Nepali law does not recognise same-sex marriages. Much of Nepali society still actively discriminates against members of the LGBTIQ community. And as the recent death of Junu Gurung, a transgender woman, testifies, safety and security continue to be an issue. And yet, Nepal is continually hailed as a paragon for sexual rights in South Asia. It is the only country in this region that recognises a ‘third’ gender—a separate category for those who do not feel comfortable in the male-female binary. Citizenship cards and passports can be issued with the ‘O’ or ‘other’ gender, and applicants can change their genders as they desire. When the Supreme Court decided, in 2007, that all Nepali citizens be allowed to freely choose their gender identities, it was a hard-won victory. And the LGBTIQ community celebrated.
But even that small triumph could now be undone. A proposed amendment to the Citizenship Act seeks “proof” of a gender reassignment surgery if anyone wishes to change their gender identity from what they were assigned at birth. Some lawmakers believe that medical proof is the only way to ascertain if someone’s gender identity is what they say it is.
This demand is not just unfair but also deeply ignorant. Gender identities are not as fluid as these lawmakers seem to believe. It can take a long time for people to realise that they don’t feel comfortable in the gender they were assigned at birth. A declaration that one is not the gender they were assigned is not an easy one to make, given the stigma that still comes with being transgender.
Furthermore, not everyone can afford or even desires gender reassignment surgery. Changing one’s gender is a long, expensive and arduous process that requires years of hormone therapy before going under the knife. In many cases, hormone therapy and an operation might not be safe, and even when they are, the costs can be prohibitively high. Hormone therapy is not even available in Nepal, let alone gender reassignment surgery. Not everyone can afford to take a trip to Thailand just for an operation.
But all of that misses the point. Simply put, an operation should be emblematic of transition.
There are numerous problems with the Citizenship Act, but allowing Nepalis to choose their gender identity is not one of them. The rights of sexual and gender minorities to equal protection under the law are enshrined in the constitution. Under this protection, the LGBTIQ community must be afforded more rights, not have existing ones taken away. “Proof” can be dehumanising and insulting—imagine having your body inspected to see if you are the “correct” gender.
The right to choose one’s gender identity has won Nepal plaudits as a progressive state that is attempting to move in the right direction, especially in a region that is seen as quite conservative when it comes to LGBTIQ rights. In one fell swoop, an amendment demanding “proof” of gender reassignment could end all that goodwill. If lawmakers don’t see this amendment as derogatory and detrimental to a marginalised community that is already heavily stigmatised, at least they might consider the negative backlash from the international community to stop this amendment from going through.