Gay activist in Nepal campaigns against discrimination

Sunil Pant speaks up for disenfranchised groups in court and petitions the government for new constitutional rights.

Prakash Mathema/NEWSCOM
Activist: In conservative Nepal, a voice for equal rights.

Sunil Pant has built a successful gay rights movement – one that has fought against discrimination and violence in this conservative Southeast Asian country.

"It's absolutely astonishing," said Scott Long, who works on issues of sexuality for Human Rights Watch. "Considering how few resources they have and the depth of prejudice they have to fight against, what they've achieved is extraordinary."

The advances are part of a larger social and political ferment brewing in Nepal, one of the world's poorest countries. After 10 years of a Maoist insurgency, a democratic transition is under way.

There is a clear sense that everything is up for grabs as Nepal reinvents itself, a rare moment when groups of whatever stripe – women, ethnic minorities, members of lower Hindu castes – have a shot at leaving their imprint on the fabric of the state.

"We have a golden opportunity to raise our voice and contribute to this country," Pant said. "This is a struggle I think this generation has to do, about being brave and honest."

For years, they were mute. And even now, Nepalese society remains extremely traditional, bound by deeply inscribed values and rigid hierarchies. Conservative mores reign in this majority Hindu country, where millions of uneducated villagers eke out meager livings in near-feudal conditions.

At the beginning, Pant's organization, the Blue Diamond Society, focused solely on health issues. When an official saw the word "homosexuality" in the group's application, he told Pant he couldn't register unless his goal was to turn gay people straight. Pant removed the reference.

But within a few years, Pant concluded that it was impossible to wage an effective battle against HIV/AIDS without also addressing official attitudes toward homosexuals.

Many Nepalese gays said they were harassed by police, who would beat them or extort money. They were sometimes fired or denied housing. Pant launched a drive to document and publicize such cases.

An extraordinary week in 2004 catapulted his cause to the center of public attention. Even conservative Nepalese who don't approve of homosexuality were horrified by the actions of a policeman who slit a transgendered person's throat. When 39 members of the Blue Diamond Society were arrested at a protest a few days later, sympathetic media coverage and international outrage stung the government.

That "was a turning point," Pant said. "We became much stronger in responding to violence against us."

Political recognition was slower in coming. Gay activists joined other nonprofit groups and political parties in agitating against the 15-month absolute rule imposed by King Gyanendra. Yet after popular government was restored in 2006, they found few willing to take up their cause.

"They continually ignored us," said Pant.

He then set his sights on another vehicle for securing gay rights: the judicial system.

With three other civil groups, the Blue Diamond Society filed a petition with the Supreme Court appealing for equal rights and an end to discrimination.

"It's the court's responsibility to be the eye-opener of society a lot of the time and to lead the government and country," Pant said. In December, the court ruled in their favor.

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