How one couple navigated the Nepali bureaucracy to pursue recognition

June 18th, 2019   |   Nepal, SIT Study Abroad

Leslie, left, and Suman

This article was originally published on March 31, 2019, in The Record. The author is academic director for SIT Nepal: Development, Gender and Social Change in the Himalaya. It is reprinted here with her permission.

By Suman Pant

My wife Leslie and I decided to come back to Nepal after I graduated. We had gotten married in the United States in 2015, a few months after the constitution of Nepal was promulgated, ensuring rights for gender and sexual minorities.

The decision to come to Nepal was not a hard one – we had some ideas about what we would do once we came back, and since the constitution protected our rights, we did not think there were going to be any legal issues when it came to living in Nepal as a same-sex couple. Nevertheless, we had some concerns: would we have to pretend to be roommates? Would we reveal our relationship? Would we face social sanctions, or worse, violence? Would it work out?

... for the most part, our fears about social prejudice against us were misguided. We were open, able to approach people as a couple, and were comfortable about our life in Nepal.

Once we got here, we were pleasantly surprised by how smooth the transition proved to be. When we found a place to live, it felt wrong to stay in the closet, so we told our gharbetis (landlords) about our relationship. They did not flinch. “It’s your life, whatever makes you happy.”

It wasn’t just our landlords, for the most part, our fears about social prejudice against us were misguided. We were open, able to approach people as a couple, and were comfortable about our life in Nepal.

The social aspect of the move was one thing; the legal was another. Leslie needed a non-tourist visa to live in Nepal for more than five months per calendar year. Now that the constitution protected the rights of gender and sexual minorities, we thought getting a spousal visa would be no problem. We had all the necessary documents and we met the legal requirements that state that any foreigner married to a Nepali citizen is eligible for a non-tourist marriage visa.

Our visit to the immigration office was pleasant, all the officers were nice to us, and although some of them were not familiar with the idea of same-sex marriages, we did not feel ostracized or discriminated against. The senior officers called us in for a meeting, and after hearing about our situation, agreed that we were eligible for spousal visa. We were told that Leslie would get her visa the next day.

There were questions about who was the husband and who was the wife, whether we were third gender, and whether I should be applying for a new citizenship with “O” (other) as my gender. I don’t think our answers about the difference between gender and sexuality were properly understood. However, this lack of understanding did not result in discrimination, and for that both Leslie and I were grateful.

A journalist from a national daily was present during our meeting with the government officers, and once the decision to give Leslie a spousal visa was made, he asked if he could write a story about us. We did not think much of this – it looked like everything was working out. In hindsight, we should have known that this was too easy to be true.

The morning after the meeting, there we were, on the second page of a newspaper read by thousands. I received texts from family and friends congratulating me, but I also received my fair share of vitriol – people telling me that I had disgraced the family name. A version of the article was available online and while I was hesitant to face the wrath of Nepali society through the comment section, my curiosity eventually got the better of me and I took a look at what people had to say.

A lot of comments were typical: Homosexuality is a western concept and a “dollarbadi” conspiracy, Leslie was in Nepal for the Nepali citizenship and our marriage was a sham, I was a slut, we were perverting Nepali society and encouraging people to come out as “homos”, etc.

What struck me the most was the diversity of opinions – we often think that young, educated, urban people are progressive while older people are conservative. I found some young commenters calling me names, demanding I get deported, while some older people were congratulating me and wishing me success. I realized that tolerance, inclusivity and acceptance do not always come from where you would most expect it. Sometimes we mistake ignorance as intolerance, and sometimes we indulge in the same intolerance when we do not understand other people’s values.

Despite the fact that the immigration officials had told us that the spousal visa was going to be no problem, after the news story came out, they took two steps back. They said that they couldn’t approve our visa, and that they had sent our file to the Ministry of Home Affairs because they did not know how to deal with our case. Our story had entered the realm of social media, and our sexuality suddenly became the subject of public debates.

After the immigration office passed our case along, our weekly trips to the home ministry began. We were advised that chasing our file once it entered Singhadurbar was the best strategy in getting our case resolved, so we decided that a relentless pursuit of bureaucrats was going to be the way to go.

We spent over two months trying to get a decision: Every time we got a chance to speak to a high-level official who heard about our case, the response was standard: “Your’s is a precedence case; we have looked into it; we need to meet again to make a decision.”

