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Is Nepal's New Third Gender Passport a Win for Trans Rights?

In keeping with its reputation as a surprisingly progressive country for LGBTI rights, Nepal recently granted its first "third gender" passport. But social stigmas and unintended consequences are preventing the new gender-neutral option from being the...
October 1, 2015, 3:15pm
Kathmandu's Gai Jatra gay pride parade. All photos by Salim Ali

Men stare bemusedly from the sidewalk as several hundred gay pride revelers gather in Kathmandu's tourist district. The parade is made up of a large contingent of trans women, among others, decked out in sexy dresses, gaudy pride outfits, and traditional Nepali clothing. A group in red saris hold clay pots on their heads.

A young trans woman in a light blue bob wig, sapphire hot pants, and a matching bikini top hops out of a taxi. "Happy Gai Jatra!" she yells and throws up her arms, unfurling rainbow wings to the delight of photographers.

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Borrowed by Kathmandu's queer community, Gai Jatra, or "cow festival," traditionally symbolizes the end of mourning for those who have died the previous year. It's a time to put the sadness away and celebrate with parades and costumes (kids dress up like cows, a holy animal for Hindus, and some men and women dress in the clothes of the opposite gender), so it's a pretty good fit for gay pride. The festival held added significance this year because of the nearly 10,000 deaths from the April and May 2015 earthquakes, and the parade also included demands for non-discriminatory rights for sexual minorities in the country's new constitution.

At the front of the parade, Monika Shahi is dancing in front of a pride banner, her head tipping back often in open-mouthed laughter. "Did you know I'm the first person to get an 'Other' passport?" she asks pretty much anyone who will listen.

Although the country is still pretty conservative on women's issues, scenes like this that have earned Nepal a reputation for being surprisingly progressive on LGBTI rights in South Asia. Nepal allowed the third gender option for citizenship in 2013 (the category was added to the census in 2011) and famously elected an openly gay member of parliament, Sunil Babu Pant, in 2008. And it just became one of the few countries in the world to enshrine the rights of sexual and gender minorities in its constitution.

Read More: It's Still Legal for a Man to Rape His Wife in India

As the proud holder of the first passport allowing an option besides male or female, Shahi, 37, who identifies as a transgender woman, made headlines last August. "Passport and citizenship are very important for us. We have been fighting for identity and dignity since 2001, and [this] issuance of the passport is one of the achievements in the way to equality," says Pinky Gurung, the president of the Blue Diamond Society, Nepal's most prominent LGBTI organization.

Monika Shahi shows off her "O" category passport.

But despite Gurung and Shahi's optimism, social norms have not caught up to legal precedents.

"In Nepal we have provisions—for example the law doesn't allow any discrimination based on race or caste—but still there are a lot of challenges in society because people don't accept these kinds of social practices. And for us, for the LGBTI community, it's very hard to expose ourselves as transgender people," Shahi says.

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"We face discrimination from family, society, and state. We are forced to drop out of school, depriving ourselves of basic education," adds Gurung. "If we are not socially and economically empowered, we are unable to exercise our rights, even they are mentioned in the constitution."

There's something of a Caitlyn Jenner mentality here: Being trans is easier to accept than homosexuality.

A very common problem is a lack of family support, which forces many transgender people to leave home early, explains Badri Pun, a transgender man and the president of Inclusive Forum Nepal, an organization focused on rights for LGBTI women. In a country where married children still live at home in extended families, having to leave home early is akin to being cast out on the street. Making matters worse, state discrimination in job opportunities (quotas for equal gender representation don't include trans people) leaves most stuck in a low-paying or informal economy jobs, like sex work, Pun says.

"When we take up jobs like sex work to earn a living, it is the same government that blames us for bringing bad things to the society," Pun says.

According to Shahi and to others, discrimination is so bad that aside from a few positions with organizations like the Blue Diamond Society, most trans Nepalis consider sex work their only option.

In the Pink Tiffany Restaurant, Manish, a gay friend who's not out to his family so is not using his real name, took me to meet Meghna Lama at her bar near Freak Street—the living memorial to Kathmandu's hippie years, where barefoot and dreadlocked tourists still roam among cafes with names like "Penny Lane."

Lama started Pink Tiffany a few months ago, as a place for people across the spectrum of gender and sexual identity to chill and puff on hookahs. Pink Tiffany's menu and its generous sprinkling of exclamation points demonstrate its upbeat atmosphere. Chinese…! Nepali…! Something sweet…!

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Lama is not in, even though Manish has just spoken with her by phone to get directions. "She's in the street," someone at the bar tells Manish. "She must be with a customer," he leans over to whisper.

