Interview - Patience Pays Off - Sunil Babu Pant
Please tell us about yourself and Blue Diamond Society. Where did the need for such an organisation arise?
I was born in 1972 and grew up in Gaikur village, Gorkha District in Nepal. I went to school in my village. I always thought everyone is like me and everyone is different with diverse sexuality and gender identities/expression. My sexual identity never bothered me or anyone else.
I didn’t have a plan to start Blue Diamond Society in the beginning. I was curious to find out about the local lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intra-gender (LGBTI) culture and to meet other LGBTI people. After I discovered so many problems faced by LGBTI people like rape, exclusion, blackmail, beatings, discrimination and lack of proper understanding and knowledge on LGBTI rights and health, I thought we must get together, organise ourselves and stand up to the situation for the betterment of Nepal’s LGBTIs. If we were to end the continuous marginalisation that we faced, we had to be prepared to struggle for our own rights and concerns. So, in 2001, we registered The Blue Diamond Society. The colour Blue represents sexual minorities in Russia and in Buddhism enlightened and compassionate people are called diamond beings (Bodhi-Sattva) which I was very fond of and so named the organisation Blue Diamond Society (BDS).
Tell us more about the sexual diversity that exists in Nepal. For instance, who are the metis?
Metis are biological males who see themselves as feminine and third genders (other than man and women). They generally identify themselves as distinct from the gay/bisexual community in Nepal. They are generally marginalized because of their socio-economic status as well as their gender identity. While some Metis marry women, they often have sexual relationships outside of marriage with men and identify as third genders with a feminine orientation. Metis are called Kothis or Maugias in Terai and Singarus or Strain in some part of the hilly regions and Phulumulu in the mountain regions. Marunis are biologically males who perform dances in female attire. Mardana and Baranths are females who see themselves or are perceived as masculine. Samalingis or Lingis are male/ female homosexuals in the Nepali language.
What were the early years of BDS like?
Initially, BDS had to struggle against many taboos and mores. The first attempt at registering the society was denied because officials objected to the very concept of homosexuality. We were pressurised to change the organisation’s objective into ‘correcting’ homosexual behaviour, but finally found a loophole that allowed us to work in the area of male health.
We were then faced with the challenge of coaxing men having sex with men (MSMs) and Third Genders (TG) to join the Society because they were afraid of being targeted by homophobes. BDS estimates that about 95 percent of MSMs and TGs are forced into heterosexual marriages by their families who don’t want scandals. They suffer from depression, low self-esteem and social ostracism.
BDS is now a network of 20 groups and organisations working on HIV/AIDS, human rights and social justice for sexual and gender minorities and MSM in Nepal. It was the first and only organisation of its kind when it was established as no one else was working on these issues. All the organisations that are in the current network arose from BDS in the last 7 years.
Since founding BDS, I have focused on advocacy and the need for HIV intervention among MSM and TGs along with the need to address violence against sexual and gender minorities in Nepal. BDS now has HIV and human rights programmes in more than 20 cities in Nepal and continues to expand rapidly.
How did BDS work against violence and discrimination?
Through documentation of such violence, reporting to the police, National Human Rights Commission, OHCHR, Government Ministries and other relevant Human Rights organisations including the Special Rapporteurs at the UN. We try and sensitise the police as much as possible by orientations, discussions, meetings. We empower LGBTI communities by training and orientations on rights and how to tackle violence and abuse. Media campaigns and much more… Our key activities include health promotion for sexual minorities, psycho-social counselling, raising awareness of HIV/AIDS, promoting human rights and sexual health, documenting human rights violations and providing support to those whose rights have been violated.
What were the challenges you faced?
My colleagues and I at BDS carried out this work under the threat of arrest and imprisonment, with the security forces and militia cracking down on LGBTI networks throughout the country. Coupled with a lack of legal protection and the beliefs of a traditional society, the environment in which LGBTI rights defenders work is a volatile one. Many of the BDS staff have been arrested and imprisoned; transgender people face extortion, blackmail and rape and other forms of violence.