After more than two months, the Home Ministry decided to transfer our case to the Ministry of Law.

The bureaucratic dance continued with the Ministry of Law. After almost a month of chasing our file, we were told that the ministry does not have the power to make decisions for precedence cases and we would have to take our case to court.

It is baffling to think that the bureaucrats did not know that the ministries do not have the power to make a decision. They knew our case, they knew the law, then why sit on a file for so long to finally say that they do not know what to do? Couldn’t they have given us an answer in the beginning so that we could continue our case?

We understand that the bureaucrats need to dot the “i”s and cross the “t”s before giving a concrete answer, but it felt like there were hidden rules. We met all the legal requirements but they did not want to make that decision. Were they scared? This is something that I did not understand and I think they did not either. I do not feel any ill towards the fact that they walked back from their initial decision. I know they were not trying to make our lives harder or hurt us in any way – in fact, all the bureaucrats in the immigration office and the ministries in early 2017 were very sympathetic to our case. However, there are these invisible boundaries that we as a society follow, like an invisible wall that we cannot jump across, even when we know that there is a more equal world on the other side. If one looks at it objectively, it sounds ridiculous, but that invisible wall is as real as any stone wall with barbed wires. Maybe even stronger because it is harder to break.

There are these invisible boundaries that we as a society follow, like an invisible wall that we cannot jump across, even when we know that there is a more equal world on the other side ...

It was a difficult and stressful time for us. Our ability to live in Nepal as a couple depended on someone signing a paper and approving of us – and probably, the person whose approval we needed did not understand the concept of a non-heterosexual relationship. During this trying time, we relied on humor and little distractions as we tried to navigate the Nepali bureaucracy.

We filed a case against the immigration office at the end of March 2017. Initially it was difficult to get past the registrar’s office at the Supreme Court because they refused to file our case. Fortunately, I met with a Nepali lawyer who had been working on writing laws to protect gender and sexual minorities and he offered to help us as a pro-bono consultant. With his help, our lawyer was able to develop the case further. The registrar’s office finally accepted the case and our legal journey began. We filed a case against the immigration office stating that they did not respect our rights and did not follow their own policy regarding spousal visa.

It was a chase against time: Leslie could not stay in Nepal much longer, and the different procedures that come with judicial system take a long while. The court asked the immigration office to explain why our request was not granted – 45 days; after the response, the court wanted another letter from the director general – another 45 days. Leslie’s time in Nepal was almost up, and we decided that we had to leave the country so that we could save a few days to be in Nepal for the court hearing. In the meantime our amazing lawyer kept working on the case. Our request for Leslie to stay in Nepal while the court case was ongoing was denied – I had filed the case and Leslie was not the plaintiff, so they denied her request to stay in Nepal longer.

We had to leave the country for a while, which was extended to three months because we could not get a date for the hearing. Once we got a date, we came back. It was the first time either of us had been in a court, and to see it firsthand was quite humbling. Our case was listed toward the end, so we knew that our case would not be heard on that day, but we were hopeful. At the end of the day, our case was not heard and was scheduled for the next month because of the local elections.

We had to figure out how Leslie was to stay in the country till the next hearing and what we would do if we lost the case. The next 48 hours or so were chaotic: We were figuring out enrollment to a school for Leslie so that she could stay longer on a student visa, while packing our suitcases to prepare for the possibility that it might not work out. Fortunately, we were able to secure her student visa in the next few days. Relieved that we were going to stay longer, we unpacked again.

On Oct 23, 2017, our case was heard, and we won! It still feels surreal to think about it: the stress, always having our suitcases ready in case we had to leave, not knowing where we would be next.

It almost sounds like we are playing the victim while so many people in Nepal face worse situations. Maybe we should not talk about our struggles while people have larger issues that they deal with on a daily basis. But when you cannot feel secure, it does not matter what the relativity of insecurity is, it creates a lot of stress and pain. I still look back at those moments with amazement, especially for Leslie, who never once doubted our decision to come back to Nepal.

More than winning a case and being able to live in this country as a same-sex couple, we have both found a new sense of gratitude and kindness through this journey. We found courage in being able to pursue recognition in a society that still struggles with the concept of gender and sexual diversity. We have found a sense of solidarity with all the people who have struggled in this society to gain fundamental rights. We have realized that for a society to have meaningful change, we need to be kind to each other, and maybe empathy and kindness is what makes the world go round.