Transgender activist Bhumika Shrestha seems like the kind of person I’d meet in San Francisco, cialis 40mg not in a developing South Asian country where issues like gender equality, viagra 40mg social mobility, and individual freedoms are still novel concepts. She confidently walks across the coffee shop, and her stunning looks naturally catches the eyes of the male waiters and us two lesbians. Her equally good-looking boyfriend Ram accompanies her and warmly greets us. Bhumika tells us that she meets with international media often and enjoys the opportunity to talk about her pride as a transgender woman.
Thanks to the work of Bhumika and other LGBT advocates, Nepal has made some amazing progress in recent years. In 2007, Nepal’s Supreme Court created a third legal gender and legalized same sex marriage. Last year Bhumika was officially sworn in as a leading member of the Nepali Congress, one of Nepal’s most influential political parties. She is the first representative from the transgender community to be a public face in any political party.
In these ways, I only wish California were as progressive as Nepal.
Speaking to Bhumika, it’s easy to forget some of the hardships she faced. She speaks English and comes across as well-educated, despite being expelled from high school for her gender presentation. She now works in public office, even though the police once incarcerated her five years ago for dressing up as a woman. She walks down the streets of her neighborhood unapologetically, in spite of the harassment she faced growing up for presenting herself as a girl and changing her name from Kailash to Bhumika at age 12.
Bhumika tells us that everything changed for her when she discovered the Blue Diamond Society, Nepal’s LGBT and HIV organization started by Supergay Sunil Pant. She says, “I joined the Blue Diamond Society seven years ago when I didn’t understand my identity or sexual orientation. I didn’t know the meaning of transgender, lesbian, bisexual, or gay. [But] when I joined the Blue Diamond Society, I no longer felt different.” Bhumika now works as a human rights educator for the Blue Diamond Society, counseling individuals and families as well as documenting human rights abuses.
Bhumika tells us how the 2007 Supreme Court decision that created a legal third gender for transgender individuals affects her. “When I go to the bank I have to give my ID card. Same when I travel. When security people check [and see my male ID], they think I am a fraud and I am cheating. When I visited the U.S., they did not believe me. I just tell them, I was a boy and now I am a girl. We face so much blame.”
Having to present an ID card can also be an initial barrier for accessing healthcare in Nepal. Bhumika explains, “You have to bring ID to the clinic and fill out your identity on the form. They ask a lot of questions about gender and forget about the reasons why you came in for the check up. So many doctors and hospital don’t understand and can’t provide service.”
However with Nepal’s government still recovering from decades of political instability, implementing new policies like the ID cards can be arduous. Bhumika has stood in line in the government office to request a new ID over a dozen times without results. She doesn’t give up hope though and tells us, “Now the law is on our side and society has to change. We [Blue Diamond Society] recently talked to the Prime Minister and he promised to issue our cards. It takes time.” For now she carries her original male ID, and she shows us a faded card showing an unsmiling young man wearing a topi, the traditional cap for Nepalese men. This ID looks nothing like the vibrant confident woman sitting in front of us.
We visit Bhumika at her office where she has been counseling a woman whose transgender sister is being persecuted in her village. Bhumika works with the woman to have her sister come to the Blue Diamond Society for services and possible emergency shelter. She tells us how fortunate she feels for her own family’s support, explaining that “so many families do not understand and transgender people get kicked out of the house. Some are engaged in sex work, without education, job, and health.”
Bhumika invites us to visit her home, and we sit down with her boyfriend Ram and her brother and sister-in-law to take a traditional Nepalese meal of lentils and vegetable curry on the rooftop. Bhumika tells us that her mother was regretful that she had to work the day of our visit, so after lunch we take a walk through muddy rice fields where her mother works as a harvester. As we approach, her mother welcomes us, apologizing for the dirt on our clothes from the field. Bhumika translates to us that her mother is so happy that we have come. Bhumika’s mother raised her children on her own and their relationship is a close one. Bhumika told us, “at first my mother didn’t understand why I dressed as a female. Then I educated her and she helped others accept me.”
Back in Bhumika and Ram’s bedroom, we look at the pictures and magazine articles of Bhumika hung on the wall. In 2007 she won the Nepal Ms. Transgender Beauty Pageant and went on to Thailand to compete in Ms. International Queen. She says, “I couldn’t believe the number of transgender women there. I thought they were just [biological] girls.” In the past two years Bhumika has traveled to Thailand and the Philippines to attend conferences and trainings in transgender issues. In Thailand she underwent breast implant surgery to feel more comfortable with her body. She proudly tells us now, “I’m saving my money to get a sexual reassignment surgery in Thailand next year.”
This past July, Bhumika traveled to attend the United National General Assembly in New York and speak about transgender rights in Nepal. There is no holding back this 24-year-old from future leadership positions someday. I ask her if she ever thinks about living in New York, the Philippines, or Thailand, countries where transgender individuals surely have more freedom. But she tells us, “I love Nepal. I love my country. I miss my country. When I went to the US it was my first visit to a big city in a big country. I missed my family. I have so much to do here in Nepal.”