While we wait for Lama to turn up, we talk with Isha Nepal, another transgender sex worker. Nepal accessorizes a little black dress with bright pink lipstick and shiny dark curls. "She's cute, isn't she!" Manish exclaims.

When we take up jobs like sex work to earn a living, it is the same government that blames us for bringing bad things to the society.

I ask Nepal, 21, how she knows Lama, and she answers, "Mommy." "She's your mom?" I say stupidly, and both Nepal and Manish laugh. "Mommy" is the word they use for the person who mentors a new transgender girl, explains Manish. "It's our language."

Manish is not trans, but gays and lesbians are often lumped into the same category. There's something of a Caitlyn Jenner mentality here (though Jenner is definitely not a household name in Nepal): Being trans is easier to understand and accept—it fits the male-female binary—than homosexuality. Trans women also play a role in Hinduism and historically were thought to bestow fertility. Several of the trans women interviewed for this article explained that they knew they were trans because they liked boys—being gay didn't seem to be on the table. This may be part of why, in Nepal, trans issues seem to be progressing while gay rights lag (same-sex marriage, for example, is not legal).

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Nepal came to Kathmandu three years ago from the south to further her education. After a failed stint as a waiter—her employers said her effeminate behaviors were a problem—trans friends convinced her to try prostitution. Her first customer, a drunk guy who was unhappy to realize she was not a biological woman, was an unpleasant experience. But it got better. Sex work now pays the bills for Nepal's mother and little brother, both of whom stay with her and over time have become OK with her gender identity.

"Lucky," Manish says.

Isha Nepal at Pink Tiffany

Lama, 23, rushes in the room after 20 minutes, long black dress and long black hair swishing in one sleek movement. Behind inch-long (at least) false eyelashes and heavy black eye makeup, Lama oozes confidence."She's quick to mention her role on the US Embassy Youth Advisory council, and how she won Miss Pink (a trans beauty pageant) in 2010. The Miss Pink title even helped her family come to terms with her gender identity. She's open about her work, too.

But prostitution is a means to an end for Lama. "I don't think there are sex workers, transgenders, who feel proud doing [sex work]," she says. "Even at that time I wasn't proud. I knew that this was my struggle, but I have to achieve something.

"I say to all trans people: If you're well settled, don't choose this field," Lama continues. "But if you are not well settled, choose this field for a limited time. What you want to do in the future, focus on that, and just go for sex work and earn some money and you can invest, but don't see your dream as being a sex worker."

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A more common method of raising capital to start a small business in Nepal is by working several years outside the country. Money sent back from work abroad provides a huge portion of Nepal's economy at large, nearly 30% of its GDP. A large portion of these unskilled laborers earning money to start businesses go to work in Gulf countries, despite notoriously bad conditions. This, of course, requires a passport. But Lama cautions her peers against trans pride in this case.

How can we work in those countries if transgender is written in our passports? They're going to kill us.

"If you go saying you are proud of your sexuality, you will definitely get harassment by the police in Gulf countries, so it will be too hard," she says. In other words, an "O" passport might be a liability.

Manish, too, worries that the "O" passport does more in newspaper headlines than for the lives of average trans Nepalis. "It doesn't work in real life," he says. "Where are we going to work, the people who are not educated? Our target, our aim, is where? Our destination is the Gulf countries. How can we work in those countries if 'transgender' is written in our passports? They're going to kill us. A lot of these Muslim countries are not going to accept us. So for Nepal, how can we see this—is it an achievement? I don't know," he says.

Nepal is one of a few countries that doesn't grant citizenship—or a passport—without a bureaucratic process; individuals have to apply for citizenship through their parents, and getting a passport requires a citizenship document and a birth certificate. These both list the birth gender unless the person requests the citizenship list their gender as "other"—a recent change. For passports, individuals cannot declare a gender that does not match the gender on their application materials, unless they've had a sex change.

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Lama says once she has a sex change operation, she'll apply for a female passport. She worries the "O" would mark her as something "other" forever, when really she sees her gender as currently mismatching her biology, not putting her in an entirely different category.

For her part, Shahi hopes Nepal can help other countries change their minds and open doors to trans people. "The passport I got under the O category is not only for my country or for my community; it's also because there are a lot of LGBTI communities across the world who have been fighting for their rights, and the government is not willing to grant them. I think this could be a landmark opportunity for [those countries] to learn from Nepal," she says.

The passport provides personal validation, too. Adolescence as a trans person in southern Nepal was tumultuous for Shahi. Her family didn't understand her, and even her brothers were bullied because of her identity. Shahi attempted suicide more than once.

"Now I have a passport, so now I have a good response from my family," she says. "They feel like I have done something for the country, for the society, and now I am known everywhere. I am kind of a celebrity in national media, international media. They feel like I am something."