Nepal pioneers a third gender on official documents, but concerns persist

Published: March 6, 2013

In January of this year Nepal officially recognized a third gender category on citizenship documents. Local media lauded the government for recognizing the rights of sexual and gender minorities in the post-war fledgling republic, home to one of the most successful LGBT rights movements in the world.

However despite this spike in attention, the reports glossed over the 12 years of activism it took to get to this point, and the bureaucratic snags that remain. And in doing so, the stories missed out on a discussion that LGBT activists around the world have recently begun to have more regularly – namely, how many genders are there? And how should we recognize them?

In Nepal, a third gender category first emerged legally in 2007 when a group of LGBT rights activists led by the director of the Blue Diamond Society, a Nepali NGO, won a case in the Supreme Court. The court decision mandated three things: that the government scrap all laws that discriminated on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, that they study and implement a same-sex marriage policy, and that citizens be allowed to self-identify as a third gender on all official documents and registers.

Since 2007, the third gender category has begun to appear on various documents – ranging from Himalayan trekking permits to voter registration forms, and even the 2011 federal census, which was heralded as the first such survey in the world to allow people to identify as a third gender.

But the process of introducing a third category has not been without snags.

For example, during census enumeration, the 40,000 school teachers charged with counting the country’s people set out to cities and villages across the country with a handbook that only listed two genders – male and female – despite the census form listing three.

“When they came to my house I knew I could register as third gender on the form so I told them that’s what I was,” said Sharon, a transgender woman in Rupendahi district.

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