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Gay Rights in High Places 

As the king fights a Maoist insurrection, the Nepali Supreme Court decides whether homosexual acts are "bestiality"

Wednesday, Mar 16 2005
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A year ago, Meera, a 22-year-old woman from Hetauda, a district in southeast Nepal, was scheduled to be the bride in a marriage arranged by her family. When Meera refused to marry and attempted to run away with Laxmi, her lesbian partner of two years, Meera's family caught her, poisoned her with herbs, and brought her back home.

On their second escape attempt, the couple made it to Katmandu and found shelter and protection at the Blue Diamond Society, the only organization in Nepal dedicated to the rights of sexual minorities.

But within weeks the girls' families came looking for them. "It started with threatening phone calls," says Sunil Pant, director and founder of the society, with Meera sitting next to him, her eyes fixed to the floor, too shy to speak. Then, eight months ago, Meera and Laxmi were kidnapped from the Blue Diamond Society during the night. Midway through the seven-hour journey back to Hetauda, they asked for a bathroom break and took the opportunity to run away a third time. It took three days on foot, but they made it to Katmandu again.

One week later, the families pressed charges against the society, accusing Pant of trafficking the women. Charges were dropped after Meera and Laxmi explained their situation to what Pant calls "sympathetic" female law enforcement officials.

Today, Meera and Laxmi live together in Katmandu. But they still use the back roads, Pant says, because the two women continue to receive threats, primarily from Laxmi's uncle and Meera's brother, who only recently threatened to break her legs. They also receive threats by telephone at the Blue Diamond Society offices, where Meera is the receptionist.

Soon, Meera, Laxmi, and fellow gays and lesbians will find out whether the Blue Diamond Society can even operate within the traditional Hindu culture of Nepal.

When King Gyenendra dismantled democracy in Nepal last month to combat Maoist insurgents on his own, he also suspended civil liberties in the name of security. In the wake of the king's action, as internal conflict in Nepal reaches a fever pitch, the fight between traditional Hindu culture and the emerging homosexual population of Nepal has also reached critical mass.

On Friday, the Supreme Court of Nepal will take the first step toward either legitimizing or criminalizing homosexuality, when it hears a petition that seeks to ban the Blue Diamond Society. Given the unstable state of Nepal's government, the condition of the court system is also uncertain, but Sapana Malla, one of Nepal's most well-known human rights attorneys, who is representing BDS at the Supreme Court, says, "The courts have been functioning."

The maltreatment of gays throughout Nepal has provoked anger and stern warnings from Amnesty International, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, and the British Embassy in Nepal. But Achyut Prasad Kharel, the law student who filed the petition seeking to outlaw the Blue Diamond Society, believes that the Nepalese Constitution clearly prohibits homosexuality, classifying it as "bestiality." His petition says that the Blue Diamond Society should be banned for "polluting the culture of Nepal." Kharel did not respond to numerous phone and e-mail interview requests.

Pant, the BDS director, is worried that the legality of homosexuality in Nepal hangs on the court's definition of a single word. "The [Nepalese] Constitution says that unnatural sex acts are illegal," Pant explained in an August interview at the society's offices in Katmandu. "But 'unnatural' is nowhere defined."

Pant says the Supreme Court has been "quite good recently," and he remains hopeful that the high court will rule in favor of his group, given the court's record on other recent human rights cases, including the 2002 legalization of abortion and a 2004 case that allowed women to own property.

Malla, who was the primary attorney in both the abortion and property cases, is also optimistic. "It will be difficult because I don't know how the court will respond to the homosexual issue," she says. "But I am hopeful, because everyone has right to live free and with dignity; I think the court has shown that."

Kharel, however, has a different definition of human rights. "Even though the homosexuals have termed the right to homosexuality as human rights, in reality homosexuality is not [a] human right," he wrote in his June 2004 petition to the court. He also claimed that no international human rights instrument has declared homosexuality as a human right with any "legal validity."

False, says Paula Ettelbrick, executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. In June 1994, she notes, the case of Nicholas Toonen, a member of the Tasmanian Gay Law Reform Group in Australia, led the United Nations Committee on Human Rights to define discrimination based on sexual preference a violation of human rights.

When he founded the Blue Diamond Society in 2001, Pant thought gays in Nepal would be as rare as blue diamonds. Since then, the organization's Web site says, thousands of gays have contacted the organization, which has become increasingly public in both its outreach programs, specifically with HIV/AIDS awareness, and its soliciting of assistance from international organizations. Simultaneously, however, intolerance of the gay community has increased within the general Nepalese culture -- which is widely characterized by low literacy and excruciating poverty -- and local law enforcement.

"We are also seeing an escalation in police violence against people affiliated with the Blue Diamond Society," Ettelbrick says.

On Aug. 9, 2004, for example, 39 members of the society were arrested on public nuisance charges. The men, who were jailed for 15 days, suffered from beatings, denial of food and visitors, and miserable living conditions, such as being housed in the toilet rooms of the detention centers. According to Pant, who was allowed access to the prisoners, at least one man was severely beaten and eight others suffered from fevers, diarrhea, and vomiting.

Malla confirmed the conditions. "I visited a space that was 6 square feet, and there were five men in that space. There was one open window in the cell, and it had rained all night. They were soaking," she says.

In an August interview at Hanuman Dhoka Jail, Ganesh K.C., the deputy superintendent of police in Katmandu, denied that anyone was beaten or refused medical treatment. "There is no one here with any wound or disease," he said. All allegations of inhumane treatment are false, he said, adding that police reports indicated that all 39 men were arrested in a massage parlor in the Thamel district of Katmandu for engaging in "public sexual displays and disrupting people."

But Malla, who represented the men, says, "They were arrested in different places."

Prisoner Suraj Shah issued a statement via the Blue Diamond Society describing how he was taken out of his home by police at gunpoint. Shah says he was directed to take police to homes of other metis, or male cross-dressers, who were also allegedly taken at gunpoint.

K.C. said police plan to continue to crack down on "gay locations" in Katmandu, a city of nearly 900,000, adding that he believes there to be "as many as 70" gay men in the city, the approximate number of members of the Blue Diamond Society.

Both Malla and Pant know that Friday's hearing is crucial for BDS and its members. "If we get a positive judgment, it will mean the court recognizes the existence of these people as human beings who are legal in the eyes of the court," Malla said.

A ruling against the Blue Diamond Society could mean that the court will send legislation to the king requesting the explicit criminalization of homosexuality.

In Nepal, it is not just the fate of sexual minorities that is uncertain. The country's political fate is also on a perilous limb. Much of the western part of Nepal is under Maoist control; Maoist insurgents set up parallel government operations years ago, complete with their own tax collecting agency, police department, and justice system.

Many democratic leaders are still under house arrest. The court system is one of the few reminders that until five weeks ago, Nepal was attempting to forge a multiparty democracy.

Pant is uncertain of the Maoists' stance on homosexuality. "We have no idea," he said. "They have never said anything publicly or directly to us."

As the king and the Maoists prepare for what could be a long and devastating civil war, Pant is determined to stay the course. "We will not allow this prejudice to stop us," he said. "We refuse to go underground."

About The Author

Cristi Hegranes

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