Battlefield Redefined

Jyoti Karki* was just three months away from accomplishing her most cherished dream of becoming an army officer. But fate had something else in store for this 28-year-old.
Karki was caught in the bedroom of one of her female trainers at the Nepal Army (NA)’s training academy in Kharipati, under what the then NA leadership deemed ‘questionable circumstances’. The army then kept her in solitary confinement within the barrack for 45 days, and in 2007, she was expelled from for alleged violation of military discipline.
“I felt like it was the end of everything. I did nothing but sit in my room and cry for the next five months,” recalls Karki, who is also the daughter of a retired army officer.
Things got worse over time as gossip spread, with people questioning her ‘character’, to the point where she had to stop going outside the house altogether. A few people even conjectured that she had been kicked out of the army for having conceived a child.
Tired of all this, Karki decided it was time to start a new life, away from her family and community. And she was given valuable help in this by Bhakti Shah, her trainer, who had been expelled in the same case.
Today, six years since the incident that ruined both their careers in the army, Karki and Shah have taken up the roles of leaders within the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) movement in Nepal. The two are currently living together and pursuing their mission of advocating the rights of gender minorities.
While Karki is the country head of the team that documents rights violations faced by the community, Shah oversees regional issues and organizes campaigns under the Sexual and Gender Minority Student Forum. Both work together to conduct awareness programmed in colleges as well as doing a radio programmed on the subject.
“The opportunity to work for the LGBTI community has been empowering for me,” says Karki, adding that the partnership with Shah has played a key role in bringing her into the light.
Shah, who had been jailed for 60 days following the incident in 2006, now identifies himself as a transgender man. This lance corporal from the far-western district of Achham had already imparted training to three batches of female officer cadets and was expecting a promotion to the rank of constable when he was given marching orders by the army.
The two months he’d spent in military detention had rendered him physically weak, and necessitated treatment at a hospital in Kathmandu. The whole time, he’d been worried about Karki, and had tried contacting her over the phone. Karki, on the other hand, had blamed Shah for her dismissal and ignored his calls for a while. It was only four months after they’d been expelled that they finally spoke to one another. Shah had then asked Karki to visit the Blue Diamond Society (BDS), a leading LGBTI organization in Nepal, for counseling.
By this time, BDS, founded by ex-lawmaker Sunil Babu Pant in 2001—himself an openly-gay man—had already helped Shah a great deal. And Karki decided she too would give it a shot, and was soon volunteering there, eventually joining in full-time as an outreach educator for the organization in 2009.
Shah, meanwhile, was appealing to the Army Special Court and the Supreme Court regarding their case. But the military court in July 2008 rejected his appeal, claiming the expulsion had been on disciplinary grounds and not on the basis of sexual orientation. The apex court, on the other hand, ordered the army in June 2011 to revise the military justice system, but did not address Shah’s demands of reinstatement.
“If we’d won the case, it would’ve been a big victory for the community and encouraged others to come out,” Shah says.
In Nepal, the judiciary plays a key role in ensuring the rights of sexual minorities, and a landmark ruling delivered by the Supreme Court in December 2007 had ordered the government to scrap all laws that discriminated against people on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation.
The government has already implemented the ruling by identifying LGBTI community members as ‘third genders’ in citizenship certificates. It also recognized third genders in the census in 2011 and the effect is slowly extending to private sectors as well.
Despite these encouraging strides, homosexuality is still taboo in many areas, forcing LGBTI members to face ostracisation on personal and professional levels. And with political chaos having engulfed the country, the LGBTI movement is in a new crisis. The international rights watchdog Human Rights Watch last month said widespread harassment, up tick in police crackdowns, heavy fines and prolonged detention has contributed to a climate of fear among LGBTI people in Nepal. This was, however, denied by Home Ministry spokesman Shankar Koirala, who claimed such crackdowns or attempts at suppression had not occurred.
Among the issues at present is the fact that the renewal of the BDS’ operating license has been in limbo for about nine months. The District Administration Office (DAO) in Kathmandu has been investigating allegations of corruption against founder Pant, who was said to be drawing salary both from BDS as well as the Constituent Assembly, when he served as a lawmaker between 2008-2012, which the DAO considered illegal. But he has already returned the Rs 950,000 he was paid as a lawmaker, but no moves have yet been made to resume the renewal process.
Similarly, the registration of the design of the building housing their community center was transferred from him back to the BDS under the local administration’s request. Pant says inspections by international donors and audits show no misappropriation, and that the delay was a simple case of prejudice against the LGBTI community on the part of a section of bureaucracy and the government.
Chief District Officer of Kathmandu Basanta Kumar Gautam says they will renew the license of the organization and are studying legal implications. “There are still some biases against third genders in society. But the government makes no such distinctions,” he says.
Karki and Shah now find themselves at the forefront of the struggle to save the BDS, an organization that has made unmatched strides in protecting and furthering LGBTI rights in the country. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Human Rights Watch and the National Human Rights Commission have all asked the government not to delay the renewal. Karki and Shah are hopeful that international pressure, coupled with their own efforts, will show some positive results.
“The skills of leadership, discipline and dedication that I learned during my training as an army cadet are proving very handy now,” Karki, who has represented the community in international forums in many countries, says.
She is still, however, not keen on revealing her real identity, if only to protect her family. Shah, on the other hand, has no qualms in this regard and is proud of having broken traditional social barriers.
“Like everyone’s parents, mine too dreamt of seeing me as a bride going off to my husband’s house. But now, they’re happy that I’ve brought a bride home instead,” he said while addressing students from Reliance International College in March.