Gender identity: In conservative Nepal, it's OK to be an 'other'

Bhakti Shah, left, and Aakanshya Timsina work as advocates for LGBT rights in Nepal.

Story highlights

  • Nepal is ahead of the curve when it comes to rights for transgender people
  • The government recognizes a third gender category
  • Eunuchs and transgender people have played important roles in South Asian culture

Kathmandu, Nepal (CNN)Bhakti Shah fulfilled a dream of joining the army at 18. Four years later, soldiering turned into a nightmare.

Not that Shah couldn't pass muster. But she was really a he.
At 29, Shah is a transgender man in socially conservative Nepal, where many people, even highly educated ones, would look at the Vanity Fair cover photo of Caitlyn (formerly Bruce) Jenner and gasp.
    Gay, lesbian and transgender people have long faced discrimination in Nepal and Shah has paid a heavy price for his sexuality. He was a woman when he became a soldier though he did not identify as such.
    The army accused him of having sex with a woman in the barracks and punished him with 60 days of solitary confinement before his dismissal seven years ago.
    In the years since, Nepal has made surprising progress. The Himalayan nation is ahead of the curve when it comes to certain rights, despite the post-earthquake image of an impoverished, corrupt and underdeveloped land. Nepal has been particularly open to recognizing its transgendered citizens.
    On Caitlyn Jenner: 'This is a relief for her'
    caitlyn jenner bruce transgender first transgender TV reporter eden lane CNN Tonight_00004813


      On Caitlyn Jenner: 'This is a relief for her'


    On Caitlyn Jenner: 'This is a relief for her' 02:18
    Inside the Caitlyn Jenner Vanity Fair cover story
    Inside the Caitlyn Jenner Vanity Fair cover story


      Inside the Caitlyn Jenner Vanity Fair cover story


    Inside the Caitlyn Jenner Vanity Fair cover story 07:01
    "I used to think that maybe they will send me into exile," Shah says. "Will they persecute my parents? Will they kill me?"
    Now, Shah says, he harbors hope that he will be able to lead a normal life with the woman he loves.
    A landmark 2007 ruling by Nepal's Supreme Court ordered the government to end discriminatory practices against the estimated 350,000 people who make up the LGBT community and paved the way for equal rights legislation. Nepal became the first country in the region to decriminalize gay sex.
    Hari Phuyal, the lead attorney in the case, recalls that colleagues thought he was crazy for defending the rights of "unnatural people."
    "The president of the bar association asked me why I wanted to disturb the harmony of society," he says.
    The decision gave rise to greater LGBT activism in Nepal. Marginalized sexual minorities, like Shah, felt empowered to assert their rights and they scored some success.
    The parliament is now considering legalizing same-sex marriage after a government-appointed committee issued a 150-page report in February that recommended Nepal follow positive global trends on gay rights. The report urged Nepal to adopt equal marriage and family protections and strip discriminatory provisions from criminal and civil codes.
    Phuyal says he'd expected a decision by now but the earthquake in April plunged Nepal into chaos and put everything on hold.
    If the bill passes, Nepal would become the first country in Asia to recognize gay marriage. It has already been a leader for transgender rights.
    Nepal allows people to identify themselves as a third gender on its immigration forms.
    Nepal added a third gender category to its census in 2011 and earlier this year, the government agreed to issue passports that would allow people to check "O" for other in the gender box if a person did not want to be identified as either male or female. Shah's passport still says "F" but he intends to change it.
    Immigration forms at the airport also allow for a third gender, which threw off many foreigners entering the country after the April 25 earthquake.
    "In the West, people are more focused on gay and lesbian issues," Phuyal says. "Here we have legal recognition of transgenders. As a society we still do not like the idea of gay people but we have a link with the third gender."
    That's partly because the concept of a third gender is steeped in Hinduism, the religion followed by 80% of Nepalis.
    Centuries-old cultural traditions include the role of hijras, who can be eunuchs, transgender or intersex. They were celebrated in Hindu texts and held influential positions. Hijras often appear to bestow blessings at a marriage or when a baby is born.
    Scholars point to the hijras as one reason why Nepal, along with neighbors India, Pakistan and Bangladesh -- all socially conservative nations -- allow third gender identification, a right that transgender activists in the United States are fighting for.
    In March 2014, activists in America petitioned the U.S. government to recognize non-binary genders and give people who don't fit male or female categories a legal status of their own. But no official action has been taken on the matter.
    Just before the petition was launched, social media giant Facebook added a third "custom" gender option for users' profiles. U.S. users can now choose among 50 different options including "transgender," "neither" and "gender fluid."
    Manisha Dhakal is an activist with Nepal's most powerful LGBT advocacy group.
    These options are liberating to trans people, says Manisha Dhakal, 40, deputy director of the Blue Diamond Society, Nepal's first and most powerful LGBT advocacy group founded by the nation's first openly gay member of parliament, Sunil Pant.
    "Being asked to be male or female violates our identities," she says.
    Like Shah, the soldier who lost his job, Dhakal struggled with her gender when she was growing up. She was born as Suben, a boy who wore his mother's clothes and smeared her lipstick on his lips.
    She says many transgender people in Nepal are bullied as children and later become sex workers, a trade that leaves them wide open for abuse. Dhakal's brother is still not supportive of her choices.
    She became an activist through her involvement with HIV programs but says programs for the transgender community should not be limited to disease prevention.
    Nepal, she says, has been forward thinking in many ways but myriad challenges remain. Passing legislation is a big accomplishment, but it takes years to change people.
    The April 25 earthquake served as a cruel reminder.
    The camp in which Dhakal and other Blue Diamond Society activists sought refuge was gender segregated. The bathrooms signs said men or women. None said "other."