Kathmandu (Pahichan) February 13 – In October last year, Bhumika Shrestha touched down in Taiwan, stepped off the plane and made Nepalese history. Holding in her hand a passport marked “O” for “other”, the transgender activist became the first Nepali citizen to travel with documents marked with the country’s legally recognised “third gender”.
The passport was the latest in a string of victories for the country increasingly highlighted as a leader in transgender rights. In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that citizens were entitled to select their gender identity based on “self feeling”. Soon after, the Nepal Election Commission began allowing voters, who do not identify themselves as either male or female, to register as a third gender. In 2011, the Nepal Census was the first attempt by any national government to count its people by three genders.
For Bhumika, landing in Taiwan was a victory both political and deeply personal. “I felt so happy holding that piece of paper,” she says. “For so long I had fought for my right to my identity. It was a very proud moment.”
The journey to Taiwan took the 28-year-old far from her hometown of Naikap, and a long way from the identity she was assigned at birth – as a boy named Kailash. She has fond memories of her early childhood in what was then a small, conservative village in west of the Kathmandu valley: “I remember as a child wearing dresses with my sisters, and playing with ‘girls’’ toys. My parents were always very supportive.”
It was at the age of 11 that things became more complicated. “I didn’t yet know what the word transgender meant, but at that point I started to feel different from other children,” says Bhumika. “Around then I started getting called derogatory names like ‘Hijra’ and ‘Chakka’.” The bullying increased – walking down the street started to become difficult. “Some teachers turned a blind eye, others told me that if I was going to behave like a girl I shouldn’t come to school.” At 16, she dropped out: “I felt so bad and so alone.”
Within a few years, Bhumika, the rural dropout, had become the face and voice of Nepal’s transgender movement. She soon became involved with the Blue Diamond Society, an NGO set up in 2001 to campaign for LGBT rights in Nepal. Meeting the group’s campaigners was a huge emotional relief. “I used to think I was the only person in the world that was different,” says Bhumika. These emerging friendships were also the making of an activist: “I started to learn about human rights – and how mine had been violated.” Starting as a peer educator, she then went on to organise events for the NGO and speak out on transgender issues.
A triumph for ‘third gender’
The “third gender” identity – which Bhumika proudly holds on her passport – isoften used as an umbrella term (pdf) to refer to sexual and gender minorities broadly, including many other terms specific to Nepali culture and the many languages spoken in the country. While it is by no means one that all of the transgender community identify with, Kyle Knight, a researcher on the LGBT rights programme at Human Rights Watch, argues that legal recognition of a third gender should be seen as a massive political victory. “In line with the Yogyakarta Principles, it enshrines the idea that gender recognition should be based on self-identification – not what the courts or medical professionals say,” he says. In countries such as Malaysia, Kuwait and Nigeria there are laws prohibiting anyone “posing” as the opposite sex.
Hijras (generally transgender women) have a long social history in Nepal and neighbouring countries and Knight believes this history influenced the judges’ ruling on a third gender. Legislative progress on transgender rights has also been made in India and Pakistan, where hijras are also present. That historic visibility was usually confined to art and performance, however, and they were marginalised from the mainstream. “It was spatially discriminatory – you can exist as long as you stay over there,” says Knight.
Miss Pink turns to politics
Ironically, the pivotal turning point in Bhumika’s career was seizing this cultural space and occupying it on her own terms. “Entering Nepal’s first Miss Pink transgender beauty pageant in 2007 changed everything,” she says. “Growing up I had always been fascinated by watching Miss Nepal and Miss World.” For Bhumika the pageant was political: winning was part-childhood dream, part-campaign victory. “I saw it as an awareness-raising opportunity to tell people about transgender rights,” says Bhumika. The profile generated by Miss Pink increased the traction of her advocacy work. Shortly after she was the first transgender person to take a seat in Nepal’s congress.
“Bhumika’s contribution to the movement has been immense,” says Sunil Pant, founder of the Blue Diamond Society and the country’s first openly gay politician. “Over the past 15 years of campaigning, the transgender community has gone from being treated as outcasts to being recognised constitutionally and legally.”
One of the most remarkable things about the Nepal LGBT movement, says Knight, is that it came of age during a civil war and found its footing in the aftermath. “LGBT activists joined in protests against the monarchy and contributed to the conversations about what a ‘new Nepal’ should look like – this gave them a huge amount of social legitimacy.”
But Bhumika is aware that it will take more than a passport to arrive at equal rights. “We have travel documents and identity cards now, but it is not enough,” she says. “We need equal opportunities in education and employment, and access to healthcare.” Transgender people in Nepal suffer high rates of harassment and economic vulnerability, according to research (pdf), and globally a disproportionately high number of victims of violence are trans people.
Despite the recent progress, many Nepali transgender people still experience difficulties in realising their legal status. “While Nepal is a beacon of progress, the day-to-day experience of changing documents for some transgender people continues to be unpleasant due to the poor behaviour of bureaucrats,” says Knight.
Coming home and moving forward
Yet Bhumika believes there is reason to be optimistic. After all the pageants and the politics, a cathartic visit back to her home village was a powerful reminder of how much can change in even a decade. “When I went back, people who had bullied me as a child apologised,” she says. “I wasn’t angry – I always knew they just needed help to understand.”
For the journey ahead, education and self-confidence will be the best passports to success. “My advice to young transgender people and activists around the world is remember how important self-belief is,” she says. “We can’t challenge discrimination without this. Open up. Break the silence and raise the issues … don’t hide from yourself.”