What do you consider as major achievements for BDS? BDS has made major accomplishments in only a few years in protecting the human rights of sexual minorities, improving sexual health and promoting HIV prevention, and raising awareness in society. BDS provides daily social support to Nepali citizens who have been harassed, attacked or abandoned. Protection and support extends to different sexual and gender minorities. This creates a safe space, a major, ongoing accomplishment, fostering an atmosphere where people can meet and address the issues and challenges of living in a society where stigma and discrimination is rife. They discuss and understand their sexual and human rights.
Men who have sex with men, sex workers, LGBTIs and other community members, often from low economic, educational and caste status, mingle with each other and the benefits and service to marginalised communities in Nepal are clear.
I have also been involved in working for HIV infected/ affected communities with the Global Fund, WHO, UNAIDS, and on human rights with Front Line, IGLHRC, AP-Rainbow, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other international and regional networks and organizations. The Utopia Award 2005 and the Felippa De Souza Award 2007 recognized the organization’s work on HIV and Human Rights. I am one of the petitioners who filed the writ petition on 18 April 2007 at Nepal’s Supreme Court and on December 21, 2007 Nepal’s Supreme Court made a historic decision by ordering the government to defend and protect LGBTI rights as those of ‘natural people’. Congratulations! It is indeed a landmark decision.
It’s a great decision and TGs as well as gays, lesbians, bisexuals and inter-sex peoples’ rights are also ensured by this decision.
Great victory of Nepalese LGBTI !
We, all LGBTI Nepalis, are very happy and proud of the Supreme Court whose decision is extremely progressive on such a difficult issue for our society, especially on the matter of gender identity. This is the first time any Supreme Court has ever spoken in such a positive manner on gender identity issues in the world.
What this decision means is that Third Gender people will now have Citizenship ID, Passport and other documents recognising them as ‘Third Gender’. LGBTI will have equal rights and opportunities as heterosexual men and women. No discrimination will be allowed against LGBTI on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identities for getting a job, education, health care, parental property, mobility, political and social participation, travel, etc. The judgement of the Supreme Court now offers protection from violence and discrimination for LGBTI by the law.
What is the next step to get TG people their ration cards, passports, bank accounts, etc?
We will help the government to implement the decision. Government administration is positive about the implementation of these orders. We are just waiting for the full written decision to come and be formally communicated to the government by the Supreme Court. In the meanwhile, one of the private banks – Everest Bank – has changed its account opening form and included ‘other’ apart from male and female under the gender column.
What is the current socio-political context in Nepal in terms of working on sexuality and rights?
The socio-political environment has become much easier, more accommodating and inclusive not just for LGBTI but for others as well. Social transformation that’s going on in Nepal proved to be such a good opportunity for us to stand together and also to contribute towards democracy and human rights. Our active participation during the 2006 popular People’s Movement against the autocracy brought us into the middle of activism for change in Nepal and we have many alliances since then.
What have been the points of learning for you and BDS? Any challenges can be opportunities as well. The most deprived proved to be the most powerful. Metis and other LGBTIs are excluded and believed to have no capacity to contribute to society, which has been proved to be wrong. Anytime is the right time to fight for justice. Small injustices must not be overlooked. Small, incremental progress adds up over time and we should learn to see significance over time. Don’t expect big change or any change yesterday… patience pays off.
What do you see as the scope for future work in Nepal?
We will work closely with the government and political parties now on implementation of the Supreme Court decision and to improve the LGBTIs living standards. More work is needed to empower LGBTI communities. We are and will be happy to continue to work with other networks, organizations and coalitions across the region on LGBTI rights, advocacy and empowerment. We must also support and work on other issues of marginalisation and oppression.
Sunil Babu Pant is the Founder / President of the Blue Diamond Society (BDS), a network of 20 groups and organisations working on HIV/AIDS, human rights and social justice for sexual and gender minorities in Nepal. Sunil Pant was key to filing the writ petition in April 2007 at Nepal’s Supreme Court and on December 21, 2007 Nepal’s Supreme Court made a historic decision ordering the government to defend and protect the rights of LGBTI people as natural people. Sunil Pant and his colleagues at BDS carried out this work under the threat of arrest and imprisonment, with the security forces and militia cracking down on LGBTI networks throughout the country.