From The Land Of Everest

Just 10 days ago, I found myself under a scorching, pre-monsoon sun in Kathmandu’s Lazimpat district searching for 344 Khursanitar Road. Address-spotting in Nepal isn’t always easy, as many streets are small, date from centuries ago, and have no official names or, where they do, people may not know them. They find their ways around perfectly well, of course, but with the opposite of our learned dependence on GPS navigation. Their maps reside in their heads.

Fortunately, although my Nepali is sadly non-existent, asking directions to a street isn’t complicated, and, as Nepalese tend to be, people were happy to assist. A couple of times, as many as a dozen people, old and young, clustered around trying to help out. Views on Khursanitar Road’s location differed, but eventually, a boy of perhaps 14 and his younger brother (just learning to pilot a bicycle), brought me to a narrow lane – just wide enough for one small car – and told that it was, lack of signage notwithstanding, the street I sought. After walking up and down the winding lane twice, and doing my best to read  Nepalese numerals, I spotted “344” on a gate fronting a faded green three-story building.

Finding the Blue Diamond

344 Khursanitar Road, you see, is home to the Blue Diamond Society (“BDS”), a remarkable advocacy organization that’s driven stunning achievements in LGBT rights.  Supreme Court rulings in 2007 and 2008 guarantee LGBT people all rights of other citizens, and, largely due to Blue Diamond’s work, transgender people can choose to identify as “third gender” in government data collection or in voting registration. BDS also has built impressive relationships with major Nepali press outlets, which cover LGBT-related issues regularly and, in general, fairly. (Learn more about BDS at www.bds.org.np.)

Constitutional rights for LGBT people

Blue Diamond’s founder and long-time leader, Sunil Babu Pant, had been kind enough to make time to see me while I was visiting Nepal. I smiled as soon as I entered into the Blue Diamond office; though I was halfway around the world, and could read none of the signs or posters, it still felt, in a way, like walking into home.

Going past bulletin boards with photos from beauty pageants, trainings, and other activities, I met with Pant in his modest third-floor office which, like everywhere that day, was still and hot.  This is a moment of supreme political importance – and considerable tension – for Nepal, as following abolition of the monarchy and the end of a decade-long Maoist rebellion, a new constitution is being drafted. While some crucial issues remain unresolved, Pant, who has become a member of Parliament, expressed confidence that LGBT rights will be included, as will recognition of a “third gender.” (A somewhat dated but helpful profile of Sunil Pant can be found at http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/20/world/asia/20pant.html?pagewanted=all.)

Beyond rights alone

Pant and BDS aren’t going to stop once non-discrimination is written into a constitution, giant as that achievement will be. Much of Nepalremains socially conservative and actual day-to-day acceptance of LGBT people is certainly uneven.

Blue Diamond is also consciously creating community, including construction of a community center in Kathmandu, which Pant says will be South Asia’s first.  BDS itself has grown, too, and now has 40 affiliated organizations spread around the small – but astonishingly diverse – country. Starting from virtually nothing a decade ago, BDS today offers employment training (especially for transgender, or self-identified “third-gender” people); HIV/AIDS prevention; leadership training; hotline projects; and documentation of violence and human rights violations.

I walked out of that pale green building deeply inspired. Sunil Pant and Blue Diamond show what’s possible with iron determination, courage, and political smarts. Their work is making a difference for thousands upon thousands of queer Nepalese – and helping lead the world to a time when all of us are free.