Monday, September 22, 2008

In conservative Nepal, a tribune for the "Third Gender" speaks out

The Western concept of sexual orientation is separate in some ways from gender identity. In Nepal, it seems, all LGBT people are considered to be third gender. And they are slowly gaining political influence and conducting advocacy, as featured in a New York Times article. The intro:

SUNIL Babu Pant likes to take advantage of the frequent delays at Nepal’s newly elected Constituent Assembly. As the only openly gay member, he takes every opportunity to work on his homophobic colleagues, trying to convince them that contrary to what they were taught growing up in this very conservative country, homosexuals are just like any other people.

Mr. Pant, 35, a computer engineer by training, opens his laptop — an object of fascination to many in the assembly, who come from the rural hinterlands — and gives a PowerPoint presentation wherever he finds his audience.

“Kalpanaji, come join me,” Mr. Pant said during a break recently to a fellow parliamentarian, Kalpana Rana, inside a tent that serves as a canteen. Other lawmakers, there to kill time, began to move closer to his laptop.

“I have prepared this presentation for members of this assembly,” he said, giving them a beaming smile. The female members were too shy to join the crowd.

“There are some people on earth who consider themselves neither male nor female” he continued. “They like to be called third gender, which comprises roughly 10 percent of the total population.”

A man interrupted. “Oh, yes, I had seen this term in a medical book I have at home,” said the man, Mathabar Singh Thapa, of the rightist Janamukti Party in the 601-member assembly. “But, I have a question. Do they have genitals?”

“They do,” said Mr. Pant, trying not to giggle. “But, they don’t have natural sexual orientation.”

He then put a political spin on his presentation. “South Africa’s Constitution already has a provision that the third genders are not to be discriminated against,” he said. “Following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, led by V. I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky, Russia became the first nation to legalize homosexuality.” The members listen attentively until the bell rings, summoning them back to the assembly hall.

If Mr. Pant, who represents the tiny Communist Party of Nepal (United), recognizes the long, uphill battle he faces, he never admits it. In a society where premarital sex is strongly taboo and where a leader of the ruling Maoist party, Dev Gurung, once called gay people “the product of capitalism,” it is a lonely fight.

But all is not bleak for Mr. Pant. This has been an extraordinary time in Nepal, with the declaration of a democratic republic in May, the abdication of the king in June and a new constitution in the works. Moreover, the now-dominant Maoists emphasize that theirs is the party of the poor, the minorities and the disadvantaged, and they have recognized “third gender” people as “sexual minorities.” The phrase “third gender” has been used to refer to gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, the transgendered and others.

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