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How One Man Helped Nepal Become Asia’s LGBT Leader

For decades, Sunil Babu Pant has been at the forefront of the country's groundbreaking campaign for gender and sexual minority rights. But he's still looking for more.

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How One Man Helped Nepal Become Asia’s LGBT Leader

Sunita Neupane, GPJ Nepal

Sunil Babu Pant poses for a portrait in front of an Ajima temple in Bagmati province. Ajima is a deity of the Newari community.

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KATHMANDU, NEPAL — On a recent Saturday, Sunil Babu Pant walks from one temple to another, covering around 50 temples from 8 a.m. to noon in the Thamel area of Kathmandu. On entering each temple, his eyes start searching for Ajima. Unlike other gods, the Newari deity Ajima is not represented by an image, but instead is shown as a hole in the wall or the floor, signifying the womb or vagina of the goddess. The deity is guarded by a skeleton on one side and a figure that has both male and female genitalia on the other.

“Thousands of years ago, six distinct gender identities existed,” says 51-year-old Pant, Nepal’s most prominent crusader for sexual minority rights. In search of Ajima, Pant wanders around hundreds of temples in Kathmandu. What he is seeking, he says, is a society that values pluralism again.

In 2008, Pant became Asia’s first openly gay federal legislator. In response to a petition he filed demanding recognition of same-sex marriage, Nepal’s Supreme Court issued an interim order in 2023 directing the government to register same-sex marriages, and in the meantime keep a record of such marriages till a final verdict comes. By the end of that year, Nepal had registered two same-sex marriages.

Same-sex marriage is one of many legal battles Pant has fought and won for the community in Nepal. Simran Sherchan, program coordinator at the Federation of Sexual and Gender Minorities Nepal, says Pant came out at a time when the words “sexual” and “gender minority” could not be openly discussed in Nepal. As a result of his persistent fight, Nepal today is considered a country with progressive laws in relation to sexual and gender minorities. Because of Pant’s work, Sherchan says, “today we [sexual minorities] are able to openly advocate for ourselves.”

In 2007, Pant won a case that forced the government to guarantee complete, fundamental equality for all sexual and gender minority groups, and to recognize the “third gender.” In 2011, Nepal became the first country in the world to recognize a “third gender” on its census forms. And in 2012, citizenship regulations were amended, based on Pant’s writ, to grant citizenship to people from sexual and gender minorities by including “other” in the gender field of the citizenship certificate.

Pant’s story starts in a village in hilly Gorkha district, where he was born and studied. He later moved to Kathmandu and, in 1991, received a scholarship to study computer science in Belarus. During his five years there, he witnessed the arrest of sexual and gender minorities and realized that those like him were stigmatized by society. It was only in 1997 in Japan that he got his first taste of sexual freedom after arriving in the country on an internship; Japan offered a much more open culture for all sexualities, he says.

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Sunita Neupane, GPJ Nepal

Sunil Babu Pant gives one of his free heritage tours to introduce locals to the deity Ajima, in Kathmandu’s Thamel area.

After gaining confidence about his identity in Japan, Pant, who had enrolled in 1998 for a philosophy degree in Hong Kong, decided to instead return to Nepal to help the community in his country. In Kathmandu, in search of people like himself, he went to Ratnapark, a public park in the heart of Kathmandu, around which sex workers stand to look for clients. All of this was clandestine because prostitution was — and remains — illegal in Nepal. It was there that he met another gay Nepali man.

Pant kept visiting Ratnapark and meeting more people, discovering the dismal state of sexual health among them. Around 2000, the Nepali government started an HIV/AIDS program. Since there was no study on sexual and gender minorities in Nepal at the time, the government broadly included MSM (men having sex with men) as a risk group in the early 2000s, says Sushil Khatri, president of Sparsh Nepal, an organization that works in the field of HIV/AIDS in the country.

In 2003, with some help from a friend in New York, Pant launched a sexual health awareness program for sexual and gender minorities. He went around Nepal distributing condoms and lubricants — something that earned him the nickname Kandam Bahadur in the community (Kandam is the Nepali pronunciation of “condom,” and Bahadur is a common middle name of Nepalis that means “brave”).

The community trusted him because he revealed his identity at a time when doing so could get him arrested or sent to a psychiatrist. “When they went for treatment for even a common seasonal illness, they were sent to a psychiatrist. They were afraid of going to a hospital because of this mentality,” Sherchan says.

To combat such discrimination, Pant met with over 600 members of the sexual and gender minority community in Kathmandu and in 2001 founded the Blue Diamond Society, a nongovernmental organization set up to work on sexual health and rights. Within a year, it had 8,000 members. However, the police repeatedly arrested many of those working with Pant for “upsetting the social balance,” Pant says.

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Sunita Neupane, GPJ Nepal

Sunil Babu Pant holds a talk with a group of LGBTQ rights activists, including Nayantara, who asked to be identified only by that name to conceal their sexual identity, on how new organizations can raise funds, in Bagmati province, Kathmandu.

An important aspect about the Nepal LGBT movement was that it came of age during a civil war. In fact, Pant and his friends raised slogans during Nepal’s 2006 monarchy-abolition movement. Pant says political candidates across party lines encouraged him to take part in the movement and said they’d work with him for the rights of sexual minorities. But they turned their backs when they came to power, he says.

It was a different time in Nepal. “Two decades ago, there were no policies and regulations regarding sexual and gender minorities” and people were afraid to go to the police, says Dinesh Raj Mainali, Kathmandu Valley Police Office spokesperson. “Today, Nepal has the most progressive law in South Asia.”

And things are still changing. Rukshana Kapali, director of Queer Youth Group, acknowledges that Pant has worked for sexual minorities, but says society is changing and so is the community, and Pant has no idea what and how the new generation thinks. Queer Youth Group is a youth-led network working for sexual orientation, gender identity and sexuality rights in Nepal.

Pant is aware that not everyone agrees with him. His own relatives gossip about him, he says, but he continues his work. For his persistence, Pant was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014.

His personal life changed dramatically after he lost his partner in 2017. Unable to reconcile with this loss, he traveled to Sri Lanka to become a Buddhist monk. He wanted to leave behind worldly love, and Buddhism seemed like a good choice. “It is written in Buddhism that in order to be a Buddha, one must be born in a male body, and those who are born as a sexual and gender minority do so as a result of their bad deeds.” That, Pant says, does not sit well with him.

As long as society has a patriarchal mindset, he says, his fight will go on. “Once the equality of sexual and gender minorities and other people is established, this fight will end itself.”

Sunita Neupane is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Nepal.


Sunil Pokhrel, GPJ, translated this article from Nepali.