Gay Rights in High Places

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

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.

Blue Diamond Society members.
Cristi Hegranes
Blue Diamond Society members.
Sunil Pant, founder of the Blue Diamond Society.
Cristi Hegranes
Sunil Pant, founder of the Blue Diamond Society.

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.

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