It’s not an easy time for Sunil Pant, founder of the largest LGBT rights group in Nepal, Blue Diamond Society (BDS). A government office has sat on the renewal of BDS’s license, holding-up funding so that staff haven’t been paid for months. LGBTI activists are also being harassed, which Pant links to the same government officer.
When we met in him at the BDS office in Kathamandu, we ask about the recent troubles, including allegations of corruption, but also about happier times: his childhood, an awakening of gay consciousness in a bookshop in Tokyo and the political achievements of the LGBTI rights activists in Nepal in the last 12 years.
What was your childhood like?
I grew up in Gorkha district in a remote village. I never heard the word ‘homosexual’ even in the Nepali language until I came to Kathmandu. I’m the youngest child in our family so I was very loved. I was a good student and I was well cared-for by my parents and siblings. I had a very happy childhood.
In the village, being south Asia, we still have gender-segregated socialization. The boys play together and the girls play together. I may have already had the inclination towards male bonding, but it was like that for everyone, so I did not have to question my sexual orientation. It was not a taboo for two or boys to take baths together, go swimming in the river or share bed.
Did you discover your sexuality when you left home?
After coming to Kathmandu for college I also did not see any gay scene. There was no discrimination but LGBT culture was not visible. There was some derogatory dialogue in the movies, mainly against transgenders, who were portrayed in a very negative way.
Then for further study I went to Belarus where I studied a master degree. That’s where I realized that homosexuality is a taboo subject and I realized that I am a homosexual. My inclination is an excluded human attraction, and that can be a problem.
We used to read in the newspaper that parks, toilets and discos had been raided by the police and they arrested homosexuals. And we also heard that foreigners who were gay were sent back home and deported. So as I was there to study I didn’t want to get in trouble.
How did you become interested in sexual minorities rights?
I finished my education in 1997 and then I travelled to Japan for a voluntary project. Afterwards I visited my brother in Tokyo.
I went to a bookstore and picked up a book filled with male nudity. There were a whole lot of rainbow flags – but I had no connection with what that meant. I looked around and felt that everyone was watching me strangely. I dropped the book and picked up another that was even more explicit, so I got scared and ran away. It had really shaken me. I was scared but also kept thinking about it.
After three days I had the courage to go back. The bookshop keeper spoke English and he explained that this is a gay bookshop, and these are the erotic books, these the gay history books, these are the science and sociology, these are the religious books.
I went there every day and spoke to people who spoke English, read books and then I understood homosexuality a lot more. So that gave me more confidence and made me realize that I have no problem at all.
What did you do after that?
After coming back to Nepal I had no idea what to do. There were not many jobs in computer science in those days in this country, so I felt that I need to upgrade my education. I applied to the University of Hong Kong and went there.
But Hong Kong, despite seeming like a very open cosmopolitan society was very hypocritical. There was very subtle discrimination. I came out to my university friends and teachers and they started behaving differently.
Also the gay scene was not appealing to me – drinking, dancing and picking-up one-night stands. It was no kind of life I thought. I thought it was so much on the surface. So I was very disappointed.
I came back to Nepal after a semester. A super-cyclone hit India in 1999 so I decided to go for two weeks to go and help. I went to Orissa to help them and got so engaged I decided that was a better place for me than Hong Kong. So I quit the education and stayed 10 months.
Is that when you got involved in charity work?
Yes, I came back to Nepal and started a women’s project in Gorkha district and I studied Buddhism. So I found a bit more meaning and decided computers weren’t for me, I was more interested in social work.
How did you end up starting an LGBT rights organization?
I started meeting LGBTI people in Kathmandu in 2000. And quite soon I met a lot and I shared with them the knowledge I had from Japan. And they started sharing problems. They had no knowledge of HIV so I requested my friend from the US to send condoms and lubricant, which I distributed. Also a lot of people had stories about blackmail, abuse, rape, exclusion, beatings etc.
I started on an ad hoc basis to respond to those needs. Then I realized there were too many problems and with a lose network we can’t achieve much – so we must get organized. So I said why don’t we start a movement, and then the idea for the Blue Diamond Society started-up.
How did you get Blue Diamond Society established?
We started in 2001. For two years we working as volunteers and then we got a little bit of funding from UN AIDS for some training. And then we were funded for six months and that was very successful, after two years working voluntarily we were paid.
We had a drop-in center, regular training, a safe space where people could come here and have fun but also learn. And then by word of month more and more people came – thousands of people in fact.
How did the tumultuous political situation in Nepal affect your fight for rights?
