March 17, 2009 -- Kathmandu -- Lal Salam's Ben Peterson interviewed Subash Pokharel, coordinator of Nepal's Blue Diamond Society. The Blue Diamond Society is the largest LGBTI (lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender and intergender people) rights organisation in Nepal. The interview, slightly abridged, is posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission.
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Ben Peterson: I have read a lot about Nepal and it is clear that Hinduism, and in particular an orthodox form of Hinduism, plays a big role in society here. Is that something that has been of a concern for people of sexual minorities?
Subash Pokharel: It is a religious society so, basically, one culture, one religion, one pattern, I think every religion is like that, but we have a diversity of religions and cultures and patterns in the society. For more than two centuries the Hindu religion was carried out by Brahmins, the so-called high castes in the society [who dominate]. And that religion dominated in all aspects of society as well as government bodies, policy makers, decision makers, all were basically Brahmins, the Hindu-based caste group.
Due to this thinking, and because of this religion, they cannot imagine that certain other cultures, other groups, other genders, exist in this society. They only recognise the established, such as the male and female relationship. But while older generations feared this, slowly attitudes are changing. We are starting to come out at the front, committee groups are already raising our voice in the decision-making bodies, like the present Constituent Assembly. We have a representative in the House, Sunil Babu Panta.
The openly gay member of the Constituent Assembly?
Yes, that is him. He has been implementing that committee. So right now we are a bit comfortable in society.You said that there has been a lot, and in recent times an increasing amount of change, and you've been able to open up, there has been a lot more space for diversity ...
We are in the process of making the constitution, a new constitution, in Nepal and the process has started and we have been engaging in that process. And very good political sentiments are already in the scheme, like including our committee. On every front they are trying to include male, female and other groups. Others can be included. Some of the provisions are already there, there is already a sexual and gender minorities committee. So it’s very positive. We are very hopeful that in two or three years at least we'll have very inclusive legal documents, legal frameworks, legal mechanisms.
Three years, or five years, it depends on how long it takes to make the constitution.
How large is the LGBTI community in Nepal? I have noticed, although I have only been here a short time, that unlike in Australia, it is very acceptable to show affection to members of the same sex, and even hold hands and hug in public. So do the lines between the communities sometimes blur?
Yes, tentative time. We have to asses the fact that society will always change slowly, not abruptly... Until we have good legal mechanisms, there can be no change, legally binding things to the society. It's very hard to expect that society will change without the laws being changed also. And when bad laws are enforced this leads to discrimination. We are hoping that the legal framework will include the right provisions and on that basis we can advocate, lobby. You know in society we are citizens, the same as other citizens, so why are they not accepting us? And through this society will change. But already we are starting to extend our networks, with other organisations, like civil liberties organisations, civil society organisations, media and political parties. We have very good relations, and they are starting to understand us, slowly we are entering into society.
How is your relationship with the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), now that it leads the government? I have read some things that up until a few years ago, and even more recently, their cadre would pressure people not to accept queer tenants, and these sorts of things. But I have also been seeing a lot recently which would suggest a change in its policy.
Yes, in principle, the Maoists' culture has also been monolithic. They also believed in one culture and one command. I think that kind of culture has influence in any kind of organisation, but because we have, and we can channel our voice into their party organisations, due practically to our representative in the Constituent Assembly. I think you would probably know about the two lesbian commandos, in the Maoists' rebel group [People's Liberation Army]. They expelled them from the cantonments. [The PLA is currently in cantonments under UN supervision as part of an ongoing peace process.]
After they were expelled they came to our office, and we provided them with some accommodation for one month, and we continued to explore within the Maoist organisation, later on after one month, our approaches and our relationship with the leadership meant that after one month they were able to return to the cantonments. This is a great example of how we have been able to make them believe. We are as human as you are, we are citizens as you are. We have a very natural sexual activities. We are sexual beings. It's not a crime. This kind of thing made them convinced.
And now they have been returned to the camps?
Yes. At least we are able to convince others. They are trying to learn. They are listening to us. This process is going on. Although all these things are happening, we are able to convince them and they are fixing the incidents.
We can go to the certain cultural organisations and put our voice forward. This sort of environment encourages us to use our voice because the democracy is there. Democracy makes us go and ask and encourage others.What sort of activities does the Blue Diamond Society do? What sort of activities do you do besides lobbying?
The organisation was established in 2001. Formally, a non-government organisation. We have had a very long struggle. First our committee focused on HIV prevention and treatment, that kind of thing, because our committee was very alarmed by HIV. Basically, through donors like Family Health International, USAID, UNAID, these organisations assisted us greatly in the area of HIV/AIDS prevention. And later on we realised that only confining our activities to HIV-related things will not take us into our different issues. We were experts on HIV because of our sexuality...We are not only confined to issues of HIV/AIDS, that will not resolve our whole social issues, so we started to campaign and raise our voice through the medium of human rights campaigning. By working with other group’s we were able to establish good networks with the media, human rights organisations and even the political parties. So on the basis of our human rights work and our HIV/AIDS work we have built our capacity.
Has there been much risk involved in this work? In recent times in Nepal there has been widespread human rights violations, so by taking up the struggle for LGBTI rights have you brought much anger to yourself and your organisation?
In previous years, the committee and our people had no legal protection in the law, so we could not plead to the police to protect us from violations. Basically our community had to rely on sex work, as we had no other means of livelihood in the previous years, but now the society is able to employ more than 500 people. Blue Diamond Society now has more than 35 offices in Nepal. It’s a very good network, and we are very influential already. Violence against the community was very great in previous years, but now because we have support from other organisations we are able to have confidence in our protection, and do our work, but there is still violence here.
Starting in 2001 and already having 35 offices, that’s a pretty impressive effort. Do you do much work in rural areas as well, and if so, how does this differ from urban work in Katmandu?
People in our community, if they become open about their sexuality, are expelled from or have to get out of their familes and village. So it is typical that those who have been expelled from their villages tend to centre around the cities... So we concentrate on city areas. People come to live there. Initially we had one office, but so many people came, and got in contact with the Blue Diamond Society, we encouraged them to open up more offices in their areas. In that way we are able to grow. We were able to increase our HIV prevention work, because we are recognised and work with the government’s prevention plan. So because of that and the international community we have been able to open up our offices.
So you are largely assisted by international organisations?
Yes, and the government. Recently there has been a landmark case in the Supreme Court granting all sorts of civil rights to the LGBTI community. Slowly we are being included more in the government. There is a very small but symbolic support for our community.
What are your hopes for the new constitution and the "New Nepal"?
It is in the discussion process, and the Supreme Court has ordered the government to form one committee, a study committee, to research the needs of our community and international norms and make recommendations for the Constituent Assembly. It is in the discussion phase. But all of our rights have been committed too.
You say it is an ongoing process, but are there noticeable differences in the attitudes of people? Is there more acceptance than there was a few years ago?
Ultimately attitudes are changing. Our public-based programs are bringing more people into contact with the LGBTI community. The antagonisms between our community and society as whole is starting to slowly lessen, but even in developed nations things are not perfect and ideal.
Yes Australia is an example of that.
I do not know the situation in your country, but it is very hard for some elements in society to recognise and accept our rights.