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To get on equal footing

  • Badri Pun has had one overriding wish in life—to get married to a woman. The problem is he was not born a man
- Chahana Sigdel
To get on equal footing

Jul 3, 2015-

Badri Pun, 38, recounts a conversation he had with his mother almost 16 years ago about wanting to get married.  “My mother was elated and almost jumped out of the bed,” says Pun. “But she hadn’t heard the entire declaration yet.”

Pun, who was born a female, is a transgender man and says if there is one thing he has been sure about, it is the fact that he has never felt like a woman.

“As far as I can remember, I have always been different and I knew I had to stand for what I believed in,” he says. “I told my mother that day that I wanted to marry a woman.”

Pun’s family had a difficult time coming to grips with his sexual orientation and plans to get married. But more than a decade and a half later, he believes his family has come around. “For my mother, the only thing that matters is that I don’t suffer,” he says. “She hasn’t said she supports my way of life, but she isn’t against it either. She is just very worried about how I will make space for myself in society.”

But the laws of the land haven’t been as kind. Pun cannot get married today even if he wants because, according to the Marriage Act of 1971, transgenders are disallowed from doing so.

In Narchyang VDC, Myagdi, where Pun grew up, his ideas were always considered too progressive; his aspirations went against age-old beliefs about how humans were supposed to live. When people asked about his family, Punwould say theirs was made up of four siblings—one boy, two girls and one ‘other’.

Today, he actually is classified as an ‘other’, according to Nepali law. Although Nepal is considered one of the leading countries for gay rights in the region, the struggle to be accepted as an equal, specially when it comes to matters of marriage , continues for hundreds of thousands of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals. If there were a law to treat a transgender’s getting married as it would treat any other individual’s, says Pun, he could fulfill his dream of marrying a woman and adopting a child.

“I have told my friends that I shall fight for this right until my death bed,” says Pun, who is the founder of Inclusive Forum, an organisation working for gay rights. “I believe I have every right to marry whomever I want.”

Pun used to think that it would only be a matter of time. In February this year, a report on same sex marriage recommended that Nepal legalise same-sex marriage, ensure family protections and strike out discriminatory provisions from the civil and criminal codes. The 80-page plus report also states that ‘same-sex marriage’ should also encompassmarriages between transgenders, since Nepal already recognises the third gender. The progressive report, which studied 500 households and analysed the laws of over 15 countries that have such provisions, states that Nepal should adopt measures to legalise the marriage between any two individuals—by replacing ‘man’ and ‘woman’ with byakti, or individuals.

If a law that reflected that spirit were to be passed in Nepal, then any two individuals who identified as females would be allowed to marry one another; two men could marry one another; and in Pun’s case, those who identified as ‘other’,or the third gender, too would be allowed to marrywhomever they wanted.  

The report falls in line with Nepal’s history of LGBTI rights, which is far more progressive than in any other South Asian country. Indeed, In 2007, the Supreme Court directed the government to amend laws that were discriminatory towards  LGBTI citizens. In 2008, Sunil Babu Pant became the first gay parliamentarian in Nepal’s first constituent assembly. In 2011, Nepal added a third-gender category to its census. In 2012, the Supreme Court recognised live-in relationships for a lesbian couple.  Earlier this year, the government agreed to issue passports that would insert an “O” for the ‘other’ option in the gender box. And the interim constitution of Nepal also prohibits discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.

But the marriage report, which was handed over to the government over six months ago, is gathering dust at the Ministry of Women Children and Social Welfare.When asked about the current status of the report, both the ministry’s secretary and spokesperson said that they were unaware of it. After some probing, Ram Prasad Bhattarai, spokesperson for the ministry, said the report was currently at the Social Protection division. However, the division chief and joint secretary, Shankar Prasad Pathak, seemed unaware of its existence as well. He then said he had also forgotten about it. “Thank you for reminding me about the draft,” he told this scribe. “We’ll work on it now.”  

Advocate Hari Phuyal, who was one of the committee members (that wrote the report) says that now it is the government’s responsibility to   prepare a draft bill to be submitted to Parliament. The bill, he says, should protect in the law marriage for every Nepali, regardless of their gender.

“The work is only half done. Activists need to start lobbying and the government must do its duty,” says Phuyal.

The recent first draft of the impending constitution, just as the interim constitution, states that no one shall be discriminated on the basis of their sexual orientation. That means activists can appeal to the clause when they demand the creating of laws that will deem their marriage legal. However, activists say constant vigilance is extremely important; they are not surprised that government officials are dragging their feet on presenting a marriage bill in Parliament. Bhumika Shrestha, a transgender woman, who works at Blue Diamond Society, Nepal’s largest organisation that works for LGBTI rights, says that whenever she brings up LGBTI issues with lawmakers, they laugh at her.

“They think we are such a fringe minority that we don’t matter,” she says.

To ensure that there is enough support for her cause, Shrestha has been in touch with activists representing other minority groups—they want rights for all of them to berecognised in the new constitution.

It took five years for the 2007 equal rights directive pertaining to gender identity—on the Supreme Court’s orders—to be enacted; and it was only in 2013 that citizens were issued a citizenship card where they could identify as ‘other’. It was also the 2007 verdict that led to the creation of  a commission to study whether  same-sex marriage should be made legal in Nepal; the report took over six years to come together.

“We have got to be vigilant becauseone faulty clause and our whole struggle could end up being for naught,” says Shrestha. “One small mistake and we’ll have to start all over again. Given the way our leaders are, they may never table a bill that transgenders are comfortable with.”

“In this land,” says Pun, “you never know who will turn their back against you. Leaders will support you for their gains, only to forget you later. Laws are promised but the government makes no move to turn promises into provision. But I am ready to knock on every door to make our cause heard,” says Pun. Even when I met him for this story, he was preparing to meet ministry officials to figure out how how he and his fellow activists could chart their course.

“Because of the lack of daisical approach taken by our government, we haven’t seen our goals realised,” he said as he left to go lobbying. “But we can’t stop now.”

Published: 04-07-2015 09:33

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