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Doing Sex Right in Nepal: Activist Language and Sexed/Gendered Expectations

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This is an excerpt from Sexuality and Translation in World Politics. Get your free copy here.

As I met S. back in 2009, he introduced himself as a confident ‘transgender’ (using the English term) committed to the cause of minorities in Nepal. Yet this identity was not promoted at all times in his everyday interactions – much dependent on the consequences such disclosure would have. For the sake of his family, he embodied the role of a male householder, accepting to marry a woman that his family would approve of. S.’s adjustments, however, were also enacted vis-à-vis the gender non-conforming community. I realised this as I was invited to a ceremony in his natal village a few kilometres outside of Kathmandu city. I was not the only guest from abroad participating in the event: a foreign volunteer, working in support of gender non-conforming activism in Nepal, had also been asked to join the celebrations. Differently from the latter, however, I knew what the festivities were for: the formalisation of the marital union between S. and a woman deemed of appropriate caste and social standing by his immediate family. S. masked this convivial event as his own birthday party in front of the other foreign guest, introducing his wife as his sister-in-law and cautioning me not to talk about the actual intentions of the occurrence. He feared not only the guest’s potential disapproval, but also the possible passing of the word to the organisation to which he was affiliated and upon which his livelihood depended at the time. I was taken a little aback by what seemed an unusual performance of ‘transgender-ness’ in front of the visitor: having known S. for a while, I was exposed to an unprecedented emphasis in his behaviour. He appeared to over-perform an identity to keep up what he felt was apt and expected of a gender non-conforming person. Specifically he emphasised through words and behaviour his belonging to a ‘transgender’ community, both local as well as transnational. Hence, in the same way in which he did not feel free to be ‘his transgender self’ within the kinship context, he appeared also curbed in front of the foreign delegate and, by extension, the gender non-conforming community, in fear they would reprehend his actions as a form of betrayal.

Nepal is one of the many sites that have been affected by a discursive ‘revolution’: this concerns the ways in which sexuality has been progressively addressed, as well as the identities thereby ensuing. In part, these were engendered and gained particular significance during the 1990s, as health development measures were introduced in the country. ‘Target groups’ were identified on the basis of sexual behaviours marked as ‘other’ within a heteronormative model (Kotiswaran 2011, 8; Caviglia 2018, 58): ‘men who have sex with men’ (MSM), transgender individuals, sex workers and more became social collectives at which preventive and curative action should be directed. These sexual nomenclatures gained global outreach and meaning, Nepal providing a particular case study of how such global dynamics play out within the interstices of local reality (Altman 2001, 86; Caviglia 2018).

Nepal’s sexual landscape has seen significant progress in terms of legal and social recognition of minorities (Boyce and Coyle 2013; Coyle and Boyce 2015). The work of activists in this realm has not only improved the lives of people non-conforming to heteronormative roles, but also their political stance as Nepal’s citizens. An exemplary ramification of this has been the legal recognition of tesro lingi, ‘third gender’, as a category beyond the normative binary ‘male’ and ‘female’, which encompasses a broad range of identities (Bochenek and Knight 2012, 13). In 2007 the Supreme Court ‘ruled that individuals should have their gender legally recognised based on “self-feeling” and that they should not have to limit themselves to “female” or “male”‘ (Knight 2015). Legal measures have been set in place since then, which culminated in 2013 with the granting of legal citizenship to gender non-conforming individuals (Deutsche Welle 2015). Identity documents now mention the category “O” for “other” in passports, and tesro lingi in national identity cards (UNDP, Williams Institute 2014; Knight 2015; Pluciska 2015; as well as information from local informants).

Overall such developments have provided a ‘language of rights’ to which people with alternative genders and sexualities can associate and identify, and upon which they can unite as a group with needs, causes, and demands to fight for (Boyce and Coyle 2013). However, the everyday lives of gender non-conforming individuals in Nepal remain inserted into kinship mores and gendered practices that disadvantage them both materially and socially (Coyle and Boyce 2015). By non-conforming to local heteronormative expectations, they are often excluded from familial wealth and education, as well as work opportunities in the free market and other sectors. Furthermore, gender non-conforming individuals in Nepal oscillate more fluidly between gendered behaviours and sexual practices than the terminology in circulation is able to encompass.

This case study reveals a paradoxical turn of events in the lives of some gender non-conforming individuals in Nepal, especially those who have been in, or are currently involved with, activist groups in the country. It is within these communities that episodes of perceived discrimination and marginalisation have been reported. These are tied to varying understandings of ‘sexual identities’ and identification promoted by activist movements. Those not ‘complying’ with certain expectations of non-conformity, perhaps because they oscillate between familial obligations and their alternative (sexual and gendered) identities, are found to juggle uncomfortably between these two spheres, perceiving exclusion and marginalisation at both ends – within their families and immediate communities, as well as the very activist milieu in which they hoped to find solace.

This article stems from broader research on commercial sex in Kathmandu, Nepal (Caviglia, 2018). The latter ethnographic investigation approaches various actors involved in sex work, understood in the broadest sense of the term: these included street workers as well as what are locally referred to as ‘establishment-based’ sex workers, mostly operating in so called ‘dance bars’ and other venues[1]. Those identified as sex workers in these sites were mainly cis gendered women living up to and performing heteronormative sexualised acts – though not conforming to local standards of propriety – in exchange for retribution. Overall, the work is concerned with the deconstruction of the ‘sex worker’ category, an approach that I refrain – to some extent – here.

In this essay, I turn to transgender sex workers who were also part of the Kathmandu scene. When I refer to gender non-conforming individuals, I am talking about the experience shared by those who do not fit cis gendered female or male identities. Specifically, I share the experiences of respondents sexed as male at birth, but also desiring the performance of actions and/or appearance gendered as female by society and/or expressing sexual desires for those considered of their same birth-assigned sex.[2] The stories below point to some of the possible constrictions of the term transgender and hence I choose to use gender non-conforming throughout. The ‘transgender’ category remains nevertheless of importance, as I hope will become clear.

Oscillating Between Conformity and Non-Conformity

The anecdote introducing this paper illustrates the need for sexual minorities in Nepal to keep appearances and respectability, lest they run the risk of social demise. Insights on homoerotic behaviour by Tamang (2003) have revealed how ‘male-to-male’ sex ‘may not be so much an expression of personal........

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