This criminalization will not affect Nepal very much because we are far ahead. In fact, when India recriminalized homosexuality, Nepali political leaders, like Gagan Thapa [and] Baburam Bhattarai tweeted and said they disagreed to the decision. Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka are already far behind India when it comes to LGBTI rights, so this won’t affect them much either. It’s a shame for the country that has the name of the largest democracy in the world.

Q. What role do gay rights play in the new constitution of Nepal? How are you involved in the new constitution process? How many members from the LGBTI community have seats, if any? 

A. There is no one from the LGBTI community in the current Constituent Assembly. I was, however, present in the last CA. I was also a member of the Fundamental Rights Committee, which has drafted the section on sexual identity and rights very well. It has included three genders, has called for equal pay and calls for marriage between two people — not between a man and a woman. It is very gender inclusive and has a gender-neutral language.

Q. As you just said, it seems like the draft constitution in 2008 had full protection for LGBTI people in Nepal. How much of this is being carried on in the next constitution that is in works?

A. The last CA [Constituent Assembly] dissolved without promulgating a constitution. While 80 percent of the CA is new, I don’t think any of the language on fundamental rights will be changed. There isn’t any controversy about the work that has already been done. The Supreme Court of Nepal has also written a legal notice saying there should be rights for the LGBTI. Now, it’s all about how strong the language will be.

Q. In 2011, you convinced Baburam Bhattarai, the prime minister of Nepal at the time, to allocate a small budget to support sexual and gender minorities. Is that budget still in place with the new cabinet?

A. The title was there in the 2013 budget, but the item amount was reduced to zero because we had an interim government. But I think it will be there in the next budget. For the last five years, we have continuously received 3 million rupees (30 lakhs) from the government. There isn’t much you can do with that money, but it is still very helpful.

Q. In 2011, you also convinced the Central Bureau of Statistics of Nepal to add the “tesro ling,” or the third gender category, labeled neither man nor woman. As a result, Nepal became one of the first countries in the world to count the third gender. How difficult was that pursuit?

A. At that time, the census programs were in effect and the census bureau was making moves to collect new data for the country. We thought the government must have our data along with the rest of the population. So I went to the Central Bureau of Statistics with a delegation. At first, they had no plans of including us. They said the documents had already been made, and it would be difficult for them to change everything. But I persisted and said they had to include us.

Q. The idea that Nepal is a “gay haven” is being promoted internationally. How much do you think this is an advertising stunt? For a country that has yet to accept intercaste marriage socially, do you think it’s hypocritical?

A. It is true that it is a gay haven for tourists who have money. They do not face discrimination, but those on the ground continue to face issues. International gay couples cannot go to Pakistan, China and Russia or Dubai even. They may have a lot of money, but they can’t publicly talk about their identity. In Nepal, they can openly talk about being gay, they can get married at the Everest base camp or whatever they choose. The priests and lamas are happy to bless these couples. We don’t have problems for tourists. But again, those from the LBGTI community here have a hard time getting a job, housing or admissions in schools and colleges. There are scholarships for all other minorities, but those who belong to the transgender community have no scholarships reserved for them.

Q. What you have done in Nepal has been considered nothing short of the impossible ­– not just for the LGBTI population in the country but for the world. How did you keep up when things seem impossible?

A. Many people ask me this question. The thing is, I don’t make long-term plans about these things. None of it is a calculative move. Many people actually think I am very strategic and come with a plan, but that is not true at all. I only do what is necessary at the moment. If I need to go fight, I fight. If I need to get papers, I do that. We went to get our rights of recognizing in 2007 because we fought with the revolutionaries in 2006 [they were in the government in 2007]. But they did not want to meet with us and did not respond to us, so we took the government to court. I always think of immediate local needs and see if there is a need for immediate intervention. I would think most activists probably work like that. If you start planning every move, I don’t think that is activism.

Q. What is your advice to activists?

A. A lot of activists I see are always angry. They make enemies for life, and I think that is what causes failure. I took opportunities of hatred to educate people instead of fighting with them. A compassionate education is the key. That is how I have been successful 99 percent. When I was in the CA [Constituent Assembly], I also found that when we struggle for equality, we should not have a low self-esteem. Why beg, I think. I see this in a lot of people who are fighting for equality. Yes, these men might have the power, but why beg? When you beg, they are in a giving hand and you are in a receiving hand. That is giving too much power. You should never beg for equality. You should treat yourself to equality first.

Q. You are among the 278 people and groups nominated so far for the Nobel Peace Prize; how does it feel to be nominated?

A. When I first heard that I had been nominated, I had not expected it and was in denial. Most of the friends from Norway’s parliament had nominated me. When they began congratulating me, I actually began to understand and process the news. The labor party’s existing parliament had nominated me: they must have wanted to recognize and spread acceptance for gay rights. This is the first time that people who have been fighting for gay rights have been nominated.

 

 

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Shiwani Neupane

Shiwani Neupane

Shiwani Neupane is a journalist and novelist from Nepal who works at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University and is a co-founder of Story South Asia, a website dedicated to South Asian affairs. She has a master's degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and bachelor's degree in English and political science from Ithaca College.

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