Transgender Nepalis face isolation in quake’s aftermathMay 8, 2015
Seven years ago, Reshma Tamang left his home in Gorkha district as a young man, to come to the capital Kathmandu. Now with his home crushed by the quake, he yearns to return but cannot because he is a transgender woman.
Tamang’s parents are unaware of their only son’s transformation, and want Tamang (name changed) to return. Nepali cultural norms call for family members to be home during times of emergency.
The Gorkha district, at the epicenter of the quake, was one of the hardest hit. Tamang’s family escaped death but still live in fear as tremors keep rumbling across the district. If death should come to pass, Tamang – the only male heir of the house – would need to be home to partake in rituals and pay respects to the dead.
But returning home now would require transforming back to a false life as a man, Tamang says.
“If I would go back to my village now I would face physical and verbal abuse, because of my altered gender identity,” says Tamang, who is wearing a navy-blue dress. “Even if my family accepts me they will be ashamed to face relatives and other townspeople,” she adds.
While the quake devastated communities across the country it has had an especially profound impact on marginalized communities such as the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) community. The UN Development Programme and partners have been working to ensure equal rights for LGBTI. Those programs have had some impact, but finding acceptance in Nepal’s relatively conservative society is still a challenge, and in the aftermath of the quake those challenges have been accentuated.
While the family back in Gorkha have each other for support, Tamang lives alone. For the past two years, struggling to make a living and send money home, she has taken to the streets as a sex-worker. (Many people who are transgender are forced to turn to working as sex workers due to workplace discrimination.) In the days since the quake there has been little action on the streets, she says, so she has made no money. Her partner too has been absent, dealing with family issues of his own.
The isolation faced by members of the LGBTI community makes it harder to track the injured and the dead, says Manisha Dhakal, a transgender woman and executive director of the Blue Diamond Society, an organization that works with LGBTI people.
Also, as people fled their homes to seek shelter in open spaces, it was harder for some members of the LGBTI community to fit in, says Dhakal.
Gauri a lesbian – who does not want to reveal her last name – says the quake forced her to leave her partner for a couple of days. She was living in her partner’s house but fearing it would collapse from the tremors, they camped in the garden with neighbors.
When her partner’s parents – who live in Canada – found out that the two of them were sharing a tent, they were upset that people would notice and cause them shame. Compounding the lesbian issue, was the fact that Gauri is of a lower caste and her partner is a Brahmin.
“Her parents were adamant that we not live together in the open,” says Gauri. So she moved back to her village for a couple of days, returning only when her partner moved back into the house. Her partner’s parents, who had earlier accepted the relationship and would talk to her before the quake, now no longer speak with her.
Dhakal says the disaster has at times left members of the community open to discrimination. Openly gay, lesbian and transgender individuals have had a hard time finding space in communal tents. For transgender individuals, even answering the call of nature in the open was a problem, says Dhakal.
However, she adds: “Working with UNDP’s HIV and Human Rights programme has helped us develop a relationship with the Ministry of Health, which has been beneficial during this tough time.” The programme is supported by the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria.
The partnership developed with the government came in handy when access to tents became a problem. Dhakal says she wrote to the Ministry of Health asking for support. The ministry in turn asked Save the Children to provide the tents, which were quickly delivered, along with medicines and water purifiers.
Now, Dhakal says, she wants UNDP’s programme to expand to help train LGBTI to be prepared for disasters.
Nearly two weeks after the quake, Tamang still feels the draw of home. But for now she believes she can’t go back. She has yet to summon the courage to tell her family, even so, she aches for their acceptance. She wants to continue to live her life as a woman, and she wants a committed partner and a child.
“I dream of having a family,” she says. “Someday, I want to be someone’s daughter-in-law.”