In 2003 a state of emergency was declared in Nepal by the government, because the Maoist insurgency was at its peak. There were security forces everywhere. A lot of transgender people were abused by the security people. It was a very hard time. People were harassed by the police and others and abused. So we started responding focusing more on those human rights abuses by the security forces. It was a very risky time for us.
It went on for a long time and in 2006 we joined the political people’s movement for democracy and human rights. We started getting recognized by all the human rights organizations.
How did you achieve the historic 2007 decision of the Supreme Court to recognize LGBT rights?
In 2007 the interim parliament was reinstated and there was a new government. We asked them to include our LGBTI rights in the constitution but they didn’t listen. They didn’t even meet us.
So we took them to court and we won the case at the end of 2007. That’s when the third gender was recognized. It was a very historic decision. We were the first country in the world to recognize three genders.
And the Supreme Court ordered the government to amend discriminatory laws and policies against LGBTI people, which is still in the process of implementation. The court also asked the government to draft same-sex marriage law, which is also in the process.
Why did you decide to move into politics in 2008?
It was not a long-thought-out decision. We were going to the parties before the election asking them to include LGBTI rights in the party manifesto. A lot of parties did include that, including the Maoist party, the Communist party, in their party manifesto.
But there was one small left-wing party, CPN United, who surprisingly came and asked me whether I would stand for election with them. I said ok, fine, without much thought. I had two hours to make the decision. The party got enough votes. Five members were elected from that party and I was one of them. I had never been a party member before.
How did you find working in government?
It was good. It really gives you access and voice. You are part of the decision making. And in fact once I became an MP the government started allocating budgets to support LGBTI programs, so many policies have changed. I think implementation was possible because of that access.
We’ve achieved a lot, like Nepal hosting a UN regional seminar on LGBTI rights last month. It had a huge impact I think.
Unfortunately, we did not finalize the constitution, but I made a big impact with the other parties and parliamentarians. And in the draft constitution there are very good provisions for LGBTI human rights.
So did you resign as an MP?
No the whole parliament was dissolved in June last year. We don’t have a parliament in Nepal now.
The parties are pushing for a new election by June this year, but I don’t think it’s possible because we have only a few months left now. We can’t really have a national election for parliament and the Constituent Assembly within two months.
Are you going stand for election again?
Maybe, we’ll see. There are going to be more LGBTI candidates standing for election.
Have you heard anything about the renewal of Blue Diamond Society’s license?
We’re still in that limbo and the District Administration Office is still not paying any attention to us. He’s being very arrogant. We realize that he’s deeply homophobic.
We had the National Human Rights Commission write him a letter. We had the home ministry call him several times to speed up the renewal. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights wrote a letter, Human Rights Watch wrote a letter, calling him to renew this organization so that LGBTI programs can continue.
We provide vital, vital programs that, especially programs to do with HIV prevention work, treatment care for people living with HIV, human rights, legal assistance. It’s a humanity crisis for the LGBTI community in Nepal.
And is that connected to the harassment?
He is the one that mobilizes the police and the harassment isn’t happening in other areas, it’s only happening in Kathmandu. So there’s a clear link.
How do you keep the morale up when staff haven’t been paid for months?
It’s very hard, but the community’s amazing survival technique is that we have been discriminated against, ostracized and excluded for so long – since childhood – so we are somehow used to this as well.
People think we are powerless and voiceless but we have enormous power, enormous capacity to stand-on through any difficult situation, which they don’t realize. So we never take no for an answer, we make it yes eventually. We don’t ever give up.
Do you know Vinod Lama? He has sent us emails accusing you of corruption.
He’s the agent of the forces that want to kill this movement. He is attacking me very viscously via email. But I have never met him personally. There are other people who are feeding him information.
He said you employed your brother-in-law. Is that right?
Yeah, that’s true. It was in the beginning when we had no funding, and we had to do an audit every year to renew the organization. And my brother-in-law was retired qualified fiance officer, so the board asked him for help because we did not have any money to pay anyone. And no one wanted to help us, even the community members were very reluctant to join the board.
So the Blue Diamond Society and the whole community must be very thankful to him that he joined us and worked for two years voluntarily, and then he got a small salary, and he’s a very honest person so the board decided to continue his work.
Of all the 750 staff he’s the only one that is my relative, but they give this misleading information to the media.
Do you have a message for those who are trying to stop the LGBTI movement in Nepal?
We are already an established movement. There is no back-track. Those people who think that by giving us a hard time we will give-up are mistaken. Difficulties are part of life and they will only make us stronger, mature and more humble.