‘This center is open to everyone, to all persecuted LGBTs,’ says a proud Sunil Pant, announcing the formal inauguration of the Pink Himalayan Center in Nepalese capital Kathmandu, the first sanctuary in South Asia for persecuted members of the community.
Originally a hospice for LGBTs in an advanced state of AIDS, the shelter has been upgraded into a five-story building boasting a mini theater that can double up as a conference hall, a library for documenting LGBT-related literature and legal information, and a sanctuary for members of the community who are thrown out by their families or society, be it in Nepal or abroad.
‘People in Uganda and Cameroon are also welcome to our center if they can come here,’ says Pant. ‘Nepal is one of the most tourist-friendly countries in the world, offering visa on arrival to many nationalities.
‘However, given the issue of accessibility, we think it will serve South Asia most.’
Gay rights activists from the neighborhood – India, Pakistan and Bangladesh – have already visited the center and are seeking to network to benefit from the strategies that turned Nepal, once a conservative patriarchal society, into a progressive country that became the first in South Asia to approve of same-sex marriage.
The Blue Diamond Society (BDS), Nepal’s pioneering gay rights organization founded by Pant, runs the center that was partly funded by Nepal’s government, another first in South Asia.
The rest of the money or the project came from the Norwegian government, Danish and US embassies and contributions from community members in Nepal and abroad.
Pant says the need for the center was felt after a critical period when landlords were refusing to let out houses to gays and a shelter for terminally ill gays had to be shut down abruptly after the house owner ordered BDS to quit his premises.
The new center has plans for a cafeteria to be run by LGBT members as a livelihood project, an art gallery and a training center for teachers.
Since this year, state-run schools in Nepal, Pant says, have introduced a subject, health, population and environment science, that teaches about LGBT issues. BDS is also conducting training for teachers on how to create a friendly environment for gay and transgender students and the need for separate toilets for transgenders.
In addition, the center will monitor the progress of the marriage bill that allows same-sex weddings after the Supreme Court in 2008 approved of the act and directed the government to formulate the necessary laws.
‘To become an act, the bill has to be passed by parliament,’ Pant says. ‘Unfortunately, currently there’s no parliament in Nepal.’
The house was dissolved after it failed to write and promulgate a new constitution and fresh elections are scheduled in November.
Pant is optimistic the newly elected parliament will uphold the bill since it was drafted with the approval of all the major parties.
Nepal’s leadership on LGBT issues comes as a surprise when India, its larger neighbor in South Asia, is the acknowledged leader where other subjects are concerned.
‘In Nepal, the rights movement blossomed due to a very supportive private media and our own approach,’ Pant says. ‘In Nepal we did not beg for anything. We claimed our rights as something due to us. It’s a matter of attitudinal difference.’
Religion has been another factor.
Nepal, though once a Hindu kingdom, practices tolerant Hinduism while in India, fundamentalists have a strong presence.
But perhaps the key factor is size. Nepal being a tiny country has been able to rally public opinion more effectively while in India, due to its huge size, things tend to move more slowly.