Published in The Kathmandu Post.
Nepal’s population is comprised of 12,927,431 men and 13,693,378 women. These numbers add up to the total, 26,620,809. But in a census expected to produce a head count of people who identify as third gender, there’s something missing: the number of third genders.
The battle for recognition of this category is not new, and small victories have been won.
The term third gender entered the Nepali legal sphere with the decision in the 2007 Supreme Court case, Sunil Babu Pant and Others v. Nepal Government and Others. Since then, the implementation of the category has occurred in a series of piecemeal but substantial achievements.
Two citizens have successfully registered on citizenship ID cards as third gender in different districts.
In addition, the Nepal Election Commission has published that it registered 157 citizens as third gender so far this year.
But in perhaps the most anticipated and celebrated milestone, in January the CBS announced it would the third gender category on the 2011 national census. It was noted as the first time in the world a government has counted its third gender citizens. LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex) and human rights activists applauded the effort.
So when CBS published its initial data this week, it came as a surprise to see the data disaggregated only by two genders: male and female.
The data collection process indeed had flaws. Third genders I interviewed told me that they were challenged when they asked to be listed as such. Some suspected fraud on the part of the enumerators when pencil was used on the forms (CBS regulations mandated blue ink).
What is more, even CBS acknowledges that the third gender category was only to be included in the household listing—a head count—and not the census forms.
It was a separate count, but a count nonetheless. That is, until there were none.
“We asked them for biological sex only,” an official from CBS told me today, “so then we recorded male or female.”
This is true. The census form did only have options of male or female; the third gender option was relegated to the household listing form. The census enumerator instruction manual reads:
Every enumerated person shall be identified whether they are male or female. In time of collecting the information, if the person is before you, you shall ask and write it down . . . If it is hard to figure our whether the respondent is male or female, you should ask the respondent and write down whatever they prefer to put under, male or female.
So if someone registered as third gender (TG) the first time the enumerator came to the door, it was simply not a choice during the actual census enumeration phase.
Or was it?
“For people who registered as TG on the household listing form, we did have the option for them to list that on the second form,” the CBS official explained to me today. But having it listed was meaningless: “They could list themselves as TG, but it would not be counted. It was there to make them not get angry at us, but not to make them part of the data.”
So it was a strategy meant to pacify, then. But does deceit really make peace?
“Since they did not bother to count third gender citizens, how can they say they have really respected the rights of sexual and gender minorities?” said Sunil Babu Pant, MP, director of Blue Diamond Society in a press release today. “We worked with CBS to include the category, sensitize staff, and monitor the enumeration process, but it appears they have deceived us,” he said.
CBS can pull a number of third genders from the household listing, and they claim they will at some point—again to pacify activists. However in terms of being part of the population, third gender citizens will be divided between the male and female categories—brought to nil, rendered invisible.
Last Sunday, more than 300 LGBTI citizens—most of them third gender—traveled to Kathmandu out of desperation. They came in solidarity to demand the rights to citizenship cards that listed each person’s preferred gender.
They got a meeting with the Prime Minister.
One third gender, who traveled from an eastern district and asked me not to publish her name, was thrilled with the impact. “It is important for me to be here as a representative so I borrowed money from my sister to pay for the bus,” she explained before we entered Baburam Bhattarai’s office. During the meeting, the group was assured they had the PM’s support.
As we exited the meeting, the same activist grabbed my arm, beaming a giant smile across her face. “Do you know how I feel today?” she asked me. No, I said, I didn’t, smiling back. “Hope. I feel hope.”
It was indeed a hopeful event, but just 48 hours later, CBS has sent a different message—
one all too typical of the government bureaucracy. In not counting third genders, the message sent is one clearly bereft of hope.