Oftentimes, it is the writers, musicians, poets, artists and storytellers that have a finger on the pulse of their communities. In Nepal, there are certainly stories with LGBTIQ+ characters, but, because they tend to be written by writers who are not lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex or queer (LGBTIQ+) themselves, these characters are often presented as caricatures instead of lifelike, complex human beings. Stories describing genuine experiences are much needed because they allow the wider community to understand that LGBTIQ+ people are not one-dimensional stereotypes – they are real people.
With that in mind, the UN Free & Equal campaign team in Nepal organized a writing residency named “A Room of One’s Own” for seven promising LGBTIQ+ writers, carefully selected from over 70 applications received from across 33 districts of Nepal. This transformative 10-day residency offered an immersive creative writing experience, encompassing workshops on prewriting, drafting, revising, editing, and publishing. Notably, the creative writing residency served as the debut event for UN Free & Equal Nepal, an initiative led by the UN Resident Coordinator’s Office in collaboration with the Open Institute for Social Science and LGBTIQ+ organizations KalaKulo, Kaalo.101, Srijanalaya, Nritya Aangan and the Drawing Room.
The six chosen participants gathered with much enthusiasm in Kathmandu eager not only to enhance their writing skills but also to forge meaningful connections with one another. Among them was Achyut, a passionate young gay writer, who embraced the opportunity to explore the transformative potential of the written word to drive positive change around him.
Reflecting on his decision to apply, Achyut shared: “When I discovered that the residency was specifically tailored for emerging LGBTIQ+ writers, I couldn’t resist and promptly submitted my application. Drawing from personal experience, I came out to my brother through a heartfelt text message. If it had been a face-to-face conversation, I doubt I would have mustered the courage, and it may have made the situation worse. I was so nervous. Writing has a unique power as it endures indefinitely. A well-crafted text has the capacity to inspire profound introspection, nurturing meaningful conversations that drive positive change.“
Equally excited to participate in the residency was Ashika, a young trans woman driven by the desire to witness greater LGBTIQ+ representation in Nepali literature. “Growing up and even to this day, I have felt the scarcity of LGBTIQ+ characters in Nepali literature. This lack of representation has made me aware that many of our experiences remain hidden.“
Kusum, a young lesbian with a hearing disability, who has been writing since childhood, viewed the residency as an opportunity not only to enhance her skills but also to connect with other young LGBTIQ+ people in an environment that embraces diversity: “This was the only writing residency I knew of that was exclusively dedicated to the LGBTIQ+ community. That served as a strong motivation for me to submit my application.”
LGBTIQ+ people in Nepal
Nepal is regarded as one of the most progressive countries in Asia when it comes to LGBTIQ+ equality. The Constitution of Nepal provides comprehensive protection against discrimination for LGBTIQ+ individuals. Notably, the landmark Supreme Court ruling in 2007 repealing discriminatory laws based on sexual orientation and gender identity stands as a significant triumph for the Nepali LGBTIQ+ community, who tirelessly advocated in front of the government for equal rights. The ruling emphasized the recognition of gender identity based on self-determination and led to the establishment of a committee tasked with exploring the possibility of marriage equality.
Despite these significant advancements, there remains a notable gap in public awareness regarding the challenges faced by LGBTIQ+ people in Nepal. At best, public understanding is limited, while at worst, it is highly misinformed. The prejudice against LGBTIQ+ people impacts community members in all parts of their lives; at home with their family, when looking for a job or a place to live, at school and in healthcare settings. Regrettably, the voices of LGBTIQ+ individuals and their allies are often marginalized, and their perspectives are seldom heard. Consequently, one of the primary objectives of UN Free & Equal Nepal is to combat stigma and challenge stereotypes by amplifying the voices and narratives of LGBTIQ+ people through their writing.
When asked about their visions of positive changes in the near future, the participants expressed their thoughts with great enthusiasm. Achyut emphasized the importance of public education on LGBTIQ+ issues as a top priority: “To achieve the positive changes we envision, it is crucial for both LGBTIQ+ people and their allies to raise their voices in support of equality and inclusion. We face numerous challenges, such as discrimination and violence, that must be confronted on our path forward. However, I firmly believe in a society that will ultimately overcome these obstacles.”
Equal legal protections for LGBTIQ+ people, including for same-sex couples, were highlighted by Kusum. Discrimination in the workplace, especially of trans folks, makes financial independence difficult to achieve. And achieving equality requires education and advocacy. “Equal and fair treatment for all is what I envision to happen in the future and campaigns like UN Free & Equal play a vital role in raising awareness, educating the public, and pushing for LGBTIQ+ equality,” she explained.
According to Ashika, it is essential to enhance LGBTIQ+ representation in the Nepali education curriculum to foster a better understanding among the general public. Merely having constitutional protections is insufficient if their implementation falls short. Ashika pointed out the distressing requirement for trans individuals to provide ‘proof’ of their gender identity to obtain legal recognition and expressed her hope for effective implementation of the rights guaranteed by the Constitution: “This is humiliating and hurtful. It is my sincere desire that the rights guaranteed by the Constitution will soon be implemented effectively,” she said.
Building the community through creativity
Achyut, Ashika and Kusum all experienced emotional moments during the residency that stemmed from their newfound connection to one another.
Due to her hearing disability, Kusum was worried about not being able to fully engage in the workshops.
“Given my hearing impairment, I was uneasy about being selected, despite submitting my application. Previous events I’ve attended were often inaccessible to me, as I couldn’t hear properly, so I have never felt able to fully participate. However, the experience at this residency was remarkably different. On the first day, when the organizers learned about my hearing difficulties, they swiftly provided me with a Bluetooth device connected to a speakerphone. Instantly, I could hear everything! Tears welled up in my eyes as it felt like I was finally able to access the technology that helped me hear. From that moment forward, my life changed. I now carry the device with me wherever I go, and no longer feel left behind,” she said.
Achyut also discovered a sense of community during the workshops: “It was my first experience of publicly coming out as a gay man. On the very first day, we all formed a bond, and I felt a sense of home among everyone. We openly shared our feelings, which brought us closer together. I realized that I am not alone, and that LGBTIQ+ people exist everywhere in the world. We just need to be acknowledged.”
Together, the group produced a magazine comprising 23 original pieces. Ashika cherishes the outcome, saying: “Honestly, I am grateful for every part of the workshops. The highlight was undoubtedly the publication ‘Zine’ that we managed to create. In just 10 days, we developed a full-fledged magazine with 23 captivating stories! I keep my copy in my office library, and my heart swells with pride when people come and compliment my two articles.“
‘Zine’ represents the writers’ collective experiences during the residency, showcasing an impactful blend of poems, letters, personal essays, stories, and dreams. The publication will take the form of a beautifully crafted book which will be officially launched in December 2023. Together, this group of writers has have proven the power of the “written world” to advance the rights of LGBTIQ+ people.