"Nepal is ahead of many countries in LGBTQI+ rights"
Jessica Stern, the US Special Envoy to Advance the Human Rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Intersex persons at the US Department of State is in a five-day official visit to Nepal. During their visit, Stern not only met with government officials, but also attended the pride parade organised by the Blue Diamond Society on Friday and met with individuals from the LGBTQIA+ community. Excerpts of their interview with Sahina Shrestha of Nepali Times:
Nepali Times: Special Envoy Jessica Stern, let us start with your current trip. Why are you here in Nepal and did you achieve what you set out to do in this trip?
Jessica Stern: I am very happy to be here in Nepal. The catalyst was really Gai Jatra. Yesterday was incredible, it was the festival to celebrate the existence of LGBTQI people in Nepal and to bring visibility to the work that they are doing to ensure equal rights. It was one of the most extraordinary pride parade I ever joined and I felt so honored to be there.
But I didn’t just come for a parade. I came to learn about the priorities of the LGBTQI people in Nepal and how the US government can support them. Because as Secretary of State has said human rights are central to US foreign policy.https://youtu.be/S33rSax4IPg
You have been here for five days now, what are your impressions of the status of LGBTQIA+ rights in Nepal?
Nepal is ahead of many countries in the world because it explicitly recognises gender and sexual minorities in the constitution. United States does not recognise sexual and gender minorities in the constitution. So the US and many governments can learn. Marginalised and vulnerable groups are safer when they are officially seen in the law.
But in Nepal, as in every country in the planet including in the US, there is always a discrepancy between the promise of the law and its implementation.
So over the days that I have been here, I have met with around 50 LGBTQI Nepalis and I have simply asked them, what are your priorities? And I heard about a broad range of issues: I heard that people experience discrimination in employments and poverty is over-represented within the LGBTQI community. I heard that LGBTQI people often feel forced into marriages. Because there's so much pressure to enter into a heterosexual marriage, even if you yourself are not heterosexual. I heard that that's tied to women's rights, because unless there is a real pathway to legal and financial independence for women, the LGBTQI community also is not safe. And that includes lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and intersex women. But it's also a broader commentary on gender equality.
I heard people say that things are changing in Nepal, and that they feel hopeful for the future. And I heard people say that yesterday was the largest Gai Jatra that has ever happened. And when I was leaving the concert at the end, and I saw people lined up trying to get in, hearing messages about LGBTQI rights from famous Nepalis, you could feel the change is palpable, and changes coming.
With all that you have heard, what else do you think needs to be done for equal rights in Nepal? Is it perhaps a step-by-step process like ensuring equal citizenship because right now although there is an option to get Nepali citizenship under the others category, there are no provisions in Nepal’s law that guarantee a person in a same sex couple to be able to get a citizenship through their spouse or do you think it has to be more grassroots or something else completely?
Well, when you ask LGBTQI people in Nepal, what do you want, they will answer, they will give you a long list, we just have to ask them. And then listen. There are a number of recommendations that I have: equal marriage, which was set in motion by the 2007 Supreme Court decision. Equal citizenship, including the ability to both choose third gender options, but also the ability of trans and intersex people to choose gender binary options if they so choose, based on the principle of self-determination, meaning, you say that you're trans and therefore you are trans or you say you're a woman, and therefore the state sees you that way. You shouldn't need to go to a doctor or someone external to prove that you are who you say you are. You also shouldn't require any bodily modification that you don't want as a prerequisite before recognition before the law.
I heard people say that they want the rape law to be expanded to include any victim of rape of any gender and any sexual orientation. And I heard people say that they want recognition as parents, because LGBTQI people are parents, they want to be parents, they have children, and like anybody else, they want their families to be safe. And last but not least, I heard instances of the Public Offences Act being overused against transgender people. And so I heard that there's a very strong interest in ensuring that there's no arbitrary arrest or harassment of transgender people in Nepal.
You're visiting India later this month. Nepal is the first South Asian country you have visited. And you've been to other Asian countries, including Malaysia. How do you think like Nepal ranks in terms of freedom and rights of LGBTQI+ persons?
Well, anyone who reads the paper knows that the US is not perfect on LGBTQI rights. We have long a long way to go on all human rights issues. Every country on the planet discriminates against LGBTQI people. Hopefully that will change in our lifetime, it is changing. But I never rank countries, because it's impossible to say, where people are the safest because the discrimination does exist everywhere.
But I will say, that at the regional and global level, Nepal was ahead of many countries in terms of LGBTQI rights, and you see that Nepal doesn't criminalise homosexuality. It doesn't criminalise cross-dressing. It permits LGBTQI organisations to legally operate. LGBTQI people have served in Parliament, have been recognised by the Supreme Court and LGBTQI organisations can meet with government officials. So Nepal can show not just regional but global leadership on this issue. In fact, it already is.
I'm going to come back to the US a little bit. Because President Biden in his early days in the office issued a Presidential Memorandum on LGBTQI+ inclusion in US foreign policy and foreign assistance. But the idea of human rights being the focus of human foreign policy has come under a lot of scrutiny these days, especially after the President's visit to Saudi Arabia. We've also seen a number of anti-trans bills make their way through the state legislatures across the US. So how effective do you think you or a US official in your position are in this particular place right now?
I'm glad you asked that question. LGBTQI issues in the US are still a work in progress. LGBTQI Americans still experience discrimination and violence. There have been anti LGBTQI initiatives in many states across the United States, including over the past year. But I can also say, that as a queer American, I have seen remarkable progress over my lifetime. When I started to come out, there was no visibility of LGBTQI people in the US unless it was to make a mockery of LGBTQI people. I never knew adults that my parents were friends with who were LGBTQ identified.
So change is happening in the US. It's not happening as fast as I would want. But it is happening. And it's really important to look at the examples and the mandates established by President Biden. So the Presidential Memorandum that you refer to, it mandates all US foreign policy and foreign assistance agencies to mainstream LGBTQI rights into their work. He issued that on February 4. So we are just a year and a half in. Does that mean everything changes overnight? Absolutely not. Because change takes time. But we are changing and as the President and Secretary of State often say, we're striving towards a more perfect union and the efforts themselves matter.
Are there any things that Nepal is doing on the issues around LGBTQI+ rights that the rest of the world can learn from?
I hope I can say this. It would be my wish that every constitution in the world, codified LGBTQI rights in their constitution. Nepal is one of the countries that established that it's possible. And the rest of us need to learn from this precedent and then implement this constitutional protections.