Nepal: How Did Nepal Become a Global LGBT Rights Beacon?

Members of Nepal’s LGBT community were once openly derided as “social pollutants,” but now enjoy social and political rights—including legal recognition of a third gender—that put the country leagues ahead of much of the rest of the world. The past decade has proved critical in that evolution, as LGBT activists won significant victories in Nepal’s courts. In an email interview, Kyle Knight, a researcher with the LGBT Rights Program at Human Rights Watch, explains how LGBT activists in Nepal used a combination of tactics to overcome an archaic and patriarchal legal system and put the country at the forefront of LGBT rights worldwide.

WPR: What is the general human rights situation for LGBT people in Nepal, how has it changed in recent years, and what are the most significant milestones marking this progress? 

Kyle Knight: For about a decade now, Nepal has been a beacon for LGBT rights progress in Asia and globally, due to a series of achievements that started with a resounding 2007 Supreme Court decision in Pant v. Nepal in which the bench ordered the government to legally recognize a third gender category, audit all laws to identify those that discriminated against LGBT people, and form a committee to study legal recognition of same-sex relationships. In response to the court’s order, the government identified over 100 laws that needed to be changed to eliminate discrimination against LGBT people. A government-appointed committee then issued a report in early 2015, effectively recommending the legalization of same-sex marriage. But neither gained as much traction as the Supreme Court’s order to legally recognize a third gender category. By 2010, the Election Commission had added the third option to voter rolls, and immigration forms swiftly followed suit. In 2011, Nepal was the world’s first country to include a third gender on its federal census. And in 2015, the government started issuing passports that recognized three genders. That same year, Nepal became the world’s 10th country to specifically protect LGBT people in its constitution. 

Still, LGBT Nepalis face challenges. Tangible implementation of the various government orders has been piecemeal, a 2014 United Nations report noted. The government’s bureaucracy remains sclerotic, and government officials have continued in recent years to harass LGBT groups, including by alleging that organizing around homosexuality is illegal in the country. 

WPR: What are the political and other factors that have created conditions for an expansion of LGBT rights, and to what extent are these specific to Nepal? 

Knight: The path to inclusion and protection for a group at times openly derided as “social pollutants” was neither linear nor predictable, and took a unique combination of courage and political wisdom. Read more via HRW