Published in The New Republic.
Kathmandu, Nepal—This fall, the world should have its first official, national head-count of people in a single country who identify as “third gender.” That’s because Nepal, the small nation crammed between India and China, has included the designation on its 2011 census, the country’s first since the fall of a Hindu monarchy and the end of an armed conflict with Maoist rebels. In counting third-gender citizens, Nepal’s government seems to be sending a strong message about the country’s commitment to inclusiveness.
But it’s clear already that the data will be flawed—so much so that they could lack meaning for many of the Nepali people who identify as third gender. Notably, logistical problems, discrimination on the part of census-takers, and fear among some third genders are marring the historic process. These problems reveal that, although the census might be a a progressive gesture, Nepal still has a long way to go before it truly embraces equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people. And, because the census’s effects will be felt around the world, as sexual and gender rights activists advocate for recognition from their own governments, the lessons from Nepal’s success and failures should be heeded.
ALTHOUGH NEPAL RECENTLY made headlines for its push to attract gay tourists, it remains a conservative country. In 2007, Sunil Babu Pant, a gay activist, won a Supreme Court case that forced the government to guarantee full, fundamental equality for all sexual and gender minorities. But, even after the ruling, the pace of implementing fair policies for the LGBTI community has been glacial, and government discrimination is still noted by activists. For instance, there has been a handful of same-sex weddings, but the “licenses” for them are issued by Pant’s NGO, the Blue Diamond Society (BDS), not the government. What’s more, although the ruling decreed that the government had to issue citizenship ID cards that indicate people’s choice of gender identity, it has yet to do so for all but a few people. (Among other things, these cards allow people to open bank accounts and own property.) I accompanied a LGBTI community member on her sixteenth attempt to have her gender changed on her card, where she was rejected—again—for a supposedly technical reason. “See, it’s mine, but it’s not me,” she said, showing me the card. “They won’t let me register as a citizen and get services or a new passport.”
So, last year, when Pant—now a member of Nepal’s parliament—marched into the offices of the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) and demanded that, in light of the court decision, a category for third-gender citizens be created on the upcoming census, it was a welcome victory that the bureau approved the measure. (Pant threatened to take the agency to court if it didn’t.) Third genders, an often misunderstood minority, include those people who identify as neither male nor female regardless of their biological sex at birth. Many of them are transgender or intersex, but the group is not limited to those identities. Pant has described third genders as those who “do not necessarily have a fixed gender identity or sexual orientation.”
But securing the category in the census wasn’t the end of the battle. This became clear in May and June, when the forms for the two-phase process were published. (The data gathered will be published in October.) The first form, a household registry, was designed to record basic data about every home in the country. “How many males, females, and third genders live here?” it asks, in accordance with what LGBTI activists had hoped for. The second form, which is being used to document every eighth residence in the country (so, a sampling), asks a series of 50 questions about topics ranging from refrigerator ownership to religious views. But it is missing one key box: It allows citizens to identify only as male or female.
So what happened? “It was a compromise,” Rudra Suwal, population chief at CBS, told me. “We had already designed the software to enter the data from the second form by the time Sunil [Pant] approached us, so we said we could put it on the first form but not the second.” Pant tells the same story, but with a sigh of disappointment. “They are counting third genders, but they won’t know anything about third genders,” he told me. “For the rest of the population, they’ll know caste and income and dozens of other things. For third genders, they’ll have numbers by district, but that doesn’t mean anything when it comes to government attention.” (The CBS has told Pant it will conduct a follow-up study on LGBTI citizens, but there’s no guarantee it will ever happen.)
But even the basic district numbers will be flawed, and the process of gathering them hasn’t been without its problems, as various troubling reports reveal. One June afternoon, while I was visiting Pant in his office, he took two phone calls: One was from a BDS staffer in Bara, a central district near the Indian border. She recounted that a family had come to her that week distraught because, upon reporting that their household included a third-gender child, the census enumerator had demanded they strip the child naked. The second call came from a staff member in Bhairahawa, another border district further west. He had been receiving reports of discrimination and poor treatment during census interviews. Upset, he had called the local census office to ask how many third genders they had on record. They told him they had three in their initial data. “But we [Blue Diamond Society] have direct contact with almost 1,500 in that district!” Pant exclaimed.
There have been other, more complex challenges, too, related to the social stigma still attached to the LGBTI community. The day after visiting Pant’s office, I met with a roomful of third-gender community members in Bhairahawa to learn about their census interviews. One inched forward to speak up. “I am third gender, but my wife does not know,” he said. “I am forty-two years old, and I have two children. I have known about this identity for only three years, but I have always felt like I’m not a man, but I have not told her yet. Telling her would mean losing my family.” He went on to describe how a census-taker came to his house while he and his family were eating dinner and conducted the survey with everyone present. “I had to answer male,” he said, “but I felt so much guilt afterward.”
Another said that, upon returning home after working in the fields to discover that his wife had recorded him as male (he had also not come out to her), he chased after the census enumerator, knocking on doors as he ran down the street hoping to track the official down. He eventually caught up with the enumerator and asked him to change the record, but he was told it was impossible because it was marked in ink. As he told me the story, he shoved a grimy piece of paper in my face: “I have his mobile number. You can call him and tell him to change it because you know I am third gender, not male.”
INDEED, THE CENSUS has both fallen short of expectations and provided a stark look at the many hurdles the LGBTI community still faces in Nepali society. “It is a significant step that the government is counting us this year, but it doesn’t mean the work is over,” says Pant.
More broadly, Nepal’s census has also revealed the complexities of officially recognizing an oft-misunderstood minority—complexities that are sure to resonate in other countries where the struggle for gender equality is as daunting, if not more so. Because the process stands as the world’s only example to date of how to include third-gender people in a national census, the next country to embark on an inclusive survey of its citizens should look to Nepal for guidance, both on what to do, and on what to do far better.