The saying goes that Nepal is 'a garden of four castes and thirty six sub caste'… Caste is one classification, gender is another classification.
– A participant in one of Creative Nepal's focus-group discussions.
Pride Climbing Higher began through the efforts of Chad Frisbie, a creative writing instructor in New York. He launched a kickstarter campaign to travel to Nepal and work with people who identified variously across the gender and sexuality spectrum, and were affiliated with Nepal's Blue Diamond Society (BDS), an organisation that works for the rights of sexual minorities in the country. The campaign was looking to share the stories of the people Frisbie worked with – in whatever way 'story' was interpreted by them. After several months of working with each author, the resulting work became an anthology entitled Pride Climbing Higher – a phrase one of the authors used to describe his own feelings of acceptance of his identity as a gay man.
It was in the duration of this project that we met and combined our efforts to form something called Creative Nepal, a platform for creative expression and discussion of issues surrounding sexuality and gender in Nepal. Something that struck Frisbie and me was that legislative reforms often lag behind public opinion. For instance, the US Supreme Court's ruling in favour of gay marriage in June 2015 occurred only after there was a clear majority in support of equal rights for same-sex couples.
Nepal, however, stands in contrast. A country where, thanks to the efforts of groups like Blue Diamond Society, their partners, civil-society activists and many others, it provides an excellent example where legal reform has occurred before wide-spread social acceptance of gay rights. But the limitations placed upon women's rights in the Constitution, among other things, is a reflection of how those in power still perceive civil-rights issues, especially those relating to gender, identity and sexuality as unessential. It would simply be naive to suggest that such restrictions, notwithstanding the occasional liberalism of the Nepal Supreme Court's rulings, come from anywhere but deeply conflicting and often conservative mores surrounding sexuality and gender, both in public and private spheres. Thankfully, there are also many voices speaking in favour of acceptance and equality.
What is most disappointing about the situation of sexual and gender minorities in Nepal is not the absence of debate and discussion, but that too many times, these discussions do not occur in the public domain. Instead of a conflicted mainstream debate, Nepal finds itself saddled with a new draft of the Criminal Code with a provision that seeks to recriminalise non-penile-vaginal penetrative sex. This, despite previous Supreme Court rulings upholding right to sexuality for all, including the sexual and gender minorities. This is a clear indication that the issues are far from settled and that more substantive discussions on them have yet to take place.
This is the goal that Pride Climbing Higher seeks to contribute towards. Rather than trying to convey any singular message about the situation of gays or lesbians or metis (transgender persons) or any other identity group in Nepal, the anthology hopefully presents something close to their lived realities.
When I read these stories – translated from Nepali – for the first time I was struck by two things. On one hand, it was clear that the authors were speaking from and about a place that was vastly different from the one I grew up in and experienced – rural Nepal and suburban Michigan share little in common. On the other hand, the emotional content and struggle inherent in all of the stories is universal and instantly relatable. Reading them, I found myself revisiting my own adolescent confusions, my conflicts with my family, with self-expression, my frustration with social pressures, and the all so familiar need to find a place and way to be 'myself' – even when, who that was, wasn't always clear.
I was convinced that if more people actually took the time to listen to and engage in what are simply very human stories, made infinitely more complicated and tragic by a lack of wider sympathies, the situation regarding rights and social acceptance would be greatly improved. It is sometimes easy to generalise and abstractly engage in issues separated from their social and emotional contexts, to disconnect individual stories from the structural issues, and more significantly, from the people who live them.
One of the reasons why I believe these stories are able to bridge this gap is that they were told and shaped by the people who lived them. They weren't selected for any particular reasons, or meant to convey any particular message. The one clear message I hope people walk away with after reading these stories is that the writers are nothing more – and most importantly, nothing less – than human beings, deserving of all the love and acceptance that anyone deserves.
The two stories from Pride Climbing Higher that are included in this quarterly look at the collision of the author's private life with the society at large. Bhakti, who identifies as a transgender man, and Sadhna a lesbian, both serving in the Nepal army, find themselves transgressing the institutional boundaries when they choose to be in a relationship. In these personal narratives, each of them recounts their experiences – a reality full of confusion, pressure, heartache, happiness, pleasure and struggle.