Surrounded by cameras, recorders and inquisitive reporters, 37-year-old Monica Shahi broke down after answering questions about how it felt to be the first transgender in Nepal to receive a passport under the ‘others’ category.
“This is such an important and significant day. It feels great. But I am also hurt that neither the prime minister nor the foreign minister agreed to hand me the passport,” said Shahi, whose name on the passport is Manoj, but she has always identified herself as a woman.
“We made history today but our top leaders didn’t want to be a part of it.”
While leaders of the LGBTI community have hailed the milestone—Blue Diamond Society says Shahi is the “first person to be identified as Other worldwide”—and hoped this would set a trend globally, the struggle is far from over for this minority.
Director at the Department of Passports Rewati Poudel, who handed the passport to Shahi on Monday, congratulated her but politely refused to share his thoughts on the issue. However, he did confirm that the number of applicants could increase once the word of Shahi’s passport acquisition became widespread.
Manisha Dhakal, the executive director of Blue Diamond Society (BDS), which works for LGBTI rights, said that it would be crucial to see what would happen when Shahi travels to another country. “We hope countries all over the world learn from Nepal and it will be interesting to see how the people at the immigration counter in Nepal and other countries react when they see a person listed as Other.”
While transgenders will now can choose the ‘other’ gender while applying for passports, for those who already have passports, it is still a struggle against the system. Pinky Gurung, chairperson of the BDS, is one of them. Gurung, who is male by birth but identifies as a woman is listed as a male in her citizenship card.
“If we want to add ‘others’ to our citizenship card then CDOs ask for sex change proof and all sorts of things to demean us,” she said.
Nepal’s track record of ensuring LGBTI rights is positive and it has been called one of the most progressive countries in South Asia in terms of laws. In 2007, the Supreme Court directed the government to amend laws that discriminate against LGBTI citizens.
In 2008, Sunil Babu Pant became the first gay parliamentarian in Nepal’s first Constituent Assembly. The apex court a little over three years ago recognised live-in relationship between a lesbian couple.
A report on same sex marriage, released earlier this year has recommended Nepal legalise same-sex marriage and strike out discriminatory provisions, but the Criminal and Civil Code, set to modernise Nepal’s justice system, ignores the issue of LGBTI rights by not mentioning them anywhere in the draft.
Activists have suggested the words ‘male and female’ should be replaced by ‘persons’ where it defines the bond of marriage. Shahi says they will continue to fight for same sex marriage.
“We will fight to make sure that one can marry whoever they want to in this country,” said Shahi.
Also laws don’t necessarily translate into immediate societal change. Shahi, the youngest of seven siblings, recalls being beaten by her brothers when they detected that their youngest brother was ‘different’ from the rest.
Things have changed now, but it took time. “My whole family back home is very happy now and supportive,” said Shahi—who is from Kailali and works for a BDS district chapter—holding onto her passport tightly. “But it wasn’t always like that.”