“Who are you?” is probably the easiest and the most difficult question to answer, depending on how one chooses to explain.
For always, society has shaped individuals to answer the question based on their family ties and societal status. While that has been the truth before, people today prefer to shape their own identity for who they are, as an individual. Doing so has been easier for some and unnecessarily hard for others; particularly those who do not identify with the heterosexual, binary division of the society.
Although the Nepali society is not new to the idea of different sexual orientations, social acceptance of anyone who identifies beyond the binary gender division is hard to find, say stakeholders.
Nepal has some progressive provisions for the people belonging to minority gender groups, but the lack of frameworks, rules and regulations, guidelines and their implementation coupled with the heterosexual norms make it hard for people to come out of the closet and have their identity.
However, some stakeholders working for them say they have some hopes that the upcoming national census, being held after 10 years, will give them some aid by letting people belonging to diverse sexual groups an opportunity to reveal and record their identity officially, albeit as ‘others’. This, they say, will help them claim their equal rights and access.
Hope for visibility
Nepal is gearing up for another decennial census in June 2021. This year, the government is all set to include the LGBTQIA+ community as they are, according to government officials.
The director at the Statistics Department in the Central Bureau of Statistics, who is coordinating the census preparations, Dhundi Raj Lamichhane, says, “In the last census, we had attempted to collect the data, but the number was so low and insignificant that it was not considered; the community itself had requested not to include the number. This time, in line with our constitution and the rights it provides, we have collaborated with the community to collect their number better and sensitively.”
Lamichhane, however, explains the census will only record the collective number of the community as ‘others’. “As this is the first time we are attempting to collect data on this scale, we (the government officials and the community) want the number so that we have a frame to work on. Based on the number we get in the census, we will further plan out a survey that gives a more detailed overview of the community.”
But still, Pinky Gurung, the president of Blue Diamond Society, an NGO working for sexual minority groups, is hopeful that the new census will change the scenario for them and people from the community.
“Whenever we knock on the doors of the government offices, we are asked to present the numbers,” Gurung says, “Because there has not been any survey that gives official data, they are not willing to hear our voices. With the census, we can expect that we will have answers now.”
Hope for fundamental rights
Likewise, activists complain they were not given the right guaranteed by the constitution because their ‘number’ was not known.
The Constitution of Nepal promulgated in 2015 protects the fundamental rights of every Nepali citizen regardless of their sex, gender, religion, caste, creed and economic or social status. The constitution, for the first time, also accepted sexual minorities and guarded their fundamental rights the same as others, but not in practice.
“The community is still struggling to get job opportunities. Despite their academic prowess, the LGBTIQIA+ population has no presence in government offices or private sectors,” says Anuj Petter Rai, an LGBTQIA+ activist, “Neither are they included in plans and policies, not in budget and reservation schemes. People within and outside the community still feel like menial jobs or sex work or fashion are the only options.”
Gurung and Rai, who are celebrating International Transgender Day of Visibility today, are both in favour to include the collective number as they think it will give them the edge they need. “This time, we want the number even if it is low. Whatever the number is, we will have the much-needed official database to advocate our rights,” Rai says, “The census has been the base for all government plans and policies. So, this census can help us as well.”
Hope against stigma
Lamichhane in the CBS says the reason why the number of LGBTQIA+ community has not been counted in the past was because the community had not been forthcoming.
“Before this, we had to call upon them and insist on participating actively in any programme. In society, it is easier for people to identify transgender people, but people who identify as lesbian or gay are rather hard to recognise. Hence, the evaluation has never been accurate.”
Admitting this, Rai says, “People from the community are open on social media and among their close friends. But, when it comes to family or society, they are not so open. It has been difficult for them to admit their sexuality in public, and it has been difficult to collect data.”
To curb this problem, Gurung and Rai held several meetings and workshops with Mitini Nepal and Inclusive Forum and, in collaboration, trained all tiers of census officials to sensitise them regarding the community, how to ask questions, what locals refer the community as, so to get more accurate data in the census.
“We will be collecting the data in two phases the first, the people will fill citizen form (from May 9 to 28) and in the second phase, they will fill the house owner form (from June 8 to 22),” Lamichhane further explains adding that the census will be held according to Population Census Operation Manual, 2021, and Gender Equality and Social Inclusion Manual.
“Many from our community are house owners, and because of this, we are expecting that the number will be significant this year,” Rai says, “Even if the number comes just 500 or so, we are committed to advocate for their rights as per our constitution. We will have the base to argue that those 500 need a space in the government offices as well as their plans and policies.”
Meanwhile, Gurung informs the activists, on their part, to make this census a success, have made some audio and visual public service announcements (PSAs), pamphlets, booklets, and posters to make their community and others aware of the issues. Radio Nepal and Nepal Television have already started broadcasting such PSAs starting this week.
Meanwhile, Rai adds that to make this year’s census more sensitive and accurate, 176 people from the community have also applied to work as field officers.
But, Rai realises the census is just a means and not an end. “It will certainly give us the boost we have been seeking. But, social norms and family pressure will continue to bind people,” he says, “Many are still struggling to come out to their families, fearing abandonment; many might not even accept their sexual orientation in the census count. But, we are hoping that this will certainly help them in the process.”