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Last Updated: Wednesday, 26 January, 2005, 00:15 GMT
Crossing sexual boundaries in Nepal

By Charles Haviland
BBC News, Kathmandu

Sanjay (L) and Manisha
Manisha (r) now works full time for the Blue Diamond Society

"When I was about 13, it came from my heart and soul, the feeling that I was different from others," says Manisha, who has the body of a man but wants to be a woman - and likes to be described as a woman.

Manisha, now 24, is what is known in Kathmandu as a "meti" or a transgender person.

"Up to the age of 18 I thought I was the only person like that in the world. I was very depressed."

That changed when Manisha began meeting similar people in the parks of the Nepalese capital.

It changed even more in 2001 with the founding of the Blue Diamond Society (BDS), Nepal's only organisation for sexual minorities.

The BDS has just launched a weekly newspaper, with editions in English and Nepali.

The Blue Diamond Weekly will give a platform to many marginalised groups in Nepal, but seems likely to be dominated by issues affecting gay and bisexual Nepalese and the significant number who call themselves "meti" and dress up in women's clothes.

An autobiographical article by Manisha filled page three of the first edition.

Manisha now works full-time for BDS, which among other things promotes Aids awareness and condom usage among vulnerable groups.

BDS's founder and director, 32-year-old Sunil Pant, explored his own sexuality while studying in Belarus.

Complex attitudes

Returning from overseas, he wanted to discover more about Nepal's gay culture.

I feel that inside me is the soul of a girl, I never felt I was a boy
Manisha, Blue Diamond Society worker

In Kathmandu he was surprised at the number of "MSMs" - men who have sex with men. Some identified as homosexual but many others did not, for instance those choosing metis as partners.

"The scary thing was the lack of knowledge on HIV-Aids, the low level of condom usage," he says.

Rectifying this was his main motivation for starting the Blue Diamond Society - blue being a "gay colour" in Belarus, the diamond symbolising compassion in Buddhism, one of Nepal's two main religions.

Nepalese attitudes to sexual diversity are complex.

Sunil says most Nepalese - especially Buddhists - are tolerant in this regard. The Gurung people of western Nepal have a tradition of men called maarunis, who dance in female clothes.

The tradition, he says, is also popular in the Royal Nepalese Army.

"Maarunis are recruited to perform dances to entertain within the barracks," he says, adding that they have traditionally had a role in the royal palaces too.

Sunil Pant with the new Blue Diamond magazine
The Society wants to increase awareness of HIV-Aids

"Whenever a general or minister or high-ranking officer has to go out, there will be two maarunis with a jug of water, flowers, and a maaruni standing at the gate for their good luck."

But Sunil says there is hostility, for instance from those he describes as fundamentalist Hindus.

And when metis try to claim equal rights, acceptance wanes and may give way to violence. Some have been subjected to attempted murder; others, he says, to rape and arbitrary arrest.

Still taboo

More encouragingly, after a 2003 meeting between metis, gay men and police authorities, the Inspector-General of Police issued a letter to all police stations indicating concern at the level of police violence.

Sunil Pant admits that BDS tends to be seen as a meti organisation. He believes Nepalese men identifying themselves as gay are less disadvantaged, tending to have a better education and a secure job.

But others point out that they still face considerable problems.

Maaruni dancer
Maaruni dancers perform at army barracks and royal palaces

"Though homosexuality definitely exists in Nepalese society, it is still not accepted," says renowned film director Tulsi Ghimire, writing in the new weekly.

While neighbouring India is opening up on the subject, in Nepal it is still taboo.

He dare not touch it on screen.

Prakash, a bisexual who works with BDS, agrees that attitudes to homosexuality are "not encouraging".

He was happy to have an arranged marriage last year but regrets he cannot tell his wife all about his sexuality.

With marriage a social obligation, many metis and homosexuals do wed, but others - with great difficulty - tell their families they cannot.

Manisha, who lives with her parents, says she is preparing to do this, as she does not want to "spoil anyone's life" by marrying.

The Blue Diamond Society has unquestionably raised the profile of these minorities in Kathmandu. Its three-storey office is well-known in the neighbourhood and the Society stages parades during religious festivals.

And when Manisha and a friend pose for the BBC in female clothes on the building's rooftop, builders next door scarcely bat an eyelid.

Nepal gay group launches journal
21 Jan 05 |  South Asia
Human Rights Watch Nepal gay plea
12 Aug 04 |  South Asia

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