KATHMANDU, Nepal — In the quiet courtyard of Dechenling Garden, a Bhutanese restaurant on the fringes of the capital’s bustling backpacker ghetto, Nepal’s first openly gay member of parliament sips on a lime soda during a short break in his busy political schedule.
His name is Sunil Babu Pant. A young, maverick politician with dark, wavy hair and a close-trimmed goatee, Pant has already emerged as a leader reminiscent of Harvey Milk in his San Francisco heyday, pushing tiny, conservative Nepal into the forefront of the battle for gay rights.
"Nepal is going through tremendous transformation — politically, socially, economically, legally — so a lot of communities who had no space or voice before have emerged," Pant told GlobalPost.
Thanks, unexpectedly, to a Maoist rebellion and subsequent decade-long civil war, Pant and other activists have already made some big strides — and they’re inching closer to making Nepal the first Asian country to legalize gay marriage. But the struggle for the rights of sexual minorities is intensifying here as lawmakers haggle over a new constitution nearly five years after the peace deal that transformed the tiny Himalayan kingdom into a democratic republic in 2007. On one side is a patchwork coalition that supports a more progressive platform, including gay rights, and on the other is a conservative alignment that believes gay marriage would threaten the religious fabric of Nepal’s traditional Hindu society.
"A strong attack is going on against Hindu culture, Hindu religion and Hindu society," said Shankar Pandey, a former legislator and central coordinator of National Religion Awareness Campaign, which urges its followers to adhere to the Hindu way of life. Like many conservatives, Pandey believes that homosexuality is an affront to the country’s Hindu heritage.
Strangely, the new social and political space for sexual minorities has sprouted from the seeds of Nepal’s attempted Maoist revolution. The Maoists — guerilla fighters who draw their support from the rural poor — were hardly liberals when it came to sexuality. Still, their hard-fought insurgency shook the establishment enough that no one political party has been able to achieve a clear majority in post-war elections, and that has increased the power and influence of small parties and tightly knit constituencies.
But after Nepal’s major political parties reached a pivotal agreement to demobilize the former soldiers of the Maoist army Nov. 1 –paving the way for the drafting of a new constitution — it’s not yet clear if all of those groups will be able to capitalize on those gains as the period of political turmoil comes to an end.
"It is not liberality, it is just unruliness," said Pandey. "When there are no rules, no system set, whatever the environment or pressure groups want is what goes."
In Pandey’s view, Pant’s entry to the legislature is a perfect example.
The founder of a non-profit advocacy group called the Blue Diamond Society and a gay-oriented travel agency called Pink Mountain Travel & Tours, Pant worked for the rights of gays, lesbians and other sexual minorities at the grassroots level for 11 years before entering electoral politics.
But when rules favoring Nepal’s long-established political parties — and the conservative elites of Kathmandu — were suspended for the post-war Constituent Assembly elections, Pant saw a window of opportunity. For the first time, as a concession to the Maoist argument that past elections had not addressed Nepal’s ethnic diversity and vast economic inequalities, more than half of the 601 legislators would be chosen through “proportional representation” — which allots seats to parties based on the proportion of votes they receive rather than granting seats only to candidates who win a plurality in their constituencies. Suddenly, there would be a host of new players.
"During the Constituent Assembly election we thought it was a good opportunity to lobby the political parties," Pant said. "We went from party office to party office and said we are a significant population, and if you include our cause in your party manifesto we can vote for your candidates. We took it lightly, just hoping that they would buy that idea."
To Pant’s surprise, not only did the Maoist party take him seriously — it led the way in adopting resolutions related to gay rights. Meanwhile, the tiny Communist Party of Nepal-Unified (CPN-U), unrelated to the Maoists, asked him to stand for election himself.
"We had no expectations, no resources, no experience, nothing," he said.
The CPN-U didn’t win an assembly seat in the formal election, but the party won enough votes to earn five seats under the rules for proportional representation. And because the party had carefully monitored the districts where it had done well, the tireless work of Pant’s team of gay rights activists paid off. The party rewarded him by allotting him a seat in the new assembly.
As it turned out, the CPN-U’s most votes came "exactly from those 15 districts where Blue Diamond Society has branches and we did the election campaign," Pant said, explaining his success.
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