The Long Aisle Leading to Nepal’s First Same-Sex Marriages

Published On: April 6, 2024 05:45 PM NPT By: Yam Kumari Kandel

The country long seen as a beacon for LGBTQI rights in South Asia still has no law recognizing same-sex marriage. Here's how two couples broke through the bureaucracy — and why hundreds of others still wait to say “I do.”

They met in the aftermath of a national tragedy. Love blossomed soon after.

It was 2015 and an earthquake had devastated central Nepal. Social worker Tobias Volz had flown to Kathmandu from Germany to assist with relief efforts. Adheep Pokhrel grew up in Nepal and was working for an international nongovernmental organization. Each swiped right on the other’s profile on a dating app. Pokhrel was the first to message.

Seven years later, in the summer of 2022 — following a whirlwind romance, a relationship proposal in Cambodia, a wedding ceremony in Volz’s home country of Germany, and a temporary move to Georgia — the couple found themselves at the immigration office in Kathmandu with a sheaf of documents in support of Volz’s non-tourist visa application.

After inspecting the papers, the officer asked Pokhrel to present his wife. “I told him I don’t have a wife but I do have a husband, and I pointed to him,” he says. Their application was promptly rejected, ostensibly because the form specifies “husband” and “wife” as categories, and does not recognize two husbands. To obtain the visa, they were told, they would first have to produce a marriage certificate issued by the Nepali government.

Pokhrel seethed. “I wanted to fight, but I restrained myself,” he says. Nepal has been hailed as a global beacon for LGBTQI rights since 2007, when its Supreme Court ordered the government to legally recognize a third gender category, audit all laws to identify those that discriminate against sexual and gender minorities, and form a committee to explore legal recognition of same-sex relationships. In 2015, it became one of only a handful of countries to specifically protect LGBTQI people in its constitution.

But since then, progress has been sluggish and there are bureaucratic hurdles aplenty. In the absence of a law recognizing same-sex unions, Nepali citizens like Pokhrel are often discriminated against by the very state that has vowed to protect them from discrimination.

Volz’s existing tourist visa was set to expire at the end of September 2022; the couple knew they would have to leave Nepal soon. Before they did so, however, they decided to make their case to the one branch of government that has long been sympathetic to sexual and gender minorities: the Supreme Court.

Doe-eyed, with a round face now framed by a beard, Pokhrel grew up in Nepal before moving to neighboring India for college. His first exposure to openly gay men were British pop stars: George Michael, Elton John and Boyzone band member Stephen Gately. For a long time, he couldn’t summon the courage to come out to his family, so he did it in fits and starts: first to his sister on a trip home from India, then, years later, to his parents. The child of a senior civil servant — a former head of the country’s election commission — Pokhrel worried his parents would be disappointed their only son was gay. While the country has progressed on LGBTQI rights, many segments of Nepali society still regard homosexuality as taboo.

He told them over dinner one day in 2014. For a moment, he recalls, there was silence. “As soon as he uttered the word ‘gay,’ all the hardships associated with the topic lit up my brain like an electric current,” his father, Bhojraj Pokharel, told Global Press Journal through written correspondence. After retiring from government service, the elder Pokharel, who uses a different transliteration for their surname, worked as a consultant on issues such as HIV/AIDS, which had familiarized him with the struggles of gender and sexual minorities in Nepal. “Therefore, as soon as his words fell on the ground, I hastened to make him feel loved, encouraged and fully accepted by our family,” he adds.

In Pokhrel’s case, it was the Nepali state that would prove to be less accepting — until, with the support and assistance of his father, he decided to sue the Department of Immigration for refusing to grant Volz a non-tourist visa. In December 2022 — by which time the couple had departed Nepal — the Supreme Court ruled in their favor, directing the department to recognize the same-sex foreign spouse of a Nepali citizen and to follow the same procedure it would for a heterosexual couple. Moreover, building on its earlier judgments, it ruled that failure to recognize same-sex spouses flouted Nepal’s constitution as well as its international human rights obligations.

By April 2023, Volz was able to secure the visa he needed. By summer, the couple had moved back to Nepal. Tall and lanky, with a gold ring piercing his lower lip, Volz now works in the development sector in Kathmandu. Pokhrel is looking to work in the field of LGBTQI advocacy. He does not regret giving up his privacy to publicly petition the court. “I did not ask for unnecessary things,” he says. “I just asked for my rights.”

Meanwhile, gender and sexual minority rights campaigners in Nepal were monitoring the couple’s case against the Ministry of Home Affairs and Department of Immigration. When the Supreme Court decided in their favor, the activists sensed an opening. In early June 2023, nine members of Blue Diamond Society, Nepal’s most prominent LGBTQI organization, filed public interest litigation that sought the right to same-sex marriage. That month, in a landmark ruling, the court issued an interim order directing the government to register same-sex unions.

“We have received great respect through the court’s order,” says Sunil Babu Pant, founding director of Blue Diamond Society, the country’s first openly gay legislator, and petitioner of the 2007 case that ushered in a new era of civil liberties for sexual and gender minorities. “In Nepal, we are moving toward equality for all citizens.”

Two weeks after the interim order, Maya Gurung and Surendra Pandey stood before a judge in the district court in Kathmandu. They are not a same-sex couple except in the eyes of the state — Gurung is a transgender woman who has not changed her gender on legal documents.

Unlike Pokhrel’s, Gurung’s parents were not supportive; when she was a teenager, they forced her to get married. Under the weight of their disapproval, she fell into a deep depression — until she met Pandey at her sister’s teashop in Nawalpur. She was attracted to him. They dated for two years, then married in a Hindu ceremony in 2017. The occasion felt like an affirmation. “On the day of the marriage, the femininity within me became stronger,” Gurung says. “I am very happy now.”

Now, they were hoping to be affirmed by the state. If the court registered their marriage, Nepal would become only the second country in Asia and the first in South Asia to recognize same-sex unions. Around 200 couples were waiting to register their marriages, says Pinky Gurung, president of Blue Diamond Society and lead petitioner in the litigation. Gurung and Pandey’s registration would be the test case.

But the gambit failed. In July 2023, the district court refused to register the marriage, arguing that it was not a named party in the case and therefore exempt from the court’s orders. Crushed, the couple appealed to the high court in the city of Patan. After multiple postponed hearings, the high court also refused to register Gurung and Pandey’s marriage.

Their saga is an example of how lofty ideals upheld by Nepal’s highest court often snag on mundane bureaucratic processes. “The law is right, but the people in office are wrong,” Pandey says.

There is no clarity on when a new law will be drafted either; the legislative drafting process hasn’t started yet, says Koshal Chandra Subedi, spokesperson for Nepal’s Ministry of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs.

“Nepal’s politicians are old,” Pinky Gurung says. “They are unable to understand the diversity of human nature within society.”

Still, the fight was far from over. Like Pokhrel and Volz before them, Gurung and Pandey planned to escalate their case. Next stop: the Supreme Court. Before that, however, in November, authorities in Dordi, a municipality in the couple’s home district of Lamjung, registered their union — a historic first and a new milestone in the continuing struggle for marriage equality in Nepal.

(This story was originally published by Global Press Journal).


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